A Positive Starting Note to Last through to June

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I began my career in education as a music teacher.  Getting the starting note on the right pitch was critical to the performance of the entire song.  The same can be said about the beginning of a new school year with new students in your classroom.  Here are some tips that, when implemented at the beginning of the year, helps you sustain positive working relationships with your students.

Build positive relationships BEFORE they come through your door. 

One-to-one Advance Welcome   Some teachers send a welcome letter home to parents, send a postcard to the child directly, set up a website welcome page, text parents, make a phone call, set up a twitter hashtag.  All of these make a great first impression and I especially like the personal note or conversation with each student.  Learning about your students and their families interests is so important in creating a bond.  Conversations before the school year starts precludes talking about grades, has a friendly caring tone.

Positive conversation with family before school starts.

Some students’ experiences at school has been so negative, you may have to work at melting the permafrost, but it’s worth it because when you show genuine interest and listen, you are building their willingness to trust and listen to you.  It’s even worth it for Middle or High School teachers because the long-term benefits of knowing your students far outweighs the time it took to contact every student in every class.  The early phone call or letter can’t be all about yourself.  Learn who your students are and what they care about.  Some elementary teachers send a letter to parents asking them to write about their child’s interests.  Here’s a sample letter.

Schedule a social conversation with every student; don’t leave it to chance. For some reason, as kids get older, those social conversations become more meaningful, but less frequent.  A principal I read about recently, shadowed a student all day and discovered that not one teacher had conversed with that student all day!  In my book “Collapse of the Hive” I make a correlation between bees and humans.  Both bees and humans thrive best when we have frequent social interactions with others in our “hive”.  Social connections and interactions are not only essential for the well-being of each of us, but also for our community as a whole.  The interactions that are most helpful are those conversations that are non-judgemental and involve listening on the part of the adult rather than jumping to “fix” a perceived problem.

A teacher who plans to talk to each child and make it work it relies on two things.

  • First,  put a calendar together and list the students you will chat with that day or that class period.  Consider it a checking in moment.  You can even write a sticky note in advance to give a student if time slips away from having a live conversation.  Assemble your “Checking-In” calendar when you are putting together your class roster.   Be sure to also think through a plan for a day when you’re absent or the student is absent.  Figure out how you will keep track of your check-in moments so that it’s easy to maintain and you will be consistent.
  • Second, gather data on the whole child.  For any one teacher to remember from the first week of September what each child wrote on their Interest survey can be difficult. But it’s not impossible.   In the book  “Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School” by Mark Barnes and Jennifer Gonzalez –  the authors describe how to make this happen with the 360 Spreadsheet.  Good teachers consider tracking student academic data in a spreadsheet an essential tool to utilizing data on student progress.   However, good teachers also know that academic data is one-dimensional and not enough to understand a student as a person.  It takes time, effort and planning to know students better.  Using  as spreadsheet to note other attributes, interests, and talking points is described by Barnes & Gonzalez in the 360 spreadsheet.  This a great way to know your students quickly and help you initiate positive social conversations.  A not so obvious benefit is how it raises our awareness in general.  Being knowledgeable about a student and having individual conversations can help a teacher recognize when a student is emotionally off-center.  Noticing a student’s state of mind is the first step to provide support.  (Check out more on Youth Mental First Aid at this site.)

Don’t Smile ‘Til Christmas – NOT!

While a teacher must garner student cooperation and willingness to follow directions, being austere and unapproachable is definitely not a strategy supported by education research.  A more accurate and insightful mantra in education is “They won’t care how much you know until you show how much you care.”  And I’ll clarify even further – show you care first about the students, then about the curriculum.  Remind yourself you are not teaching math, you teach students – hopefully teaching them to love math as much as you.  Find the humor in your work and with the students.  Just be careful with humor – don’t sound sarcastic, embarrass students or use humor to “cheer” anyone.  I know a great teacher who’s technique for humor dubbed him the Punster – he told those groaner jokes that are a play on words.  This type of humor rarely hurts anyone, and can really lighten a day for kids., even if they do groan.  When I was a first-time principal, I purchased a couple of kids joke books.  Each month at our student recognition breakfast, we’d pass around the books and take turns reading jokes.  Some teachers make humorous bulletin boards or posters in their rooms for students to enjoy (and encourage them to read)!  Whatever your style of humor, plan it into your lessons and conversation with students and see the difference it makes on your relationships with students.  The key is to be intentional.  It takes planning.

The most important thing about positive building relationships with students is to understand that how your students perceive you is what you are “stuck” with.  If you want to form a positive bond, you have to think about how you want students to feel about you.  Being knowledgeable about one’s subject matter is great, but getting the most learning accomplished in your students requires their positive attitude and willingness to work with you.  Being a magnet for kids, a classroom they love to be in, all depends on how you come across to them.  After all, “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”!

Honeycomb with honey dipper over black surface

Best wishes on the start of an even greater school year than the last.