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The biggest paradigm shift in my teaching career was the day I found out one of my students was homeless. Robert was talkative, academically average, fooled around a little too much. Some weeks he turned in good work, and other times he didn’t. Among the 134 students that filled my rosters in my third year of teaching, he was a pretty typical seventh grade kid. But in March of that year, Robert was getting on my nerves: not turning in some of his work, talking out in class more than usual. I responded as I often did, with reprimands and lunch detention and generally feeling disappointed in him.
Then one afternoon, our guidance counselor mentioned in passing that Robert’s family was homeless. They had been living in a shelter for the last two months. My whole view of Robert changed in an instant. I thought about how much he’d probably gone through in the last few months, all the things he’d probably seen, how unpredictable and unstable his life was, and how all that time he managed to show up to school most days, turn in some assignments, and basically hold it together.
At that moment, I realized I didn’t really know my students at all.
Building solid relationships with your students is arguably the most important thing you can do to be an effective teacher. It helps you build trust so students take academic risks, allows you to better differentiate for individual needs, and prevents the kinds of power struggles often found in poorly managed classrooms.
Although most teachers value relationship-building, most don’t have any kind of systematic approach for making that happen. We get to know students whenever there’s time to squeeze it in, and this yields uneven results: Extroverted students make themselves known right away, others we get familiar with on a surface level, and far too many go largely unnoticed.
You’ll get to know your students faster and more thoroughly if you have a system in place, a way to make sure you give sufficient attention to every child and store the information you gather for easy access later. In my years teaching at the middle school and college level, I developed a 4-part system that worked beautifully for me, and I think it will work for you as well.
Classroom icebreakers are a classic strategy for helping everyone feel more comfortable on the first day of school. But not all icebreakers are created equal: Many can be irritating, others are embarrassing, and some do nothing to actually help students get to know each other, so it’s important to choose icebreakers that really help you and your students get acquainted in a comfortable, fun way.
You may already have some go-to icebreakers that you like. If not, here are three classroom icebreakers that students love.
In the first few days of school, distributing a getting-to-know-you questionnaire to students (or to their parents, if you teach young kids), is the most efficient way to gather information about every child. Most teachers already have some version of this, where we ask about students’ favorite books or music, learn about their favorite hobbies and sports.
On my forms, I have also asked about whether my students have any health or allergy issues, what kind of technology they have at home, and whether their time is split between more than one household. For older students, I would also ask about outside responsibilities like jobs or extracurricular activities, so I know what else is competing for students’ time. If you don’t already have a form you like to use, I have created a nice set of editable Student Inventories for six separate age groups that will get the job done.
While you’re at it, take time now to learn how to pronounce each student’s name correctly, and what they prefer to be called. This makes a big difference.
Now that you have gathered all kinds of information on students, you need to do something with it. For most teachers, that means reading over the student surveys, then filing them away somewhere, never to be looked at again. Instead of letting this valuable information slip away, I have found it far more useful to store it all in one spreadsheet like the one below (click to view a larger image in a new window).
The biggest advantage of having all the information in one place is that it makes it easy to occasionally refresh your memory. If I’m planning a lesson that has something to do with cooking, I can quickly glance down the “skills” column to see which of my students likes to cook. Imagine Jaylen’s surprise when I casually mention something about omelets and say, “like Jaylen makes.” Or how Toby would feel if I asked him how his cat Mooshoo was doing. The beauty of this kind of system is that it can, and should, be updated throughout the year. As I learn new things about my students, I can keep adding to the chart. Finally, it allows me to see which students I still don’t know very well: Notice how many cells in Tim’s row are empty. That’s a signal that I need to spend more time with him.
If you have a lot of students—and in middle and high school, that could easily be well over a hundred—this kind of data entry can be time-consuming. Still, the effort is worth it, and I would argue that the more students you have, the more valuable this kind of chart can be, because the chances of spending quality time with each student are slim. So make a separate chart for every class period and do five students per class, per night. Use whatever shorthand you can to cut down on the typing time. Chip away at it until it’s done. You’ll be glad you did.
When I originally introduced this system in a post I did for Corkboard Connections, I called it the Deep Data at a Glance Chart. In the 2015 book I co-wrote with Mark Barnes, Hacking Education, we changed the name to the 360 Spreadsheet. Regardless of what you call it, it will make a huge difference in your relationships with students. To get an editable version of this chart to make your own, you can download one for free here.
The beginning of the school year isn’t the only time to touch base with students. Several times throughout the year, or at the halfway point at the very least, survey students about how things are going for them. Ask how they feel about class procedures and rules, whether the assignments are fair, and how challenged they feel. It’s also useful to ask open-ended questions like “What would you like to see more of in this class?” and “What else should I know?” These kinds of questions can uncover all kinds of information that you might never have known about otherwise.
Teachers often administer a survey like this at the end of the year, but I’ve found it much more useful to ask partway through, while there’s still an opportunity to make changes that can turn things around. If you’d like a ready-made form for this purpose, I have created a “How’s It Going?” form for two age levels: Elementary and Secondary/College.
Getting to know students sounds like a simple thing to do, something that just comes naturally and doesn’t require any planning. Unfortunately, we don’t always end up putting as much effort into this as we think. As we teach classroom procedures, get bus and lunch forms filled out, and begin diving into our content, relationship-building can fall by the wayside. By putting this system into place, you ensure that one of your most important jobs—getting to know each and every student—is done exceptionally well. ♥