Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 10. Connecting With Students

In spite of all the training you’ve had in teaching methods, technology, use of materials, and classroom management, it is through your relationships with students that you affect and influence them most dramatically. You only have to recall your own most important mentors and effective teachers to realize that it wasn’t the stuff they knew that was so important, or how brilliant they were as lecturers, or how skilled they were in organizing their lessons; rather, it was who they were as human beings. Somehow, some way, they were able to connect with you so that you felt respected and cared for. You weren’t just a student to them; you were someone who really mattered.

The connection you felt to your best teachers was built on trust and caring. These were people in your life who seemed to be able to reach you at a core level. They nourished not only your mind but also your heart and spirit. During times when you were most impressionable, perhaps even most vulnerable, these teachers were there for you. With them in your corner, you didn’t feel so misunderstood, so confused, so alone.

BEING VISIBLE AND ACCESSIBLE

I’ve (Ellen) often wondered whether the most good I’ve done at school was in the hallways rather than in the classroom. It is during class changes that I made contact with as many students as I could, offering a few encouraging words or a smile. I tried to make myself as visible as I could in the school, so that kids would get used to seeing me visiting their worlds, rather than always staying in my own classroom. During my preparation period, I would visit the art room or the science room, for example. I wanted students to know that I really cared about them, and I did this by making myself as accessible as I could.

Many students spend more quality time with their teachers in any given day than they do with their own parents. With so many parents working—and some working more than one job—students today often seek out a teacher to talk to before or after school, when something is bothering them. You never know when a student will approach you with, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” It will usually be more than a minute, and you never know what the subject will be. The range of topics is extremely wide. Usually, it will be when no one else is around, which means at the end of the day when you are ready to go home. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of concerns students may bring to you:

•   “I just found out I’m pregnant. What should I do?”

•   “My dad took off, and we don’t know when he’s coming back. I’m not sure I even care.”

•   “I was thinking of dropping out of school. I really need to earn some more money.”

•   “I think I’ve got a drinking problem. I don’t know. Probably not, but I’ve been blacking out lately.”

•   “My boyfriend wants to break up with me. Isn’t there some way I can deal with this?”

•   “There’s this girl I like in your sixth hour class. How do you think I could approach her?”

•   “I have no idea what college I should go to, or even if I should go to college at all.”

•   “I’ve been so depressed that lately, I’ve been thinking about . . . you know . . . maybe hurting myself.”

•   “I can’t concentrate lately. On anything.”

In each of these examples, students are connecting with you. They are reaching out to you. More than asking for advice or counseling, they are saying they trust you. You are one of the few adults in their lives whom they trust enough to confide their most pressing problems, their most confusing struggles. Whereas in so many other areas, being younger or less experienced than your colleagues is a distinct disadvantage, when it comes to connecting to students, you will find them far more willing to approach you because you are new. They will appreciate your greater enthusiasm and excitement. They will like the fact that you have no history with the school and so will appear safer. In many cases, you will also be closer to their age.

Your job is not to solve their problems, which you have little time for anyway. You cannot serve as their counselor, which you have little training for. Instead, you use your relationships with students to be a good listener, to support them, and to encourage them to make sound decisions. In some cases, your main job is to get the student some help and make an appropriate referral. But you will be amazed what you can do for kids simply by connecting with them, letting them know that you really care.

LISTEN, DON’T TALK

In connecting with students, your primary role is as a listener, not a talker, and especially not an advice giver. In fact, in some instances, giving advice to kids is about the worst thing you can do. If things don’t work out the way they hoped, they will blame you for the rest of their lives. Even worse, if the advice you offer does work out well, you have taught them to depend on you (or other adults) in the future. You have reinforced the idea that they don’t know what’s best for themselves, and they can’t make their own decisions.

Rather than telling students what to do with their lives—and you certainly will have some rather strong opinions on the issues that concern them—you should instead concentrate on building a strong connection in which they feel heard and understood by you. There are certain skills used by counselors, called “active listening,” that you may want to get some training in when you have the time. Essentially, these skills help you to communicate your interest and then reflect back what you’ve heard in such a way that the other person can work out the problem. Here are some tips for listening well to your students:

You must start with clearing your mind of all distractions. Take a deep breath to transition from what you were doing to being receptive to what the student has to say. Give the student your undivided attention. You may find this to be more difficult than it sounds, as you turn away from what you were doing and look directly at the student. Resist the temptation to look over the student’s shoulder to see who is walking by your room. Your body language will reflect your concern and level of focus on the student. Likewise, observe the body language of the student. Is the student conveying messages that are consistent or inconsistent with what he or she is staying?

Listen without interrupting. If you have to ask a question (and often they are unnecessary), ask for clarification or elaboration. The best questions are “open” rather than “closed,” meaning that they sound less interrogative and more expansive. Compare, for instance, the difference between the following conversations:

Student:

“My friends just don’t seem to get it. They keep pushing me and pushing me but don’t take no for an answer.”

Teacher:

“Do they listen to you when you tell them you’ve had enough.”

Student:

“No.”

Teacher:

“Do you think they want you to just follow them blindly?”

Student:

“I don’t know.”

In this series of “closed” questions, the teacher asks things that can be answered by single word responses, closing off deeper communication. This is quite different from the style exhibited in this alternative conversation:

Student:

“My friends just don’t seem to get it. They keep pushing me and pushing me but don’t take no for an answer.”

Teacher:

“What has happened in the past when you try to tell them no?”

Student:

“They just ignore me mostly. It’s like they don’t even care what I think. They only seem to want to be friends with me as long as I go along with them. But I’m not allowed to have my own opinions.”

You can see from this elaboration that by asking a more open question, the exploration continues to include other areas of concern to the student, giving you more detailed information about their problem.

We are not saying, by the way, that you should even ask such questions in the limited time you have. But if you must ask questions, phrase them in such a way that they do not elicit one-word answers. This means generally asking “What?” or “How?” rather than “Do you . . . ?”

And now, a brief “time out” for a quiz:

Why should you not ask “why” questions?

Your answer: “I don’t know.”

That’s correct. Most of the time you ask someone “Why?”, especially a kid, they will respond with “I don’t know.”

“Why do you do drugs?”

Student shrugs.

“Why do you keep throwing your homework away when you know it’s going to get you in trouble?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why do you keep saying you don’t know?”

“I don’t know.”

You get the point.

Summarize what you understand. The best way to let students know that they have been heard and understood is not to say, “I understand.” This is not only a simplistic a response but unlikely to be believed. The best way to show that you have listened carefully to someone, and understood not only the surface message but the deeper feelings and thoughts they are expressing, is to reflect back what you have heard. This takes considerable training and practice, but at its basic level, it goes something like this:

Student:

“I’m not sure I understand this assignment.”

Teacher:

“I can see that you are a little confused.”

Student:

“Yeah. I mean, I thought on the last test that I understood things pretty good, but I didn’t do so well.”

Teacher:

“You’re feeling disappointed and a little discouraged. You want to do much better on this one.”

Student:

“I’ve been thinking lately that maybe this just isn’t my thing. Maybe I’m not cut out for this subject. I mean, I like it and all, but . . .”

Teacher:

“You’re saying that although you really like what we are doing, it’s hard for you, more challenging than you thought. You’re wondering if maybe you should try something else.”

Student:

“Don’t get me wrong. I like you and all. And I like this class a lot. It’s just . . . I don’t know.” (Shrugs)

Teacher:

“You don’t really want to give up, but I hear you asking for more help and support.”

From this brief conversation, you can see how carefully this teacher is listening. She is not asking questions (not one!) but simply listening and observing the student, decoding the messages that are being communicated, and reflecting back what she understands. The beauty of this sort of approach is that even if your reflections are not accurate, the student will correct the inaccuracy, and this, too, leads to deeper exploration:

Student:

“Well, I would like some more support and all. It’s just . . .”

Teacher:

“You’re feeling uneasy asking for help like this because you prefer to work things out on your own.”

Student:

“No, that’s not it at all. I don’t mind asking for help. It’s just that I don’t want to bother you.”

It is beyond the scope of this chapter or book to teach you all (or even most) of what you need to get started in connecting with your students in this way. But there are other resources available (see our book, Counseling Skills for Teachers [2000]) that can introduce you to these methods, as well as courses and workshops you might attend at a later time. For now, we just want you to understand that connecting with students is not just about your best intentions but also your skills, and these you can develop a lot further.

Your ongoing relationships with students, rather than any specific guidance you offer, will make the greatest difference. You don’t have the time or the training to do any real counseling—besides, there are professionals in your school who have been specifically trained for that work. But within short periods of time, you can help your students feel supported and understood. At times, you can even encourage them to work toward small, realistic, incremental goals that are in the directions they would like to go. More than anything else, however, just try to make strong connections. You will be amazed how healing a supportive relationship can be. Many students just need attention and to know someone is paying attention to them and cares about them.

REACH OUT TO STUDENTS

One way you personalize your subject area to your students’ lives is to continuously make connections to what matters most to them. Use examples related to sports, contemporary music, or current events. Better yet, ask students to articulate ways that what you’re doing relates to their lives.

Outside of your class, make a point to visit students where they hang out. Attend athletic competitions. Go to school plays and concerts. Volunteer to be a chaperon at school dances, or judge a debate.

Teachers frequently call students’ homes to talk to parents. One secret is to call home just to talk to the student. The conversation is private. The other students don’t see or hear you targeting a classmate for a conversation, to reprimand, or to praise, any of which can be equally embarrassing to the student in front of his peers. This is particularly effective for students whom you sense are needy for attention.

I (Ellen) have done this unintentionally—trying to reach a parent for help regarding uncooperative behavior, for example, and ending up talking to the student when the parent wasn’t home. I told him I was calling regarding his behavior and asked him to relay a message to his parents. I found my mission was accomplished when his behavior improved after the phone call. I did not have to speak to his parents—just discussing his behavior privately over the telephone served as a stimulus for him to change it.

You can also make a point to call students at home, not just when they are in trouble but when they’ve done something you especially appreciate. Tell students when you are proud of them, when you’ve seen some improvement in their work, or when you’ve noticed some extra effort extended.

In addition to making phone calls, you can also write notes to students. In such brief communications, you can give them encouragement and support, make suggestions for books or articles you think they might like, or even take the time to say some things privately that might be helpful for them to hear.

SOME QUICK INTERVENTIONS

If you have taken the time to develop solid relationships with your students, then it is far more likely they will be open to necessary interventions you must employ.

One time, I (Ellen) turned around to see Howard with his arms around a girl from behind, trying to reach his pencil. Howard was a playful young teenager who liked to get attention from the girls. This time, however, his behavior could have been interpreted as sexual harassment. When I called him to my desk, he quickly broke his hold on the girl and came to talk to me. I very privately and quietly brought to his attention that this behavior could be misinterpreted. I tried to tell him this in a way that was less a censure than a good-natured “word to the wise.” He was open to this feedback because he trusted me and knew I wasn’t putting him down; I was really trying to help him avoid an unpleasant situation. He was very careful of his behavior after that exchange.

This interaction could easily have turned out differently. Some students will take offense or feel threatened by invasions of their privacy. You can extend yourself to students and reach out to them, but ultimately, they will let you know if and when they are ready to respond to your overtures.

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CONNECTING WITH STUDENTS

•   Listen carefully without interrupting.

•   Listen not only for what the student is saying, but also for what is being implied beneath the surface.

•   Stay neutral and don’t judge the student, or trust may be breached.

•   Communicate with your body, face, eyes, your whole being, that you are intensely interested in what students are saying.

•   Show compassion and empathy in your manner and style.

•   Whenever possible, don’t let yourself be interrupted or distracted when a student is confiding in you.

•   Prove that you’ve understood what was said by occasionally responding with reflections of feeling and content that you heard.

•   Avoid giving advice or telling students what to do with their lives.

•   Make yourself as visible and accessible as you can.

•   If you must ask questions, don’t interrogate kids; instead, ask open-ended inquiries that encourage them to elaborate.

•   Look carefully for signs of severe distress; if a student does seem to be in danger of harm or abuse, you must report it to the administration.

•   At the end of a conversation, summarize what you heard, and ask the student to summarize what he/she has said.

•   Make appropriate referrals to the school counselor or other professionals when a student could profit from such help. Secure a commitment from the student to do something about his or her situation to get additional help. If convenient, you can offer to go with the student to introduce him or her to the professional.

•   Follow up on the conversations by remembering to ask students how they’re doing and what they’ve done about the problem since you last talked.

CONNECTING WITH DIFFICULT STUDENTS

In spite of your best intentions, there will be a number of students who don’t respond to your noble overtures. Don’t let them get you down. As a beginning teacher, you are often assigned to some of the most challenging groups of kids, those who are unmotivated or who may be somewhat difficult to handle.

Although all teachers wouldn’t necessarily share the same definition of who a difficult student is, there is some consensus as to which ones may challenge you the most in your efforts to reach them:

•   The angry student looks sullen, with a chip on his shoulder. No matter what you do, he will resist your efforts.

•   The withdrawn student is certainly not a behavior problem; quite the opposite, she may sit passively in the back of the room or even sleep with her head on the desk, completely unengaged in the lesson.

•   The quiet student just doesn’t talk at all. He may or may not be paying attention; you really can’t tell. No matter what you do to try and draw him out, he is so shy that he just smiles enigmatically.

•   The student who is in over her head feels like she is so far behind, there is no point in even trying to cooperate in your class. She has given up all hope.

•   The procrastinator continually plays games with you. He always has excuses for why he doesn’t have his work completed. He may be wickedly charming, but he manages to avoid doing much that is useful.

•   The addicted student is strung out on drugs or alcohol. Her attention is, at best, fleeting. She sits in the back of the room with a glassy-eyed stare.

•   The overly social student is always flirting or disturbing others around him. You stop him a dozen times, but he doesn’t seem to respond to the corrections.

•   The class clown may be motivated by either the need to express her sense of humor or something more perverse. Regardless of his intentions, he is constantly the center of attention, drawing the other students’ focus away from what you’re trying to teach.

We could go on a lot longer with our list. In fact, competitions among teachers as to who has the most annoying, disruptive, difficult students are a frequent topic of conversation in some lunch groups. We don’t mean to frighten you with the idea that you will encounter so many kids who are uncooperative and difficult to deal with. We just want you to be realistic in your expectations of what you can do with the time, resources, and training that is available to you. Then, there are the family, peer, and neighborhood environments to which these students return after they leave school, environments whose influence is out of your control. Chapter 12 explores further the issue of dealing with difficult students.

You may not be able to help everyone in your classes. You probably won’t make a significant difference in the lives of most of your students. However, there will likely be some who will thank you immediately. Others will return years later to tell you what a difference you made when you were not even aware of it. But in every class, there will be a few who will be profoundly influenced by what you do and who you are. That is what will sustain you.