Getting to know your students

I’ve read a lot about the value of making connections with students. But it seems impossible to connect with individual students when I meet with 150 per day in my classes. Any suggestions or advice?
—Bethany, Rochester, Minnesota

When I was student teaching, I had to shadow a student for an entire day and reflect on what I observed. Going over my notes, I realized not once during the school day did my student (a 10th grader) have a conversation with an adult. No teacher called on him in class; no adult said hello in the hallway. The cashier in the cafeteria didn’t even say ‘thank you’ when he paid for his lunch! Perhaps this was not a typical day, but if it was, I wondered how lonely this student must have felt, as one of the many “invisible” students passing unnoticed from class to class. As a teacher, I made it my goal that no student should ever be invisible.

It’s easy to connect with the students who demand our attention: the hand-raisers, the outgoing personalities, those who are genuinely interested in science, and those who use negative behaviors as attention-grabbers. Getting to know every student is simpler in a self-contained classroom where a teacher and students are together for most of the day. In a secondary classroom, however, trying to connect with 150 students seems like an impossible task. But there are strategies to make this doable.

Ask each student to record data on an index card: name, birthday, nickname, interests/hobbies, school activities, out-of-school activities (e.g., jobs, community organizations, volunteer work), and other conversation-starters. (Use a different color card for each class.) Then for each class each day, the student on top of the deck would be your “target.” This is not a formal student-of-the-day designation or event, but just a subtle way of ensuring that you’re interacting with each student. During the class period, greet him/her at the door, call on her for an answer or to share a thought, ask him to be the assistant to write on the board or overhead, or interact with him/her during seatwork or groupwork. In a little more than a month, you will have interacted with each student in this focused manner. The cards can also be used to randomly select a student for an answer or a job, ensuring that it’s not just the hand-raisers or those in the front of the classroom who participate.

Some other ways to connect include

  • Stand in the hallway to talk to students as they come in. A friendly hello, compliment, or comment may be one of the few positive interactions students have with an adult that day. (For some classes, especially if lab equipment is set up, stand just inside the door to keep an eye on things.)
  • Use students’ names in class conversations: “That’s a good idea, Marcus” or “Do you have anything to add, Maria?” A seating chart with the students’ nicknames is helpful at the beginning of the year to connect names and faces.
  • A quick note, e-mail, or postcard with a positive remark goes a long way to making the student feel accomplished and part of the class.
  • Get to know students in a different setting by attending school functions and events occasionally. Some students’ parents may not be able to attend, so a friendly cheer or bravo may mean a lot.
  • Consider having lunch with students or talking to them in the lunch line.
  • My colleague and I strongly believed labs should not be used as homerooms, so we volunteered for morning hall duty instead. We stationed ourselves at the bus door and pleasantly greeted students as they came in. For many students we were the first adults to interact with them in the morning, and they looked forward to seeing us. (/ul>

There is also the option to connect with students online, but there are a number of pros and cons to this approach. If you’re intrigued with using social media (such as Twitter or Facebook), the August 2009 issue of Learning and Leading with Technology has an interesting point/counterpoint discussion Should You “Friend” Your Students?

Of course, your connections with students should always be on a professional level. Most of the students already have friends to hang out with. But many of them need caring adults in their lives who take an interest in them and make them feel valued and “visible.”

Please feel free to add your suggestions for getting to know your students.

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  1. Susan Witham
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    At the beginning of this year, I had students write a paper telling me about themselves. The information I got really helped me to connect with students on an individual basis. I loved reading this post and the idea of having the students put it on a card that the teacher can use to keep track of how often they have tried to connect with the student.

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