I've seen a student who is failing in all his classes receive the highest test score in my class. Why? Because that student felt a significant connection to me and he wanted to do his best. In this time of overcrowded classrooms full of increasingly more disengaged students, teachers need to go the extra mile to make personal connections with their students.
The relationship built between a teacher and a student can have as much to do with a student's success as the academic instruction itself, because a teacher who has earned the respect of a student is much more likely to keep that student engaged during instruction.
You can engage your students by carefully sharing a more personal side of who you are and by getting to know the individuals in your classroom. Giving students a glimpse into your personal life (without revealing anything private or controversial) can show them that you are willing to open yourself up, invite them in, and trust them with a part of who you are. You could share humorous, exciting, meaningful, or even humbling or embarrassing stories from your past or present that at least loosely relate to your content area.
A math teacher telling a story about screwing up a currency conversion while traveling overseas and grossly overpaying for a souvenir; a history teacher explaining how he felt overcome emotionally while visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.; or a foreign language teacher sharing a humorous story about a mistranslation with embarrassing consequences are all examples of stories that help students see their teachers as real people who have real experiences outside of the school walls.
Students also appreciate the chance to relax and be entertained; and, in the meantime, they can see examples of the subject area used in a real-world context.
On Monday, before jumping straight into instruction, try telling your students about your recent fishing trip or the sporting event or concert you attended that weekend. There are bound to be students who also fish, like the local sports team, or share a common music taste. And even if you never specifically discuss that connection, you have altered students' impressions of you and increased the likelihood of your developing a positive relationship with them.
Next, make an effort to notice and comment to individual students about details specific to them. With as many as 40 students in the classroom, this can be really difficult, but that's also why it's that much more important to students to be noticed. You could do something as simple as commenting about the band on a student's T-shirt, complimenting a student on the impressive doodle on her math binder, or commending a student for his performance in the game or concert last night. Show students that you are paying attention and that you see value in them.
No matter the method, developing personal relationships with students is a win-win. You have the chance to be a role model and personally influence the young people in your class in a positive manner that helps raise their self-esteem. And perhaps, at the same time, you'll increase their motivation to succeed, improve their academic habits, and set them up for success.
Brad Kuntz teaches Spanish and environmental leadership at Gladstone High School in Gladstone, Ore., and he is a 2011 winner of ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator Award, which is sponsored by GlobalScholar.
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