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Seven Years and Counting: Best Practices for Connecting with Students Part 1

By Gene Deary

My name is Gene Deary, and I am currently a 5th-grade special education teacher at MacArthur Elementary School in Waltham, Massachusetts. This is my 7th year teaching and, to be honest, probably the most challenging, as it has been for pretty much everyone.

What I feel makes it the most challenging is that the kids are not in front of us. I know many schools have had different protocols for responding to Covid-19, but ours chose to start the year teaching remotely as much as it is tough not to have the kids in front of us. I trust that the powers that be are making the right decisions for the health and safety of all.

But at the end of the day, I miss the kids. I became a teacher not because I love math and reading but because I genuinely enjoy building a relationship with kids and helping them develop their confidence. Getting kids to enjoy school and become confident is something that I feel I have become very good at. To be honest, I think that it’s the most crucial part of my job. So I’d like to share some ideas on how to build strong relationships with kids and help them develop confidence.

Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care

The week before my first year teaching, I attended a first-year teachers seminar at Bridgewater State Univeristy, and I remember seeing a slide with the above quote on it, and quite frankly, I can’t think of anything more accurate. My goal is to make sure that every student that enters my classroom knows that I care deeply about them. I’m going to share some stories describing my interactions with students, and the first one fits in perfectly with the above quote.

It was the holiday season, and we were watching a movie in class - Moana, I believe. I had made a scheduling mistake and forgot that our art time had been switched to the end of the day to accommodate kids rehearsing for the holiday concert. When I announced we would have to finish the movie another time, one of my students became very upset. This student had a history of becoming upset and throwing tantrums. We had spent a lot of time together, working on appropriate ways to handle one's self when getting upset. In our conversations throughout the year, we had talked about how it doesn’t make him a bad person when he gets upset, that it happens to all of us, and we had made some substantial progress.

On this occasion, he had gotten agitated that we would not be finishing the movie. The rest of the class left for art, and the student was yelling about how no one in the school cares about him. To be honest, I had taken some offense to the statement and said to him, “Tell me I don’t care.” This had caught him off guard for a second as he stopped crying and yelling and picked his head up from his hands. Realizing that I was on to something, I said: “Look me in the eyes and tell me I don’t care!” The student said, “Well, you care.” I said, "Ok, how about the school adjustment counselor who helps you whenever you need to talk to someone? How about the principal who gave you such a nice compliment the other day? Do they care about you?"

He nodded his head in agreement. I then asked why he was getting upset, and he said he didn’t want to go to art because he has to sit on the ground crisscross. I asked if he had ever asked about sitting in a chair, to which he had not because he thought the art teacher wouldn’t let him. I walked down to art with him where we made this request together and then we talked about the importance of advocating for one's self. Later that day, he apologized for getting upset and thanked me for helping.

Just demonstrating to this student that I cared about him gave me the power to call him out. We had built a strong relationship where even when he was upset, he trusted me. This might be a more extreme example, but it shows how powerful good teacher-student relationships can be.

Honest and Open

I like to be very honest with my students. Kids are smart, even the kids who don’t perform well in school. They can tell when you are not genuine, and being honest and open can help build trust. I tell students that I struggle to sit; still, I tell them that I cried in 4th grade trying to learn long division, I tell them that I struggle with organization. Kids look up to their teachers, and when they see that their heroes are flawed, they feel better about themselves.

I had a student one year who would answer a question incorrectly and immediately correct it. I would call on him, and he would say, “It’s 7. I mean no, it’s 9!” He would do this all the time and, for the most part, be right. One day I said, “You try to answer before your brain has figured out the answer.”

He said, "Yeah"

I said, "It’s OK. I was like that, and I turned out just fine."

He had a pretty big smile on his face after that.

Being honest and open with students also means sharing stories about your personal life with them. Whenever I travel, I love to share pictures with them. I often tell stories about when I was in 5th grade or about my family. Kid’s become more comfortable sharing their own stories and can relate to us when they know more about us.

I enjoy sharing stories with kids because I want to inspire them to be curious and try new things. When I tell them about traveling, I hope that they want to adventure and try new things. One time, a student said to me, “That’s not fair; you get to go to all of these cool places and do all of these cools things.” I simply replied, “Well, if you work hard in school and get a good job, you can travel and do all the things you want to do.” I wanted him to see that he can create a life for himself to be successful and do what he wants to do.

I’m also open to them when I might be having a bad day. One day I was not feeling so well and was very tired. I told them that I wasn’t feeling well and apologized for not having as much patience. I then explained how it is essential to recognize when someone might not be feeling well or might not be in a good mood. This is important because, in life, we have to understand how someone else is feeling so that we can adjust how we behave. Instead of just being in a lousy mood and potentially take it out on the kids, I gave them a heads up. The kids respected the fact I was being honest with them and rose to the occasion. One of my students that year who was notorious for his impulsive behavior came up to me with a note at the end of the day. It said, “Mr. Deary, I know that you’re tired, so here’s a joke. What do you call fake pasta? An impasta.”

It’s also essential to be honest with students about how they are doing. Something I started doing with kids was showing them their report card comments before I sent them in. I would have them come to my desk and read what I had typed. I would then ask if they agreed? We would then have a conversation about all of the wonderful things they had done and discuss any negative comments on the report. When we discussed the negative comments, we would talk about what we can do to fix it. I would then ask if there was anything else I should include. They would be surprised when I asked, but sometimes they would give me some good ideas for things I should say. It also gives them a chance to self-reflect.

We also have to want students to be honest with us. I had a student who would struggle with telling the truth. He always felt that he needed to lie about things to make himself appear cooler. I would ask about his weekend, and he would tell me how he hit three home runs in baseball or scored 50 points in his basketball game. Instead of calling him out, I would just not feed into it by saying, “Oh, nice” and ending the conversation. Calling him out could have potentially ruined the whole day of learning. But by not reacting the way he wanted me to give him a hint that I knew. One morning I walked into the classroom, and he was in the middle of a tall tale and immediately stopped when he saw me. When everyone else was leaving to go to specialist, I had him come to my desk. I said, "Ben, you know that I know you’re lying. Is that why you stopped telling your story?

"Yes," he said, looking kind of bummed.

I replied, "If you told me you struck out three times in your baseball game, I’d still think you are a great kid, and I’d rather hear that because it’s the truth. No one is perfect, especially not me, and especially not major league baseball players. Did you see the game David Ortiz (Red Sox player at the time) had last night? He stunk up the place. So you don’t need to lie to anyone. It’s only going to make things worse because people know that you are lying."

After that conversation, he felt a lot better about telling the truth, and each time he did, I made sure I gave his story the full attention it deserved.

Gene Deary is a 5th-grade special education teacher at MacArthur Elementary School in Waltham, Massachusetts. He maintains an active presence on Instagram, hosts a YouTube channel, and has a Teachers Pay Teachers store where of offers his unique curricular resources.