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Seven Years and Counting: Best Practices for Connecting with Students Part 4

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

Be Relatable

It’s a lot easier to build a strong relationship with kids when you can relate to them. When people accuse me of trying to be “the cool teacher,” it offends me a little. People get this idea that being “the cool teacher” means you try to do things to get the kids to like you. I think of it as trying to find ways to relate to kids to connect the learning to what they like.

An example of this comes from my second year teaching. My class was obsessed with Star Wars. Now admittedly, I like Star Wars, but don’t love Star Wars. But I made sure I took the time to rewatch a few of the movies to become more relatable to my students. I didn’t do that to be cool in their eyes. I did it because I wanted to be able to connect with them. It’s amazing what you can get kids to do once you’ve been able to tap into their interests. That same year we did a unit on biographies and each group had to read one of the “Who Was” books. I took my three Star Wars obsessed boys and assigned them the book “Who Was George Lucas?” (he’s the creator of Star Wars, in case you didn’t know). The book was a little above their reading level, but I knew I would be with this group, and I trusted that they would be invested enough to rise to the occasion. The work they produced and their conversations were incredible, and their behavior in the classroom improved tremendously. Why? Because they liked what they were learning about.

I also tap into students’ interest by asking what they want to be when they grow up. This helps me explain why it is essential to learn what we are learning. One of the things that make students disinterested in learning is that they don’t understand why it is important. Every year I’ll have students tell me they either want to be musicians or professional athletes. When I start to teach about place value and writing numbers in word form and standard form, I begin by asking if they would like a check for a million dollars when they become musicians or athletes. They always say yes. I then write "$10,000" on the board and ask what they would do if this is what was on their check. Since this usually occurs at the beginning of the year, many of them say they would be happy with it. I then ask, “So you’d be happy if this was your million dollar check”? Someone might catch on that it’s not correct, but if they don’t, I break the news that they would have been cheated out of their first check because they didn’t understand place value.

When kids and adults understand the “why” for what they are learning, they can understand the importance. This increases its investment and improves their learning.

Deal with it in house

I learned early on that it’s better to deal with a situation yourself than to send a student down to the office. I don’t say this because the office staff doesn’t do an excellent job with it, and if it is a significant issue then, of course, I send them to the office, but if teachers can deal with it “in house” they are always better off. This shows the student that we are willing to work things out with them instead of just kicking them out. Our relationship with that student will become significantly more substantial. Plus, if we can keep them in the classroom, they aren’t missing as much.

Whenever a student is acting out, and it goes beyond just being impulsive, I pull them aside, and the first thing I say is, “You are too good of a kid to be acting this way. What can I do to help?” I like to start with a compliment because it throws them off. It’s probably the last thing they expected to hear. But, it gets their attention. If they can’t give me a suggestion for what I can do to help them, I ask, “Do you notice that when you do what you are supposed to do, I compliment you and tell you how great you are doing? Do you notice that I get upset when you don’t do what you are supposed to do? Which do you prefer?” This helps show them that my reaction to them is based on their actions. I then explain that the reason I get upset is that, "I know they are a good kid, and it bothers me when you don’t show that. It bothers me because I care about you. If I didn’t care, I wouldn't get upset and let you misbehave. If I let you misbehave now, you will get into more significant trouble later in life. So how about we sort this out now?"

I want to paint a picture for kids that we are laying a foundation for the rest of their life. The habits they are forming now will benefit them in the future. When kids understand that I get upset with them because I want what is best for them, they try harder. I don’t want them to think that I am a mean teacher who just wants to control them. I want them to think, “Hey, Mr.Deary wants the best for me, so I better give it my best effort.”

The little things count

In my first teaching job, I was a long term substitute teacher for a 5th-grade special education teacher. Every day I would walk by a student named Brian, who was in the ABA program. Brian is an individual with autism, and every time I saw him, I would say, "Hi." He wouldn’t always respond and the person working with him would have to redirect him to say, "Hi" to me. Some days I would wonder if making him say "Hi" to me every day was driving him crazy. Later that year, we found out Brian would be moving. Before he left, he had given me a note. He had listed a couple of things he was thankful for, and one of them was me always saying "Hi" to him. It made me realize that something so simple can make a kids day even if they don’t show it.

I realized this again when a student had written a note to me at the end of the year. She mentioned how she would walk in the classroom every day she came to school, and I would have a great big smile on. Kids notice everything, and all of the little things go a long way to building solid relationships with students.

At the end of the day, if you genuinely love what you do and put your heart into it, your students will see that.

I hope that the stories I have shared with you help you find ways to better connect with your students. As my student teaching supervisor said to me, “Teaching is about your relationship with the kids. Once you get that down, everything else is easy.”

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.

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