Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Connections - The Most Crucial Element In A Successful Classroom

Connections...being connected...being a part of the community of classroom...its a bold statement to say that this is the most crucial element but I truly believe it is.  If a student is not connected, not a part of the community of the classroom, then they simply become a seat filler, another paper to grade, another voice.  Think about how often you have walked into a room, a wedding, a party where most of the people know each other, have a shared connection and you are the "odd man out".  How do you feel?  While there are a few people who could jump right in and walk up to people, most people wait for someone to approach them, to bring them into a circle.  As teachers, that is our job - to bring our students into a circle, a community, a safe place where they can learn, grow, explore.  So how do we do it?  How do we make that connection, build the community that our students need?

1.  Be tuned in.  When you are in your classroom, be there mentally as well as physically.  So often we are in our classes physically, but our minds are consumed with the forms we need to complete, meetings we need to have, our families at home, what are we doing for the weekend and 1,000 other things.  As hard as it is, we need to shut those things off or at least try to and focus on being present mentally when we are in the classroom.  How this occurs is different for everyone.  It may be featuring artwork from your kids or pictures of your family so they are "with you" but not your primary focus.  It could also be making a "To-Do" list of everything you need to accomplish so that you don't forget but can focus your mind on other things.  Whatever it is that works for you and allows you to be tuned in, do it!  Your students will thank you!

2.  Create an environment that is safe.  Students, whether they are in Kindergarten, their senior year or anywhere in-between are still kids.  (If you don't believe me, just break out the crayons and see what happens! :)  They still need to feel safe and secure in order to be truly successful.  They need to know that there will be supportive words to encourage them, a safety net if they fail and accolades when they succeed.  They need to know that they won't be ridiculed by their peers if they have questions and that it is a safe place to express their thoughts.  In order to create this safe environment I suggest starting by with clear expectations (I go into more depth about this here) about what is and is not acceptable in they classroom, establish clear norms about how discussion will occur and more importantly be tuned in to what is happening in the classroom.  Do not let behavior slide for some students but come down hard others for the same behavior.  Be fair and consistent.

3.  Partner with parents.  As both a parent and a teacher I know first hand how important it is to be in a partnership with parents and not a competition.  Communicate with parents about the spectacular things that their students do, not just the negative.  I had an experience with past year where I would get notes home from my son's teacher about how his day went.  They were a checklist of six areas of behavior and rated with a smiley face, straight face or sad face.  He got quite a few sad faces, so many at one point that I started dreading getting the note at the end of the day.  I would start to have that anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach when I would see his backpack.  This teacher never sent home a note when he had a great day, just when he had a bad day.  BTW - my son is 5.  After a few weeks of this, my husband and I requested a meeting with the teacher where we expressed our concerns.  We found a way to partner with the teacher.  The communication got better, our son got happier and the behavior improved.  You can partner with parents with written communication (notes, e-mails, etc.), verbal communication (phone calls or meetings) or through practice (become the teacher that impacts their student(s) in a positive way to make a positive impact).

4.  Make a personal connection.  Humans are social.  We love to talk, to interact, to communicate and to share of ourselves.  Being a teacher allows a million ways to make a personal connection.  Notice the things that change about your students - a new haircut, cool new shoes, etc. and comment on them in a positive way.  Remember the things that a student tells you - an upcoming vacation, a new puppy, a job interview and follow up to see how it went/is going.  Attend after school activities when possible - a club, band concert, sporting event and then mention it the next day.  Share of yourself and common interests and experiences.  The more human you are, the more you can connect with your students.

5.  Nurture skills that will help them to be part of a bigger community.  We have our students for a short fraction of their lives - a semester, a year, maybe two and it is our job to help them to move on to the next part, chapter or adventure that their lives will offer.  At the high school level this means teaching them job skills, social skills and other skills that will help them to be successful in getting their first job.  We get the opportunity to help them figure if the job market, college or the military is where their strengths lie after high school.  We have the responsibility to help mold them into the (young) adults who will lead future generations.  We can give them these skills through conversation, prodding and modeling them ourselves.

Whatever you do, make connections with your students.  They really will translate to greater success for your students and for yourself as a teacher.  How do you make connections?
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