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Seven Years and Counting: Best Practices for Connecting with Students Part 2

In this four-part series, teacher Gene Deary reflects on what he has learned in his seven years as a teacher when it comes to connecting with students. In the series, Mr. Deary shares anecdotes and reflections on building rapport with students.

By Gene Deary

Be Direct and Explicit

Sometimes you have to explain the little things to show that you care. This one time, a student of mine was accused of running down the hallway and causing trouble. Having not seen it with my own eyes, I was just going to have a quick conversation with the kid about behaving in the hallway and end it. When I went over to talk to him, he instantly started to defend himself. He was getting visibly frustrated. This is how our conversation went:

Mr. D: “George, are you in trouble?”

George: “Seems like it.”

Mr. D: “Am I yelling at you?”

George: “no.”

Mr. D: “Did I take away your recess?”

George: “No”

Mr. D: “Did I threaten to call home?”

George: “No.”

Mr. D: “ Then you aren’t in trouble. So then you don’t need to defend yourself. When you start defending yourself, you are not listening to what I am trying to tell you. I’m trying to make sure you don’t get in trouble in the future by making sure we talk about this situation. Does that make sense?”

George: “Oh, Ok, Thank you.”

The next time I went to talk to him about a situation, he was about to start defending himself, caught himself, took a deep breath, and said: “Ok, I’m listening.”

Sometimes You Just Have to Tell Them.

So my first year of teaching I had a student fighting with me over completing an assignment. He did not want to do it, and I didn’t want to get upset with him. So after a while of begging and pleading with him, I looked at him and said, “I need you to know I wouldn’t ask you to do anything unless it was in your best interest. I promise you that everything I ask you to do is to help you become a better student and person, and some of those things might not be fun, but I promise you it is to help you.” Very reluctantly, he did the assignment. Sometimes you just have to straight-up tell them you care.

Give a Little to Get Back More.

Kids are often impulsive, and they can’t control that. They also crave attention. One of the things that I try never to do is get upset with a kid for calling out in class. Why would I get upset with a kid for being so excited about participating? So when a kid calls out, I often say, “Thank you so much for being excited about participating, but we have to try to make sure we raise our hand.”

Kids who can’t control themselves spend most of their academic career getting in trouble for calling out, causing a distraction or turning in work half done, or just plain not finishing. They are already pretty frustrated with themselves. Why would I add to that? These kids also tend to be the funniest. So if a kid interrupts class and it’s funny, just go with it. When you get a moment, have a conversation about how you can find the best time and place to make the joke. One year I had a student who just could not help himself from calling out. I started teaching, and he just shouts out, “Mr. Deary, you look like a GAP model today.” It was genuinely funny, and I couldn’t help but laugh at it. We settled back down and then got to work. The kid then tried to make a similar joke throughout the day. He wanted attention from me but was starting to get disruptive. I pulled him aside and said, “Hey, I know that joke was funny the first time, and you want to get my attention, but if you want my attention, do your work and participate in class. Then after class, we can come up with some jokes.” Though it didn’t completely stop him from calling out, it did make him realize that if he wanted attention from me, the best way to get it was doing his best.

Don’t Just Give it to Them.

I am a firm believer in a growth mindset and the power of productive struggle. If my students leave fifth grade knowing they can do anything as long as they put in the work, I know I’ve done a good job. What kills type of development for students is when they are given the answers. I push my students to explain their thinking and to problem solve. This process is not pretty, and I can guarantee my students don’t like me very much sometimes, but I know they benefit from it.

Here’s what this process typically looks like in math:

Mr.D: “Jason, what do I have to do after I divide when I solve a long division problem?

Jason: “Oh, I don’t know.”

Mr.D: “Well, take a guess; maybe we can figure it out.”

Jason: “Hmm, bring down?”

Mr.D: “That’s close, but you skipped a step.”

Jason: “I can’t do this!”

Mr. D: “Well, let’s look at our resources. What could we look at?”

Jason: “ I don’t know. This is hard!”

Mr. D: “I know it’s hard, but you’re a hard worker who can figure this out. Look at the chart on your desk.”

Jason: “Oh, do we multiply?”

Mr. D: “Why do you think we should multiply.”

Jason: “Oh, do we add?”

Mr. D: “No, you were right; I just want you to explain how you came up with that. You’re doing a great job, by the way; let’s keep it going.”

Jason: “I looked at my chart on my desk, and it says that we multiple after we divide.”

Mr. D: “Awesome, so you looked at your resources when you were stuck. Ok, what do we multiply now.”

Jason: “I don’t know, pick on someone else.”

Mr. D: “You’re doing too good of a job, and I know you can do this. Look at the last problem we did and see if you can figure out what we need to multiply.”

Jason: “Umm, we have to multiply 4 and 7.”

Mr. D: “Yes! Awesome, keep going; what’s 4 times 7?”

Jason “I can’t do that!”

Mr. D: “Oh yes, you can; what can you do to help you.”

Jason: “Skip count?”

Mr. D: “Yes! keep going”

Jason: “28?”

Mr. D: “How’d you get that?”

Jason: “ I skipped counted by 4 seven times and got 28.”

Mr. D: “Yes, Yes, Yes! I knew you could do it!”

I then make sure to have a conversation about the importance of using resources and strategies to help when we are stuck. If you read through the conversation, you will notice that I didn’t give my student the answers. I simply nudged them towards the resources or strategies they could use to help. He may not have been happy with me throughout the process, but I make sure I reward him for his struggle with all the praise in the world. This might include me dancing and jumping as if I had just won the lottery.

It’s a lot like spotting someone lifting some heavy weights. I’m not going to help him do it because he wouldn’t benefit from the struggle. But, I’m going to make sure that I am right there to support and if something goes wrong, I’m there to catch them.

Challenge to be Brave

I have done something similar with ELL students; when they tell me they don’t know how to explain something, I ask them to explain it the best they can. I say to them, “I know this might be difficult for you to explain, and you might be afraid of saying something wrong. I know you understand how to do this, so how about you explain it the best you can, and I’ll help you if you get stuck. No one will tease you or make fun of you because what you are doing is very brave.” This makes the student feel comfortable about taking a risk and gives me an idea of how I can help them better explain their thinking.

I want kids to be OK with making mistakes, and I want them to learn from their mistakes. I do this by encouraging them to take risks and modeling that it’s OK to make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time, and I frequently make fun of myself and learn from them. I want kids to see that it’s OK to mess up and that we don’t have to make a big deal about it. Just brush it off, laugh about it, and fix it.

An assignment I had my students do was to have them do a roast of Mr. Deary using similes and metaphors. Before they could roast me, they had to write positive similes and metaphors about themselves and my paraprofessional. I wanted them to, along with learning about similes and metaphors, acknowledge good things about themselves while also modeling that it is ok to recognize and joke about your flaws and be comfortable being yourself.

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.