Tips for Getting to Know Your Students Beyond the Surface

If we want to be effective teachers, we must also be effective relationship-builders and connecting with students is key.

Research shows that meaningful student-teacher relationships are associated with short and long-term improvements in:

  • student academic engagement
  • grades
  • attendance
  • fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions
  • lower school dropout rates

The bottom line is that students are more willing and able to learn when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.

As a bonus, an educator’s relationship with students is the best predictor of how much the teacher experiences joy vs. anxiety in the classroom.

Meaningful Student-Teacher Relationships

What makes student-teacher relationships meaningful?

Simply engaging socially with students isn’t enough.  Connecting with students is imperative.

Cognitive neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang says, “People sometimes mistake a kind of casual familiarity and friendliness for the promotion of really deep relationships that are about a child’s potential, their interests, their strengths, and weaknesses.

“You have to go much deeper than that and actually start to engage with students around their curiosity, their culture, their interests, [and] their habits of mind.”

It’s great to address students by name, smile, personally greet and say goodbye to each student, and give students a voice in your classroom.

However, truly meaningful relationships require taking your efforts a step further.

Learn about your students and incorporate this knowledge into your interactions, your lesson planning, and your classroom environment.

If you’re not sure where to start, try connecting with students with using some of the powerful relationship-building strategies below!

Treat Students with Respect

Students don’t always feel comfortable opening up and sharing information with their teachers. To put students at ease, building trust and mutual respect is essential.

This means learning to control your response to student behaviors like whining, ignoring, talking back, or failing to follow directions. Before you address these situations, take a few deep, calming breaths. Then, respond in a calm and assertive voice.

Remember to correct behaviors without criticizing the student. For instance, avoid characterizing a student as lazy, disrespectful, rude, or bad.  Pay attention to your biases (even unintentional ones) with regards to race, religion, socioeconomic status, and special needs.  Everyone has them and recognizing how they impact your approach to students is key.

Especially with older children, do your best to address behavior privately. Many students do not respond well to being scolded in front of their friends. They may seek revenge or respond disrespectfully in an attempt to “save face” and avoid embarrassment in front of their peers.

Finally, give every student a fresh start every day. Holding grudges against students will prevent you from building positive relationships.

When you respond to students respectfully, avoid embarrassing or insulting them, and continue to welcome them into your classroom with a smile, they will take notice. They’ll begin to like, respect, and trust you enough to open the door to a meaningful relationship.

Talk About Yourself, Too

Opening up to your students is another way to encourage students to open up to you. Of course, you shouldn’t share every detail of your personal life. But you should be willing to show that you’re human too.

Share what you’re comfortable sharing, tell your students about your experiences at their age, and be willing to laugh and joke when appropriate.

If you make a mistake, own up to it. When you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. If you want to build relationships, being relatable and honest is far more important than being “perfect.”

“Getting to Know You” Surveys

Now that you’ve laid the foundation for a meaningful relationship, you can begin gathering information about your students.

Use beginning of year student questionnaires, interest inventories and scales, or worksheets like “What I Wish My Teacher Knew.”  Members can grab a free template here.

Ask about what they’re good at, what they enjoy about school, how they learn best, and what they do outside of the classroom. You can also gather info about favorite sports, instruments, movies, foods, favorite subjects, and more.

At the end of the survey, ask for anything else your student would like to share with you, or, “What’s something you want me to know that I haven’t already asked?”

Younger children can draw pictures of their favorite summer activity, their interests, or anything else you’d like to learn.

Teacher Mailbox

Often, students who present no behavior challenges and are quiet and shy fade into the background in the classroom. These students may feel nervous carrying on verbal conversations with the teacher, and they may be hesitant to ask questions in front of their peers.

For this reason, it’s very effective to have a teacher mailbox.

Students can “mail” you notes with questions, comments, or concerns. In this way, you ensure that the more reserved students don’t fall through the cracks.

Encouraging Post-It Notes

Another strategy for connecting with students is through the use of sticky notes. If a student does something great or helpful, leave an encouraging note on his or her desk.

If a student seems down, leave a note asking if they’re okay and reminding them that you’re available to talk. Even if the student doesn’t talk to you about how they’re feeling, the fact that you noticed and cared is important.

Student-Teacher Journals

Similarly, you can correspond with students through journals that move back and forth from the student to the teacher.

This even works digitally or with older students. One high school English teacher has her students submit Friday Free-Writes through her school’s learning management system, Canvas. Students have ten minutes to write on a teacher-supplied topic or whatever is on their minds.

Canvas allows the teacher to quickly read through student submissions and leave a comment. She responds only to the content of the free write (e.g. the student’s soccer game, stress a student is feeling over an upcoming test, a student’s musings on time travel) without providing evaluative feedback.

You may think teenagers would be indifferent to correspondence from a teacher. But when the teacher requests reflections/feedback at the end of each year, many students share how much they enjoyed and appreciated her comments on their free writes.

Don Graves Activity

Don Graves is a teacher and author who revolutionized the way writing and literacy are taught in schools. He once said, “If you don’t know 10 things about a child, you can’t teach them. If they don’t know 10 things about you, they won’t learn from you.”

To help you gauge how well you know your students, he suggests the following activity:

  • Create a three-columned chart or spreadsheet.
  • In the left column, list your students’ names from memory.
  • Write down one thing about each student that has nothing to do with school in the middle column.
  • In the right column, put a check mark if you’ve talked with the student about this piece of knowledge.

This is a reminder that the goal isn’t just to gather information about your students, but about connecting with students. You want students to recognize that you know them and care for them!  This also ensures that you don’t let more quiet students go unnoticed.

Putting Student Info into Practice

Once you know about your students and their interests, discuss these interests with your students.

Ask how their soccer game went, if they’ve seen the movie version of their favorite book yet, etc.

If they’re into art, compliment their latest art project. If they love collecting sneakers, notice when they get a new pair.

You can also try to incorporate their interests into your lessons and your classroom.

For example, use a basketball analogy to explain a new concept to a basketball player, or relate a novel you’re reading in class to a pop culture event your students are following.

Have students decorate a flag or a puzzle piece with symbols that represent their family, talents, interests, what they did over the summer, etc. Then decorate your classroom with these colorful representations of your students.

In addition, attend a few after-school activities if possible. If you have children on the soccer team, go to soccer games. If some of your students are in the school play, go watch it. Students love seeing their teachers at events that are important to them.

Final Thoughts on Connecting with Students

Being an effective teacher isn’t just about planning and delivering lessons. It’s certainly not just about test scores and other metrics.

An often-overlooked key to quality teaching and learning is relationship-building and connecting with students. They learn best from teachers who care.

Ensure that every student feels seen, understood, and important in your classroom. Listen to them, treat them with respect, and learn about their interests and strengths.

Learning and engagement will increase, and you’ll find more joy in teaching.

I am Kirsten Tulsian, an elementary educator with 18 years of experience as a teacher and counselor. My passion lies in empowering students to discover their inherent brilliance through the use of engaging, rigorous, and meaningful activities. I look forward to connecting with you!

Latest Posts