Like most kids, my 9-year-old son doesn’t like bedtime. In fact, he does everything he can to postpone it and, just between us, he is good at it. One of his favorite tricks is to ask me about work. I like to pretend he is interested, but I’m sure he knows it is a topic that will get me talking. Either way, I usually oblige him.
The other night, I replied I was working on a training to help teachers with “connectedness.” Given his puzzled look, I explained further. “When we come back to school in the fall, I want to help teachers prioritize building relationships, getting to know each student individually, relating to all families, connecting with colleagues.” My son interrupted me by exclaiming, “YES!!! Can you make sure MY teacher goes?”
I’m not sure what the fall might bring to my home or our schools, virtual schooling, blended scheduling, or something yet imagined. But what I do know, something even my 9-year-old son knows, relationships are going to be critical to our success. Whatever happens this school year, let’s not forget that school is so much more than academics, it’s about relationships, social connections, and emotional growth. Let’s make these areas a priority as we head into the fall and continue that focus through the school year. Let’s make a point of connecting to our students, connecting to our students’ families, and connecting to our colleagues. But how? Here are some suggestions.
Connect to Students
Learn their names and personal info
Make time for individual conversations
Plan for social emotional learning
School, learning, and social networks are so interrelated, it is hard to talk about one in isolation. Even as adults, when we think back at our school memories, a lot of them are linked to social connections. Because of the pandemic, connecting with students takes on a new sense of significance and urgency. Here are some quick ways to prioritize this. Learn your students’ names and a few personal facts about each one, as quickly as you can. On the first day of school, have each student write his/her name and 3 personal facts on an index card. You can use them to play a game like “Guess Who,”or you can just study them like flashcards to learn about your students. Each day, maybe several times a day, make time for individual conversations. Purposefully plan it; two minutes at the beginning of each period, two minutes at the end of each period, 5 minutes before lunch, 3 minutes before dismissal. Make a list of your students and make sure you are speaking with each one on a regular basis, once a day, twice a week, once a week. Finally, intentionally plan for social emotional learning and activities that promote connections. I know academics are important, but students learn best from teachers with whom they have a connection. So take the time, on a regular basis, to engage with your students in an activity designed to promote relationships and social emotional learning. If you’re struggling with an activity, check out CASEL or Connects U!.
Connect to Parents/Caregivers
Plan for regular, positive communication at home
Develop a “postcard template”
Leverage your technology
Uncertainty can lead to heightened emotional feelings and reactions from everyone, including parents and caregivers. Obviously, this year will bring uncertainty in a lot of ways, but be empowered to take control of what you can. Connecting with your students’ parents/caregivers will be critical this year and something that is best done proactively. So, plan for regular, positive communication home by making a scheduled routine of sending information. Pick a day of the week, and send a quick update home to all your parents/caregivers. This consistent schedule will help to alleviate some of the uncertainty families might be feeling. It will also make it less likely that you will have to “put out fires” throughout the week. Another strategy is to develop a “postcard template” to quickly fill out and send home as a form of acknowledgment and praise. Having a template allows you to save a few minutes with each correspondence, while also allowing you to personalize it to each student. Print a stack of templates out and complete 2 or 3 a day. Or save the template digitally, personalize it, then print it. The students will love bringing them home, the parents will love reading them, and you will love the positive effect it will have on you! Finally, leverage your technology to stay connected. Many learning platforms have systems to connect with parents. Take the time to know how to use this feature, and use it throughout the year to quickly stay connected with families.
Connect to Colleagues
Offer praise frequently and honestly
Be intentional about making time
Adopt a project or work towards a common goal
As educators looking at this school year, you know this year is going to be unique, there is no denying it. Outside of your colleagues, it’s likely very few people will have a true understanding of the experiences and feelings of this year. Because of that, you must prioritize your relationships with colleagues as a form of self-care. You can start by giving yourself a pat on the back, as well as your colleagues. Now and throughout the year, offer praise frequently and honestly to each other for everything and anything! You can express praise verbally, through email, or through a handwritten note. You can acknowledge colleagues publicly through an “old fashion” shout-out bulletin board or through technology like a padlet or social media. Also, be intentional about making time to see each other; set a time for a virtual coffee break, play a game during lunch, pair up for duties, get a partner for virtual instruction. Whether you are virtual or face-to-face, it is important that you are purposeful about scheduling time to be seen by your colleagues and connect. As a staff, adopt a project or work towards a common goal. Your imagination is really the limit here; have a food drive, do a walkathon, start a book club, compete in a staff readathon, or learn to paint together. Working together to complete a project or achieve a common goal is a great way to build a positive community.
No matter what this school year might throw at us, it’s undoubtedly the relationships that will be the foundation of its success! So be intentional about connecting to students, their families, and your colleagues. You’ve got this; together we’ve got this!
Dr. Megan Horsh is an Educational Consultant at Appalachia IU8. She is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and spent almost two decades working in education as a school psychologist. She consults on topics related to positive behavior support, classroom management, social emotional learning, multi-tier systems of support, literacy, and mathematics. She is also trained in trauma-informed practices in the school.