Recently, a colleague was telling me about a math teacher at his school. Students in this teacher’s class have done exceptionally well by a number of measures – including state standardized testing. This lead to a discussion about the factors that have made that teacher effective. The challenges to meaningful and effective teaching remain the same, but somehow the teacher has been able to engage her students, advocate for their best interest, and ultimately assist them in the development of a passion for mathematics, or, at the very least, a willingness to actively engage in the learning process. While the teacher is undoubtedly secure in her knowledge of the content, the ability to develop and maintain personal connections with students plays an absolutely essential role in the successful learning process. Personal connections are the avenue on which effective learning opportunities must travel.
At the school level, efforts to provide a safe learning environment must include a plan for establishing meaningful connections between adults and students. We expend a great deal of effort and energy in promoting positive relationships between students (which we should), but we must also give substantial consideration to developing meaningful and supportive connections between adults and students on the school campus. Not only is it socially/emotionally beneficial for our students to have these connections, they are critical to the learning process and, ultimately, academic performance. Kids who feel like they have an adult advocate, a connection to their teacher, will develop a sense of trust that allows them to actively engage in the learning process…even in instances they might not initially find engaging. In other words, students who feel connected — those who feel safe in the knowledge that they have an advocate — are willing to work with you, and for you.
So how do we go about developing connections that will ensure a safe learning environment for our students…one that will engage them as active participants in the learning process?
1. Know Your Students
It seems like this would be common sense, but all too often, we do not invest the time and energy necessary to really know our students. We should. It is an investment that will potentially change the entire educational experience of our students. Not only does taking a direct interest in students help us address student interests/needs, it allows them to know that we value them as an individual. Krissy Venosdale (@ktvee) has a brief, but excellent post on her blog, Venspired, that addresses this point: We Teach Individuals. Check it out. (Thanks to Krissy for allowing me to use her art in this post)
2. Be Human
Let’s face it. No matter how good we are, our students will see us make mistakes. I think it is absolutely critical that we respond to these situations in a manner that demonstrates our humanity and models what we expect from students. Make an admission. Make an apology. Take responsibility. Sometimes we feel like these actions will weaken us in the eyes of our students, I would argue that the opposite is true. I recently shared an incident in which I messed up and had to do some backtracking (Superheros, Superegos, and Student Discipline). It wasn’t easy, but I believe it was the right thing to do.
3. Balance Empathy and Expectations
As educators, we must work tirelessly to find an appropriate balance between empathy for our students and expectations for their behavior and performance. We should be very careful about resorting to algorithms for student behavior (i.e. if you do this, this will happen), or placing our expectations in a finite box. Fair is not always equal. If we do a good job of “knowing our students” we will be able to determine what is best for each individual. Think of it as personalized learning.
4. Make Learning Relevant
It is imperative that we find meaningful ways to engage students in the learning process and seize upon opportunities to allow students to pursue THEIR passions. I had the opportunity to hear Gary Stager (@garystager) speak at ISTE 2012, and his message really resonated with my beliefs about what makes education purposeful. Here are a few quotes that I thought were particularly applicable to the idea of relevance in education.
Why do we ask kids to make presentations, on topics they don’t care about, to an audience that doesn’t exist?
I’m not surprised when kids do remarkable things, I’m surprised when adults are surprised when kids do remarkable things.
Less us. More them.
As educators, we have an obligation to make clear connections between content and the lives of our students, but we must also provide opportunities for them to be difference makers…not only in the future, but now.
We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget he is someone today. ~ Stacia Tauscher
5. Model Learning
My final suggestion is that we model a passion for learning. Our students need to see that we are committed to ongoing improvement, personally and professionally. If we expect them to be passionate about something, we have to be willing to share about our passions and how we pursue them. Educators should model a reflective and creative spirit. Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) recently shared a great post about the imperative of life-long learning and professional development for educators – Hypocrisy in the Profession of Education. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is an outstanding commentary on what it means to be a passionate educator.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of ways to build connections with students…please feel free to share your ideas. I do want to be clear that I see this process as the responsibility of every adult on campus — not just teachers. In fact, administrators need to be the leaders in this effort.
I will end with one of my favorite education related quotes, by Pedro Noguera, and remind you that it is often the adults in a student’s life that set the tone for where they are going.
Kids who think they are going somewhere behave differently than kids who believe they are going nowhere. ~ Pedro Noguera