As a novice teacher, Katie Martin remembers receiving a “book of policies and procedures to cover each day for the first week of school,” she writes on her blog. Instead of dedicating valuable instructional time to reviewing school and classroom rules, however, she opted to put her energy into forging connections and building relationships with her students.
“I have never regretted making the decision to minimize the policies and maximize the time I spend building relationships,” writes Martin, who is vice president of leadership and learning at Altitude Learning and teaches in the graduate school of education at High Tech High. “Learning names, seeing students as individuals, co-creating community guidelines, establishing jobs, and greeting students daily were foundational to developing relationships and creating the classroom culture.”
For students to deeply connect with learning, building and maintaining strong relationships need to take priority in the classroom. “What the science of learning and development tells us is that we need to create learning environments which allow for strong, long-term relationships for children to become attached to school and to the adults and other children in it,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of The Learning Policy Institute. “If you’re in a positive emotional space, if you feel good about yourself, your teacher. That actually opens up the opportunity for more learning.”
Here are a few ideas from Martin, and a few from our Edutopia archives, for connecting with and getting to know your middle and high school students.
An introductory survey is a great place to start learning about your students—but how survey questions are formulated can make a big difference in the quality of answers students will provide. Standard questions like “How many siblings do you have?” and “What are your favorite subjects?” will prompt students to deliver static responses like “2 brothers and art,” says Martin. Instead, consider open-ended prompts like “What are the top five things that I need to know about you?”
One teacher, Martin writes, found that this type of open-ended question opened the door for students to share unexpected information such as: “It takes me an hour and a half to get to school each day. My parents just got divorced. It takes me longer to figure things out and so I am quiet but I really do care about school.”
“There are multiple ways to connect and get to know learners to better support them and often it begins with asking the questions and being willing to listen and connect,” writes Martin. “When we know our strengths and others do too, we can be more open about how we can work together to accomplish our goals and more transparent about our needs.”
As an exercise to encourage students to open up, Henry Seton, a high school English teacher, schedules a few minutes at the beginning of each class for students to tell the class about someone close to them—a practice he calls daily dedications.
At the beginning of the school year, Seton models the exercise by sharing a picture of his father and discussing why he’s an important figure in Seton’s life. “I then explain how the dedications work and the rationale for them, that they can choose anyone living or dead, real or fictional, who provides inspiration,” he writes. “There are usually a few students who at least feign reluctance, but my students are so brave, their dedications quickly get more vulnerable and powerful than mine.”
To begin, Seton asks students to volunteer each day, and then they present alphabetically. Each dedication takes no longer than 30 to 60 seconds. “These brief moments become the seeds for deeper relationship building,” he says. “We now know to ask about the cousin recovering from the auto accident, the favorite athlete’s recent playoff game, the older sibling in college.”
As difficult as it may be to set aside the time, scheduling time for a meaningful conversation with each student—remotely or in person—can provide powerful insight into their lives, help build empathy, and deepen connections. “Empathy interviews are a great way to just listen and understand your students and their families,” writes Martin, who also recommends following up, if possible, with quick check-ins throughout the school year by phone, video call, or text message. During these initial half-hour chats, Martin suggests asking questions like “what are you curious about?” and “what do you like and not like about school?”
Middle school English teacher Ashley Ingle schedules time for her students to have informal chats about non-academic subjects they’re interested in. “While it’s important for teachers to build a rapport with their students, it can be just as valuable for students to become comfortable with one another,” Ingle writes. “When students feel at ease with one another, it can lead to increased classroom engagement and academic success.”
She schedules these two-minute student-led discussions twice a week. “Hand out a few slips of paper to each student,” she suggests, “and ask them to write down questions they’d like to discuss as a group.” Prompts can be about all sorts of topics, for example: “Which restaurant serves the best pizza in town?” or “Would you rather _____ or _____?” When it’s a student’s turn to facilitate, she hands them their prompt, takes a back seat, and listens. For students who feel anxious about leading a discussion, Ingle allows two classmates to co-facilitate the discussion.
To keep tabs on how her remote students are doing emotionally—and to let them know that she cares about their well-being—Cathleen Beachboard, an eighth-grade English teacher, asks her students to regularly complete a Google form where she asks questions specifically related to their social and emotional health. It’s a practice that makes sense even when students are learning in person. They can respond by selecting from a range of choices like: “I’m great”; “I’m OK”; “I’m struggling”; or “I’m having a hard time and would like a check-in.” For students without digital access, she checks in via a school-approved messaging platform, or by snail mail with a postage-paid return envelope. It’s important to create spaces and regular opportunities, writes Beachboard, for students to check in with a trusted adult, share their concerns and questions, and feel that someone cares about how they’re doing.
To help students “name and identify emotions,” Martin suggests trying a mood meter, a color-coded grid that provides a visual way for students to engage with and communicate how they’re feeling. The mood meter is divided into four colors: red, blue, green, and yellow. Each color represents a set of emotions related to feeling a combination of high or low energy and high or low pleasantness. For example, if a student is experiencing red feelings, they may be feeling angry, scared, or anxious, and they would have high energy and low pleasantness. “Having a shared language or images to talk about feelings can help build community, shared understanding, and support to process the emotions appropriately,” writes Martin.