Teaching entails many things, but at its core, teaching is about relationships. Relationships breathe life into a curriculum that would otherwise be static; relationships also create a safe space for open discourse, they encourage exploration, confidence and respect. Most of us believe this and while we do our best to nurture strong relationships with students, we often feel them getting lost in the hum of daily activity and the increasing demands of our profession. Thanks to Joan Young’s recently published book, Encouragement in the Classroom, we’ve got six simple ways you can strengthen your relationships with students.
6 Simple Ways to Strengthen Student Engagement
Take a mindful walk
Mindfulness exercises have roots in Eastern religion, but you certainly don’t have to get into the lotus position, say “OM,” or adopt—or give up—a belief system to be mindful. All you and your students need to have is a willingness to stop and take notice of where you are—and have a little fun while doing it.
You can be mindful simply by taking a walk. In Young’s fourth grade class, she often takes students outside for a mindful walk just before math class. Students walk silently and observe with their senses: How does it feel outside? What do they see in the school environment that they have never noticed before?
As a playful variation, you might try a game of “Over, Under, Around, and Through.” In this game, the teacher decides whether students go over, under, around, or through imaginary or real objects. Here’s an example: Over a sea of sticky peanut butter, under a cherry tree, around an ice cream cone, or through a sea of Jell-O.
Why do this? Because it helps students prepare for tasks that require intense focus. It can also help them consolidate their learning after such tasks.
Teach the art of intention
Another way to strengthen student engagement is to begin every class with a “daily intention.” Intentions can be as simple as “Be curious” or “Breathe deeply.” Write these phrases on the board and model the skill; students can set an intention each day as well. Focus on process, not an end goal.
Young notes that even on days when she forgets to write an intention on the board, her students remind her. Why? Because they enjoy being a part of the process and seeing that their teacher shares their struggles to be patient, pay attention, or deal with stress.
Take a deep breath in the middle of a chaotic moment
We may spend hours planning. We may have prepared for every conceivable speed bump, but as all teachers know, learning can be a messy process. During times when disruption requires your immediate attention, call on a predetermined student; s/he will lead the class in a simple deep breaking exercise. Teaching students to concentrate on the breath as a means of grounding or regrouping can be powerful, especially when it is done routinely.
Start the day with a warm greeting
Think of yourself as a pilot. It’s your job to help students reach their destination and keep them safe through the turbulence. But it’s also your job to make them feel appreciated. Greet your students every day—show them that you’re ready to and eager to explore a day of learning with them. Help them to feel that they are in a safe, fun environment.
For example, say “hello, how are you?” to every student. If someone was absent the day before, say, “Hi, Johnny. I’m glad to have you back. We missed having you yesterday. I like that tie, I like that new haircut…” It won’t take long for you to notice how this simple gesture impacts your relationship with students.
Use playful rituals
This is especially useful with younger students. In her book, Young explains that she has a stuffed animal named Mr. Monkey. Every day, she places him in a different position or place in the classroom. On the morning after Halloween or the Super Bowl, for example, Mr. Monkey might be hanging upside down from the rocking chair, suggesting that he got a bit overexcited and out of control over the weekend. Other times, Mr. Monkey will lead the class in a song and come around to give students hugs. These routines provide a predictable, positive start to the day as well as a bit of a novelty.
Legitimize misbehavior: Turn it into a learning game
Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But with a little creativity, we can often turn “misbehavior” into a lesson.
In her book, Young reflects on a problem she had with her math students who continually engaged in a fad of flipping their erasers on their individual dry-eraser boards. Although this was fun for them, it was incredibly distracting to her and other students.
To refocus students, she created an opportunity for them to flip their erasers to their hearts’ content: For a lesson on measurement and estimating distances, Young set up an activity that had students using dry erase boards to propel the erasers across the room, marking their landing spots with masking tape, and then estimating distances. Pretty cool, huh?
Photo credit: Gates Foundation / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)