I’ve recently switched from a self-contained sixth-grade classroom to a middle school science position where I meet with five different classes each day. I find it challenging to connect with students the way I used to when I had the same students all day.
—Jessie, Seattle, Washington
I remember a time my principal called into my middle-school classroom and asked if a student was in my class during the previous period. Back then, we did not do a formal attendance check, and I panicked because I couldn’t remember. Fortunately, the student had turned in a quiz, so I could reply in the affirmative. But I made a vow to be more aware of the students in class and try to connect with as many students as possible (and do my own attendance check during the bell-ringer).
It’s easy to connect with students who demand our attention: the hand-raisers, the outgoing personalities, those genuinely interested in science, and those using negative behaviors to grab attention. As you’ve experienced, getting to know every student is simpler in a self-contained classroom where the teacher and students are together for most of the day. In a departmentalized classroom, however, trying to connect with 100+ students every day seems like an impossible task. But there are strategies that can help.
Ask each student to put some information about themselves on an index card: name, birthday, nickname, interests/hobbies, school-related activities, out-of-school activities (e.g., community organizations, sports teams), and other conversation-starters. (Use a different color card for each class.) Then for each class each day, the student whose card is on top of the deck would be your focus. This is not a formal student-of-the-day designation or celebration but just a subtle way of ensuring you get to know the student better. During the class period, greet him or her at the door by name, call on him or her for an answer or to share a thought, ask him or her to be the assistant to write on the board, or interact with him or her during seatwork or group work. 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 that participate
Stand in the hallway to talk to students as they come in with a friendly hello, compliment, or comment. (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, Sonya” or “Do you have anything to add, Jack?” A seating chart with the students’ names or nicknames is helpful at the beginning of the year to connect names and faces.
To get to know students in a different setting, attend school functions and events when you can. Some students’ parents may not be able to attend, so a friendly cheer or “Bravo!” from the audience may mean a lot. Consider having lunch with students, talking to them in the lunch line or hallway, or even volunteering for a duty.
Keep in mind that for many students what you might consider a brief or shallow interaction may be one of the few positive interactions they have with an adult all day!
My colleague and I strongly believed that our labs should not be used as homerooms, so we volunteered for morning hall duty instead. We stationed ourselves at the bus door and greeted the students as they came in with a friendly “good morning” and “have a good day.” Even the grumpy students smiled. In fact, when one of us was not on duty, the students were concerned. For many students we were the first adults to interact with them in the morning, and they looked forward to seeing us.
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 part of the school and class community.