Neat Update, Fall 2020: This strategy has been featured at Cult of Pedagogy! You can find it here.
When we intentionally track moments of genuine connection with students, starting with the first day of school, a few important things happen:
- We connect with every kid. Using a clipboard and a single sheet of paper with all 120 or so of my students' names, I can quickly see who I've connected with lately, and who I haven't.
- We get better at connecting, faster. Genuinely connecting with a child — and by this, I mean creating a 1-3 minute situation in which that child feels known, valued, or respected — is a skill. Complex, yes — it's more like painting a picture than tying your shoes — but a skill nonetheless. As such, it requires earnest practice. If you track moments of genuine connection, you'll be more likely to put in the work.
- Kids will have more reason to believe that they belong in your class. I want all of my students to believe that people like them do work like the work we'll do in my class. Not only do we do the work — we do it with care. Many of my students do not walk into the classroom holding this belief — and many of yours don't, either. The good news is that, through moments of genuine connection, we can cultivate this Belonging belief during the few minutes we have, here and there, at the start or end of a class, or during independent work time, and so on.
- Kids will think you're a better teacher. The Credibility belief is affected by students' perceptions of our CCP: Care, Competence, and Credibility. Moments of genuine connection greatly enhance the degree to which kids find us to be caring. (I outline all five key beliefs beneath student motivation here.)
Moments of genuine connection aren't resource-intensive; they don't require intensive planning or huge swaths of our time. Financially, they're free — zero drain on the budget. Except for the clipboard.
So: get the clipboard, get all the names on a single sheet of paper, and print a few copies of that sheet. And then, get to work.
Before you dive in, a quick reminder: The point of your class isn't moments of genuine connection. If we spend all our time and energy connecting with kids and none of it teaching them to master our course material, then we're forsaking the call. We've got to create a higher standard for ourselves than that. So we use a very small amount of strategies (like moments of genuine connection, or pop-up debates, or purposeful annotation) to yield greater amounts of mastery, all the while keeping in view that the point of mastering world history or biology or calculus or physical education is that it promotes the long-term flourishing of a child.
I don't send my children to school each day hoping that they'll connect with the teacher. I assume that the teacher will work to connect with my child so as to maximize my child's growth in that teacher's class, which will in turn increase her odds of flourishing long-term.
So: make them consistent, and keep them in perspective of the long-term goals we have for our work. And don't forget to make them real — the word genuine is there for a reason. Because when they're genuine, one more cool thing starts to happen besides the bulleted list above: we increase the odds that, today, there will be moments of joy for us.
These themes and strategies are treated in greater depth in my book, These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most.