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. Mr. Deary shares anecdotes and reflections on building rapport with students.
By Gene Deary
Don’t just teach in the classroom
One of my favorite things to do at the end of the day is to walk down to the van line. The kids who take the van are typically the ones in the special education program that I am a teacher for. They are also usually the last ones to leave because they have to be bussed across the city, and the van is usually finishing up their previous runs. I like to end my day by giving every kid waiting in line a high five and ask them how their day was. If I don’t have to go coach wrestling practice, I usually pull up a chair and hang out until their van arrives. I like to take the time to get to know them because I know they will eventually be my students, and I want to have established a rapport with them early. Plus, it makes the kids feel special when someone comes to hang out with them.
When I walk down the hallways, I always make sure to acknowledge every kid I pass. I’ll compliment their shoes and ask if I can borrow them, joke with them, ask if they’re causing trouble, or simply give them a big smile and a wave. Kids want to be seen. Scratch that. We all want to be seen. But for a kid, a simple compliment can go a long way.
Lunch duty is another excellent time to get to know kids. I don’t like to yell at kids. It’s not what I signed up for. When a table is being a little rowdy, I make sure I spend some time sitting there. First off, they probably aren’t going to act up if I’m sitting there, but it also gives me a chance to reason with them. One year, a student couldn’t sit still to save his life and would always get in trouble for walking around the cafeteria. So I said to him, “Adam, If I’m on lunch duty and you need to get up, walk straight to me, and we can take a lap around the cafeteria together.” This plan worked perfectly because it allowed him to control his impulse to get out of his seat while making sure he didn’t make any poor choices.
Then there’s my favorite time of the day—recess duty. First off, I’m a child at heart, and I can’t help it. I genuinely love playing at recess. But it is a great time to make connections with kids. From playing permanent QB, joining in on games of tag, or pushing kids on the tire swing, it’s a great way to make connections. But my favorite thing is to make a connection with the kid playing by himself.
Now nothing is worse than when it’s apparent that you seek out a kid because they are by themselves. Again kids are smart, so they know what you are trying to do. So you can’t go up to them and tell them they should join in a game or talk to so and so. They’re by themselves because they either want to be or don’t have the skills to join in with the other kids. Instead of forcing them to interact with others, hang out with them in the least intrusive way. There was this one kid who would spend his whole recess shooting threes out at the basketball hoop. He would never join the game. Just shoot by himself. So I spent a couple of recesses rebounding for him. I would be watching the other kids play, and when he would shoot, I’d get the ball and pass it back. Now and then, I would tell him he’s the next Steph Curry, but I wasn’t going to force a conversation if he didn’t want to have one. Eventually, he got comfortable talking to me, and I convinced him to play with the other kids.
Another time I saw a kid walking around by himself. I think he had just gotten into an argument with a peer and was frustrated. Instead of talking to him, I called out his name and threw the football I was holding at him. He caught it and threw it back. We played in silence. Eventually, another kid came over and asked to play. Then another and another. Next thing you know, the kid who was initially alone was joking and laughing with all the other kids.
Kids will go where they feel safe. What is considered safe may be different depending on the kid. When kids feel secure, they are willing to step out of their comfort zone and may not even realize it.
Most recently, my new favorite place to interact with kids is during mask break duty. The first graders are in school on a hybrid model, and during mask break, I bring my Bluetooth speaker with me, and we call it a dance break.
As teachers, we do a lot of talking, and the students do a lot of listening. Well, it needs to go both ways. I want to know everything I can about my students, and the only way to do that is by truly listening and understanding their genuine interests. Because once you’ve figured out what their actual interests are, you can use that to your advantage. One year I had a group of students who were obsessed with Taki’s. If you don’t know what those are, imagine a Dorito but rolled up and spicier. They would not stop talking about them. So what did I do? I found out how much a bag weighed and all the different sizes and varieties of takis there were and made word problems where students had to add, subtract, compare, and round decimals. All of a sudden, my class loved doing math because we were talking about Takis. If I didn’t take the time to listen to them, I would never have, come up with this idea.
Keep them safe
One way to show kids that you care is by keeping them safe. As anyone who works in education would know, teaching isn’t just about knowing the content. As I think about the range of things we need to know how to do is never-ending. But teachers need to know how to keep all of their students safe from any sort of harm, and being prepared to do so is vital.
One of my least favorite things to do is go over the Alice drill with my class. In case your school does something different, the Alice drill is the name of the protocol we use in case of a school intruder. I hate going over this because I don’t like putting the idea into kids’ heads that it’s possible. I know it is essential to be prepared and but I just don’t like it.
The Alice drill has three responses to a school intruder that we have to practice. The first one being to evacuate the school and getaway. The second being to shelter in place. The third requires us to talk about how we should respond if an intruder were to enter the classroom. In this scenario, kids are taught to throw things at the intruder and try to escape. This is the scariest to talk about with students. This is also when students tend to get a little nervous about the subject, so my favorite thing to say to my class is, “guys, let’s be honest if anyone decided to come in here, they made the wrong choice because there is no way I am letting anything happen to you.” When kids doubt me on this, I remind them I’m the wrestling coach or ask them if they’ve ever seen superman and myself in the same room. I want students to believe that they are safe with me and that all of our energy should be focused on learning and having a good time doing it.
We also need to make sure that we are keeping students safe emotionally. If anyone has ever been embarrassed by their friends in school, they know how much it hurts. It may be something we look back and laugh at as adults, but at the time, it wasn’t fun. Being able to sniff out when a kid might be teased or embarrassed by his friends can go a long way. One day at recess duty, I caught wind of some rumors going around about someone having a crush on someone else. The type of 5th-grade drama you don’t want to get involved with, but I had to figure out what was going on. After talking to some students and sifting through all these different stories, I found out that everyone said this particular boy had a crush on a girl. I knew the boy well, and I knew that he wasn’t the type to get involved in something like this. I also knew that he probably wasn’t going to handle this well.
Guys always feel like they have to act tough. There’s a long list of reasons why boys think this way, but we can save that for another time. So fifth-grade boys are usually not going to reach out to a teacher when they are teased about liking a girl. I only know this because I once was a fifth-grade boy. I found the boy and asked if he was OK. I could see that he was trying as hard as he could to fight back the tears. I stood by him, shielding him from other kids on the playground. He started to cry, and I told him that he shouldn’t have to feel this way and that I would take care of it. I also reminded him that I’m always here to help him solve these types of problems. I handed him my keys to get into the building so he could use the bathroom. Saves me a trip walking over to the key fob. As he was walking away, I jokingly said he could use my car to go to McDonald’s if he got me a McFlurry. He was able to sneak out without being seen crying in front of his friends, and I was able to resolve the situation without causing too much of a scene. Unfortunately, he didn’t come back with a McFlurry.
Even though I don’t like the Alice drill, you need to be prepared for an unexpected situation. One day, I had students in my room eating lunch. I was at my desk when all of a sudden, I heard one of the students coughing. I looked up, and his hands were on the desk, and his eyes were open wide. I knew the answer before I had even asked. “Are you choking?”. He didn’t respond. I was on my feet, moving over to him in what felt like slow motion. Two desks fell over, so I must have been going faster than I thought. When he confirmed he was choking, the first thought that came to my head was, “I hope I know how to do this.” As I was getting to him, I had flashbacks to every time I had ever been shown the Heimlich Maneuver. I wrapped my arms around the student and squeezed. The student coughed up food, and I yellED, "Are you ok?" He has said, "Yes," but I immediately asked again, thinking that it was way too easy. He confirmed that he was fine, and we both sat in silence. He was crying. I was crying. After a minute or two, I realized I should probably say something. I turned and said, “You thought I was going to let something happen to you?”
Even as I write about this story, I think about what would have happened if I didn’t know how to do the Heimlich. Being prepared and keep up to date on first aid is very important. But this scenario allowed me to prove that I would do whatever it takes to keep my students safe. It’s easy to say you will, but you need to be able to back it up if the time comes.
No matter the scenario, we need to be prepared to keep kids safe and ensure that they know we are willing to do whatever it takes. When kids see that they can be safe with you, they are more likely to learn from you.
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.