One of the most important ways that we can start a new school year is by setting aside time to get to know our students. Not only should we have time to interact with them, but we need to give them time to interact with one another. Relationships are the foundation for so many positives in the classroom. Before all content and getting to the rules and classroom procedures, we have to find a way to start on day one by making this a priority. I truly believe that it needs to be a priority every day after that, because even the slightest interactions matter.
When: Some educators may disagree about holding off on the content or putting off the discussion about classroom procedures until another day. We all need to do what works best for our students and for ourselves. So you may choose to start the first day with something different, by focusing on the content and including some of the expectations or responsibilities for the classroom. Even starting with this, I’m sure that most everyone includes time to work on getting to know one another. By being at the door to greet the students as they arrive or making an effort to learn student names, and start to associate who the students are and engage in minor interactions will go a long way.
Why: I am very passionate about this now but I wish I could say that I always thought this way. I didn’t. I don’t know how much I valued the power of relationships over the first ten years of my teaching career. Of course I cared about my students and I wanted what was best for them, but I recognize that how I was then and the way I am now are completely different. And I really didn’t start every year the way that I’m suggesting that the year should be started by educators today. I was that teacher who welcomed students into the classroom and then started every class period on the first day, by talking about my classroom expectations and even adding in a little bit about the content material. I would even have students who were entering their second or higher level of the foreign language, write a short paragraph about topics like the summer, a movie they saw, a vacation or really anything they wanted to, so I could use it as a way to assess their skills before starting into the new material. It’s just the way that I had been taught and I thought I needed to start like this, with no learning time lost.
Something that bothers me now about myself when I think about this, is that I remember students trying to talk to their classmates about their summers and just being excited to come back to school. I remember trying to get them to just stop and focus on the writing that I wanted them to do. The writing was more important, at least that is the message that I was sending. Thankfully I am no longer that teacher. I just wish I would have changed sooner.
No wonder I never really worried about the first day of school, even though I might not sleep too well the night before. Lack of sleep was partially because I was excited and the thought of going back after being on a break, somehow prevented me from sleeping. Why didn’t I worry? Because for me, day one was for going through some of the normal routine activities, those clerical or housekeeping tasks, that I had done every year prior. I never worried about Day One, but I always said I worried more about Day Two because that’s when I really had to start teaching.
I’ve changed my mind over the years because I’ve had some challenges, due to questioning my own methods of instruction and why something was not working for a specific class. I also questioned the ways that I handled challenges in terms of classroom management over the years, and finding ways to connect with students. I am continuing to learn and there are days where it can feel like I’m not making any progress in building those relationships. I have to remind myself that I’m trying. That sometimes things don’t happen as fast as we want, it might take days, weeks, months or even longer to notice the impact or to see some kind of a transformation, but we just have to keep moving forward. And we may never really know what it was that made the difference, we just might feel a change one day.
How: I wish I had an answer for the question of “how.” What works for one student will often not work for another and it might take you a while to find a way to connect with some students and for them to connect with you. Have you ever tried so hard to connect with that one student, and no matter what you did it just felt like you would never get there? I have. Many times. One time last year I tried everything that I could, and no matter what I tried, it just seemed like I could not find a way to connect. But then I saw a book, one that I had read and enjoyed, and that amazingly just so happened to be a book being read by that student. Had I not seen that book, I might still be thinking about how to bridge some type of connection.
So that’s why those slight interactions matter, why we need to be present, visible, leaning in and listening more. We need to really see our students, who they are, and show that we really care.
I could offer a few suggestions but they might not be the ones that will work the best for you, your students or even that one student that you’ve been trying to connect with. Over the years I’ve taught, there have been some days where I felt like giving up. Truly, just felt exhausted because no matter what I did, it just did not work. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way but I hope that the more that we share our stories, we can help other educators who might be experiencing this same thing.
The greatest success I’ve had in making connections, after struggling to find ways to do so, have come about because I stopped trying to think so hard about how to connect. Instead, I just sat down, made time to lean in and listen, and to really talk with a student. That’s not something that I probably would have done 10 years ago. I can only keep moving forward with what I know now.
“When we know better, we do better,” as Maya Angelou said, and I definitely know better now.