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Help All Students Be Seen: Five Tips for Stronger Connections

Help All Students Be Seen: Five Tips for Stronger Connections

Anyone who has been teaching, whether it has been for one year or thirty years, knows that there are certain types of students. There are the ones who always put their hands up, turn in work on time, and ask questions when they get stuck. There are others who do not respond to anything you try or turn in work sporadically, slipping further behind each day. The quiet ones, the clowns, the overachievers—we know these students and can usually pick them out quickly in the first days of the school year.

We know our students, right?

I thought I had this all down after my first few years of teaching, and I had a pocketful of strategies to work with these different types of students. But every year, without fail, I found myself surprised. Sometimes, my strategies worked, but I still felt disconnected from  some students. I could not shake a sense that I was missing something.

I began to challenge myself to set aside my preconceived boxes for them and see each one as a person—complex, with parts they reveal to the world easily and parts they hide. As I did this more and more, I was amazed at how my strategies needed to change in order to truly see each student and make those strong connections that lead to more effective learning. In this blog post, I hope to share some thoughts on how to adjust your own thinking to see the true student within.

Assume positive intent

She did not show for our online session, again. I set up these one-on-one ELL sessions carefully, planning my week around time for each student, so as I sat there waiting for my student 15 minutes past our meeting time, my brain stewed. What would be her excuse this time? I thought we had a good relationship and were making progress! My whole day felt off because I kept thinking about this student’s lack of effort in the back of my mind.

Two days later, I received a text from the student: “Hey, Mrs. C! I’m so sorry I missed our session. I was out sick with a cold and super fuzzy. But I kept drinking lots of juice, like you told me, and I’m feeling a lot better today. Can we maybe meet two times next week to make up for it? I know you wanted to help me with that history paper. I shared a Google Doc with you already so that we can get some ideas down. Thanks!”

I could have let my mind head southward again, dwelling on what could be seen as the latest excuse, but I paused. Sickness happens to all of us, and even if she had missed several sessions this year, that did not make this excuse false. Also, what was that comment about the juice? That was a conversation she and I had last school year, when I met with her while I was recovering from a cold. She remembered something we talked about a full year ago and acted on it?

Suddenly my mind shifted, and I began to see patterns in our sessions this year. Independently, this student was incorporating tips and skills we worked on last year—such as sharing Google Docs so that we could collaborate on her writing process—and when I looked back at her attendance, there was a clear growth from last year as well. In my hurry to assume negative intent, I had blinded myself to all of the good things happening in her work. As teachers, if we can assume positive intent on the part of our students instead of taking each misstep as a failure or excuse, it clears our own vision to see what is actually happening with each child.

Take a moment to connect as people

We have limited time with our students each day. All of us know that sense of needing to get tasks done, move toward learning targets, and make our way in the curriculum set before us. This is a real part of being a teacher, and there is nothing wrong with keeping track of our time. However, I know for myself that this can get in the way of seeing my students as people. Whether I am working with a group of students or only one, I deliberately leave the first five minutes of each session to check in. Even if all we talk about is the weather and what we are planning to do this weekend, I find that giving those minutes up front leads to a more successful time with students and a stronger relationship overall.

Other times, those initial minutes of informal chat can lead to insights that make learning sessions more effective. Over time, I learned that one of my students is really interested in soccer, so I leveraged her enthusiasm into a paper she has been avoiding in English class. Another student was very shy around teachers and barely talked during our sessions until I saw his pet snake’s cage in the corner of his video. Now, we start each session with him eagerly holding his snake up to the screen, and his chatter continues as we segue into our work for that day. By connecting personally with students and giving up those five minutes, they work harder for the rest of our time and develop trust in me as their teacher far more quickly in those early weeks of the school year.

Create a plan, but remain flexible

One student began our time together by saying, “Hey, Mrs. C, I know you mentioned working on history with me today, but I’m really stuck on this discussion question for my sign language class. Can we do that today instead?” Inside, I quietly sighed, knowing that this student was behind on a history paper. I had worked ahead of time to set up a scaffolded document to walk her through the ideas and felt we could make solid progress in our hour today.

I could have pushed ahead with my own agenda—which was not a bad one—but instead, I saw those crinkles around this student’s eyes that meant she was feeling stressed out about this assignment. As we got into the discussion, it was a far more complex assignment that I had originally thought. She had misread the question and was getting lost in giving a multistep answer. By the time our session was done, not only had we completed the assignment successfully, but her face had lit up. She was proud of her work and felt much more empowered to continue with that course.

Additionally, she asked me to send her the document I had set up for her history lesson and promised to work on it independently before our next meeting (and she did). Being able to pivot with the student’s immediate needs created an amazing learning experience, accomplished needed goals, and put the student into a better mindset to tackle the rest of her work.

Don’t let distractions divert you

As the Title I teacher, a particular student had been referred to me by his other teachers for additional help. They could not get him to do much of anything, and no one was sure what lay hidden under his seemingly angry mask. While I was initially left unsettled by his bristling anger, I made a choice not to let that distract me from helping him. If we had to spend 30 minutes together each day, I would at least enjoy myself. Because I had only a vague idea of his reading level, I grabbed a copy of the first Magic Tree House book and began to read aloud. For the first few sessions, he sat silently brooding in the chair next to me, with no visible reaction to the story despite my best theatrical readings. One day, as our time was wrapping up, we ended a chapter on a particular cliffhanger. When I stood up, saying it was time to go, he blinked hard. After a moment, he quietly asked, “Can we just read one more chapter?” After a moment of stunned silence, I made a phone call and set aside 10 more minutes.

By the next week, he was offering to read every other page aloud, stumbling determinedly through each sentence. We managed to make it through many of Jack and Annie’s adventures before the end of the school year, and my student made slow but steady gains in his reading as we worked. While he remained reserved, there were cracks in his anger armor, and he even began to smile now and then throughout the day. If I had only seen his anger and let it shove me aside, I might have missed this opportunity to connect with him.

Watch and listen before acting

We come again to the idea of planning. Skilled teachers have plans and prepared lessons, and they can navigate the time they are given each day. At the same time, we need to be sure we are addressing the most critical learning needs. While we can go into our day with data about best practices and top trouble spots, we need to find ways to pause and pay attention to what is actually blocking a student from learning.

I saw this most recently with a student of mine. He was an ELL student, failing or making little progress in any of his classes. On paper, I could see his language proficiencies and deficits, and I went into our first few sessions using plans that had been successful with many similar ELL students. We bumped along, completing very little each time. I could tell he was working hard, but getting him to type out a few sentences to answer a question exhausted both of us. He kept telling me that he had such a hard time getting the words out of his head and onto paper. I had to rethink this situation.

As we started our session the next time, I said, “Let’s try something new this time. Today, you only have to talk, and I will do all the typing.” We pulled up a history assignment and read through the question together. I got my fingers ready and called out, “OK. Let’s see what you have!” He began to talk his way through the answer, using complex vocabulary and showing that he understood this topic on deep levels. I consider myself a fast typist, but even I had trouble keeping up. By the time he stopped, we had a full page on the screen.

I was silent for a moment and then exclaimed, “I’m teaching you to use voice typing in your Google Docs!” This turned out to be a game changer. Once he was comfortable with talking into his documents, he was able to start submitting real work with rich answers to his teachers. While we still had other hurdles to cross in terms of editing and continuing to work on his language proficiency in writing, he began to see himself as a student for the first time in a long while. If I had not taken the time to watch how he was working, listen to his own thoughts about his learning, and try a new approach, we could have stayed stuck in a pattern that helped no one.

It should not be hard to remember that we are all people. We all have days when our A game happens and days we wish we could take back. I know that I am not the same person all the time, so it should not surprise me that my students are not either. Yet, I forget. When I pause to connect with my students as the layered people that they are, I gain learning time and find new ways to succeed together.

Looking for more tips on how to connect with and engage students this school year? Check out this blog post for ways you can drive and maintain student enthusiasm all year long in your classroom!

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amy.collins@edmentum.com's picture
Amy Collins

Amy Collins has been teaching for over 24 years in a wide range of settings, with students from ages K-12. She has been teaching online since 2011 and loves the opportunities it provides for meeting students’ needs in a personalized way. Amy is currently a virtual teacher with Edmentum working out of Wisconsin, as well as a mom of two vibrant elementary-age children.