Taking time from teaching to get to know your students is worth every second. Although typically you want to spend the first month of school working on building relationships with students, it’s never too late. It is hard to teach students when you don’t know them. It is challenging for students to take risks when they don’t know you. When students feel connected they will give you their best.
Not sure where to start?
Meet and Greet Your Students
Standing at your classroom door to greet your students when they arrive to class is one of the easiest things you can do to connect with your students and requires very little effort. You don’t have to come up with a secret handshake to do with each student (although that would be fun), your smiling face first thing goes a long way. Smiling is contagious! When the main adult they have contact with at school seems happy to see them (even if you’re not) it sets the tone.
Using student’s first names as you greet them also further strengthens the connection. They feel seen and for some kids it may be the only time that day they hear their name being said. Or it is the only time they hear their name without a request or reprimand attached to it.
It’s also a great time to ask some students about their lives outside of school as they come in. Ask about their soccer game the night before or what they played last night with their sister. It would take way too much time to do this every class with every student. That is unrealistic! But every little interaction that happens between bells is a step forward.
Although not a lot of academic research has been done on this directly, a 2018 research project showed that there are benefits to spending time greeting students as they come to class. It not only builds relationships but also reduces the amount of time spent later dealing with problem behaviours. The research also suggests that using this informal time can help redirect students to on-task behaviours right at the start of class with a gentle reminder of the expectations as students enter. It is a proactive way to help students successfully transition into the learning space. It could be as simple as reminding students to look at the agenda for the day or a simple instruction such as taking out the required materials to be ready for class to start.
Even with little research having been done in this area it just seems like common sense. Don’t we all like to be acknowledged and feel like we are seen?
Action: Try to initiate at least five positive interactions with students as they come in to class.
Talk is Cheap
Find opportunities to talk informally with students. That could be while walking down the halls, at lunch, at recess and breaks or even at the end of the day while they walk out of the school to head home. Find out what they like to do, what they are interested in, what you have in common.
Starting off the day with a five minute classroom chat is another opportunity for you to get to know your students. This can be informal where you give students 5 minutes before class starts to catch up with friends and peers in the class. This gives students a chance to connect with others and get their news out of the way so that they are ready to learn. You could also formalize it with question stems and structured groupings but it can then become just another task to complete.
Use these discussion cards to get the chatter started: Back to School Discussion Cards.
Holding a community circle (sharing circle, listening circle or talking circle) with your class will also help you get to know your students. A community circle is a practice where students sit in a circle (often on the floor) and share something with the class. Students take turns around the circle sharing. An object such as a talking stick or rock helps teach students whose turn it is and how to respect what each student is sharing. Students learn that everyone’s point of view matters. You may have to direct what is shared at first but as students get the hang of it, it gets easier and more natural. For example, ask students to share one thing that they are grateful for or one thing they got to do recently that made them feel happy. Have students use “I statements” such as “I feel..”, “I think…”, “I get to…”, “I did…”.
When students feel they know you, they tend to learn better. Share things about your life that they can connect to. If you love to play video games, let them know. If you love to paint, let them know. If you love to eat chocolate, let them know. You never know what little tidbit will help a student feel a connection to you. Telling personal stories also helps students see you as a human outside of the classroom and that you don’t actually live at school.
Action: Speak with at least one student each day. Keep track on a class list to make sure you connect with everyone, especially those students who are introverts and often get missed in the day to day business of a classroom. Or target your at risk students to catch them before they fall through the cracks using the 2×10 strategy.
Build Relationships by Sitting and Visiting
One of the best ways to find out about your students is to sit with them. When they are working on an art project or eating lunch, any time you can be a part of the conversation where you are not assessing students will give you lots of information.
Have your students book times with you to sit and visit by using these appointment cards.
Another great time to sit with students is on field trips. You can learn SO much when you sit with students in a less formal setting than the classroom. Not sure what to ask? Here are some safe topics: weather, movies/TV, games, sports, anything about favourites (food, activity, book, game, family, extracurricular pursuits, etc.)
Eavesdropping is another great way to find out about your students. It’s amazing how much students will say to their peers when you are in the vicinity and they think you aren’t listening. You learn about their lives but also about how they interact with others. You may even see a whole other side of a student. For example, a student may be the strong silent type in class but is outgoing and boisterous on the playground. This information can help you reach out to that student in class and build a stronger connection with them.
You can find out a lot about class dynamics at that time too: who is not getting long with who, who has a crush on who, who is causing problems for other students, etc. These issues always find their way into the classroom and hinder learning. Using this information to be proactive and deal with issues before they escalate will save you a lot of time and grief. Keep you ear to the ground!
Action: Once a week, sit with a group of students and visit or be a fly on the wall. By committing to one group a week you will actually connect with multiple students at a time.
Share a Love of Reading with Students
Reading for fun is another great way to get to know your students. During independent choice reading, pull up a chair or sit down beside a student on the floor and talk informally about what they are reading. Forget about the guided reading questions you usually ask. Ask questions that aim to get to know them or simply talk about what they are reading. Take a back seat and let them lead the discussion.
Action: Every time you have independent choice reading time, sit with at least one student (even for two minutes).
Play, Play, Play
Teach them how to play, joke or laugh when the time is right. Students love a teacher that joins in on a game either in gym class or at recess. Four Square is a great example of a game you can play with students at recess.
How to Play Four Square
- Four Square is a ball game that uses a 4 quadrant play area. Each quadrant is numbered and each has one player standing in it. The objective of the game is to eliminate the other players to get to the square numbered 4.
- By bouncing the ball back and forth, players try to get other players “out”. There are other variations of the game as well (and even some adult leagues!).
Many schoolyards already have the lines painted for the game but using chalk to draw the lines will also do the trick. It doesn’t require you to be an athlete but it’s a lot of fun. Or Simon Says with a twist. “Simon says touch your nose if you like broccoli.” This may also be an opportunity to teach students simple recess games.
It is a very powerful tool when students see you be silly and do things that are outside of your usual repertoire. You don’t have to be a stand up comedian for this to be effective. Can’t sing? Then sing. Can’t dance? Then dance. Can’t draw? Then draw. They love to see you do things you are not good at, taking risks and being ok with laughing at yourself.
As you build relationships with individual students and with the class, pranks are always a good way to continue building the classroom community. Be sure your students are ready to handle a little unexpected shenanigans first.
Or have an inside joke with a student. They eat that up! But make sure you have already built a relationship with the class so there is no misinterpretation.
Play a silly game with students. A good example of this is a Would You Rather…? Game. You can get your own free copy from us.
Action: Do one thing that is out of your comfort zone that will surprise your students.
Utilize Surveys and Questionnaires to Interview Students
Collecting more formal surveys and questionnaires on your students can also help. Using all the information gathered you can build a Learner Profile that not only tells about the student as a learner but as a growing, developing person.
We created a set of questionnaires and surveys to use with your students and build a learner profile.
Action: Collect one piece of data on each student that will help you learn about them as a learner.
Relationship Building One Day at a Time
Your students will always remember the relationship they had with you above anything else. Put your energy into building relationships and you’ll benefit throughout the year. If you are looking for more ideas check out this blog post.
How do you build relationships?
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