How often do you step away from your social studies curriculum to get to know your students? Once a week? Once a month? Do you ever make specific plans or set aside specific time in your lessons to build meaningful, appropriate relationships with your kids?
Yes, we have so many tasks to complete as teachers. However, all educators should prioritize making time to connect with their students.
Teachers are on the frontlines of a nationwide battle to capture kids’ hearts and minds so that they become not just good students, but positive, productive people in society too. So many of the tragedies that we suffer through and see in our schools and communities are committed by students or former students who got “lost” along their formal educational path.
Teachers have to do more to help—and you can make a difference with students’ social and emotional needs by making a sustained effort to connect with your classes.
Here are some easy, quickly implemented connecting methods that can make you not just a good history teacher but a role model who students like, look up to, and trust.
GOOD NEWS MONDAY
In my previous blog post about capturing student engagement, the beginning of your class is the most essential time to grab your kids’ attention. My “Do Now” activities are a planned time when I specifically focus on connecting with my students.
Once a week, my Do Now has nothing to do with U.S. History or Current Events or Government. I call it “Good News Monday.” The second Monday after the start of the school year my students see the following Do Now on my television screen:
“Yes, I want to know how school’s going and what you like about it,” I tell my students as they share some positive aspects about the start of their school year. Then, every Monday for the next several months, I start with “Good News Monday.” I ask students right at the beginning of class to share a positive, unique, funny, or interesting story about their weekend. This takes at most 5–10 minutes.
I also share stories about my family and my life. My wife, Jennie, is a teacher, and we have two young children, ten-year-old Juliet and seven-year-old Jack. If I expect kids to connect with me, I need to feel comfortable with them also getting to know about my day-to-day life and my experiences. This makes them feel much more relaxed and open to sharing with the rest of the class and me.
Most importantly, it shows students I care about their life and who they are as people—not just as student statues sitting in my class.
Caring for your students is a vital piece to engaging them. Getting to know them better will have huge benefits in motivating, teaching, and helping them grow as students and people.
The first year I started using “Good News Monday” as a method to build relationships with my students, I had an eye-opening experience that proved connecting with kids was worth the time and effort.
During the busy, hectic winter season filled with holidays, midterms, and loads of paperwork, I skipped “Good News Monday.” The next day one of my students approached me and said, “Mr. Fowler, I had a really good story to tell the class about my weekend. I’m a little upset you forgot Good News Monday!” At first, I was upset, too. I let this student down.
But then, I smiled with a sense of accomplishment.
This was working! The students wanted to share their stories. They wanted to connect with me now as much I wanted to connect with them. The next day, I started my class with this:
Maybe Mondays don’t always work with you. Maybe you choose to connect on another day. Maybe it will be “Talk About It Tuesdays” like this teacher, who attended one of my professional development workshops, and then shared this email with me:
FANTASTIC FRIDAYS – CHALLENGE YOURSELF
Several years ago in late May, I picked up the local newspaper on Thursday and saw one of my students making a diving catch on the front page of the sports section. It was an awesome photo and I had to share it with her and her class! I started my class the next day with Fantastic Friday:
Even late in the school year, I was continuing to build those important relationships I had cultivated throughout the year.
Challenge yourself to do the same thing. Once a week, start your class with a Do Now that is all about connecting with your kids. Ask the band and chorus students about their next concert. Ask the drama club members about this semester’s play or performance. Ask the volleyball team how their season is going and when they play their next home game.
Taking the time to get to know your students and their interests will help build a bond that many students—especially our toughest ones—really do need.
Author Dennis Fowler, pictured here as the varsity girls soccer coach, smiles with his senior players during an October event recognizing Breast Cancer Awareness Month
RELATIONSHIPS TAKE TIME, EFFORT, AND A PLAN
A strong, positive student-teacher connection takes time to build. It requires focused, purposeful interactions with your students throughout the year. One of my favorite success stories about connecting with kids is about “Big Mike.”
Big Mike, a 6' 5" senior several years ago in my school, had a rough reputation around the building. He could be disruptive, rude, and disrespectful in class. He was entering my semester-long Civics class in January that year. If you have ever taught a social studies-elective class at the end of the year you know how real "senioritis" can be. I was determined to make sure Big Mike not only made it through my class to graduation, but also would be a productive part of my class, not a negative one.
Once he stepped into my class, I focused my attention on Big Mike. For the first six to seven weeks of class, I made it a specific point of engaging him DAILY! Sometimes it was a simple conversation about where he worked after school. Other times it was a quick talk about what he had for lunch. A couple times I did indeed have to get tough on him for behavior. However, I did it in a non-confrontational way. I wanted Big Mike to know I respected him. Once he knew that, he in turn respected my authority and my classroom.
Big Mike was actually a really good person. He just needed a fair shake … and someone to show him he was worth it.
This purposeful, connecting strategy to build a positive relationship with a difficult student worked. Big Mike had a great second semester. He earned a C+ for the class and was able to graduate. His Civics class was one of my favorite that year! At graduation, Big Mike gave me a big hug and said, “Thank you Mr. Fowler! I left something for you in your school mailbox.”
I totally forgot about Big Mike’s last act until I got back to school in August the following year. But I found a $20 gift certificate for Dunkin Donuts in this touching card he had left for me:
The fight for our children’s hearts and minds continues in your classroom. Find time every week to make sure you get to know your students and show them you care.
Make a difference. The future truly is in your hands.
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Mr. Dennis Fowler is a high school social studies teacher at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, CT, youth soccer and basketball coach, and motivational speaker. His professional development program is called “Connecting with Kids: Ideas to Engage Students and Build Relationships." His blog, called “Dynamic Engagement,” explores better ways and methods to create a positive classroom climate through motivating actions and activities. You can connect with Dennis Fowler here.