As I've shared before, relationships are not the point of a teacher's work, but they are one of teaching's most fundamental currencies and most gratifying rewards. With more American schools than ever before launching into all-online starts, many teachers are concerned with just how to build strong relationships with students from afar.
The good news is that we're not without resources in answering this challenge. There is much we know about building relationships with students in normal circumstances and much of that knowledge will transfer. One pillar of any sound approach is tracking moments of genuine connection; with minor tweaks, this is as effective in remote learning scenarios as it is in person.
The thing is, not all moments of genuine connection are successfully connective…
After a moment of genuine connection, we want students to feel valued, known, or respected. This produces all kinds of benefits, like enhancing belonging, reducing stereotype threat, and strengthening our teacher credibility.
The thing is, such feelings are not guaranteed after an interaction. Just because I pull Susan aside and ask her how yesterday's video game tournament was and tell her that I was thinking of her while it was happening doesn't mean that Susan will feel valued, known, and respected. Perhaps she was distracted by a fly during my attempt, or maybe I unintentionally offended her the day before, or she was in a hurry to get back to whatever she had been doing before I pulled her aside.
My point is that you and I are not omnipotent over whether or not an attempted MGC is a successful one. This realization grounds us in our finitude.
…and that's okay.
The effectiveness of tracking MGCs doesn't come from them producing perfect results each time we attempt them. Rather, the effectiveness comes from consistently attempting to genuinely connect with all students. Each of those words matters.
- Consistency: I set a goal to connect with three students per roster per day. I keep my clipboard out on my desk so that the sight of it jogs my memory to make at least three MGC attempts. I use a different color of ink each day so that I can see how many attempts I made per roster per day. This bar is low enough that I am able to consistently clear it; when I find myself falling short, it's not hard to readjust.
- Attempting (vs ensuring): I completely control how many attempts I make per day. When I focus on work that I control, I find myself liberated, motivated, and free.
- Genuine (vs perfunctory): When I catch myself going through the motions of MGCs or not really caring about the student in front of me, it's a signal that I need to do some internal work. (That's a whole different post or book.) This work is worth attending to because people are sensitive to insincerity — it's more obvious than we think.
- Connect: I'm specifically hoping to make a child feel valued, known, and respected when I speak with them. I seek to connect over a balance of academic and personal topics.
- All students: Few things enhance belonging in a classroom (and reduce stereotype threat) like a teacher who keeps track of who they have sought to genuinely connect with. When we keep track of MGCs and discipline ourselves to “fill the sheet” before moving on to a new one, we break down the invisible barriers that leave students feeling marginalized.
But with that said, MGCs are an improvable skill and we'd be silly not to work at improving them.
Like shooting a basket or throwing a trident (why not?), MGCs are something we can get better at. This is my favorite theme from Kate Murphy's You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters (Kindle, hardcover, audiobook).
In the book, Murphy describers how neuroscientist Uri Hasson used fMRI scans to demonstrate that the greater the overlap between a speaker’s brain activity and a listener’s brain activity, the better the communication (or for our purposes, the better the connection). In one experiment, subjects listened to a conversation partner describe a scene from the BBC television series Sherlock. During the recollection, the speaker’s brain waves looked much the same as when the speaker was actually watching the show. Upon hearing the story, the listeners’ brains began to show the same neural pattern as the speaker’s. It's a literal mind-meld — a genuine, invisible connection.
While you and I don't have the luxury of connecting with all of our students on shows as sublime as Sherlock, we are after what Uri Hasson measured in his studies. Thankfully, Kate Murphy also gives us a simple set of questions that we can use to train ourselves to listen (and thereby connect) better during our MGC attempts.
Murphy's three questions for listening
Murphy argues that would-be MGCers can test how well they listen in a given MGC attempt by answering three simple questions:
- What did I learn about the person I was speaking with?
- What was the person most concerned about?
- How was this person feeling about what we spoke about?
(I have a checklist for this that you can download — it's at the end of this post.)
If we can’t answer those three questions, then chances are the person we were speaking with didn’t feel very listened to. In other words, we can use these as a self-diagnostic to get a sense of how well we connected with a given student.
How to train yourself to get better at moments of genuine connection using Murphy's three questions
Step 1: Print five copies of the checklist I created based on Murphy's work.
Step 2: Go about a day of teaching, attempting an MGC for at least five students throughout the day. Keep track of your MGCs using whatever simple system you've already developed (I used a clipboard), but don't do anything with the checklist yet.
Step 3: During your prep or after your school day finishes, get out the checklist and complete it to the best of your ability. Where you can honestly answer, write a description. Where you can't, write an X.
Now this is important: really be honest. What we're trying to do is diagnose how well we are listening during our MGC attempts. This is a self-inspection tool. Was I really listening to my students today, or was I going through the motions? If we can't answer these three questions, Murphy argues, it's unlikely that our students felt fully listened to.
Step 4: Give yourself a score by counting up your Xs. Like golf, the goal in this game is to have a low score.
Step 5: Repeat steps 1-4 for each of the next four days. This gives us enough reps to see a steady picture of where our listening is.
Step 6: Now you've got enough data to identify next steps. Some options:
- If over the last few days your score is acceptably low (say, 3 or fewer Xs), make a reminder in your phone or on your calendar to fill out a new checklist once every two weeks or so. Even better, print five of them off and ask a colleague to randomly hand one to you at the end of any school day over the next two months. From here on out, these checklists will serve as semi-regular “check-ups” of your listening.
- If by the end of the five days your score is still higher than you want it to be, start back at Step 1. This is an intentionally brief exercise, so there's no point rushing past it if you're not where you want to be.
- If you'd like to take your listening game to the next level, consider checking out Kate Murphy's book (Kindle, hardcover, audiobook). It's quick, lively, and generously insightful.
I hope this helps.