Making Connections With Students: It’s the Little Things!

I am currently in my 16th year of teaching. I have taught at 4 different schools in my career, two of them in small towns, and two of them in the city. I have taught grade 8 through grade 12, mostly math, with a few other subjects thrown in. I have mostly enjoyed my time as a teacher, a lot of ups with a few downs. I have never been the most organized teacher, I have never been very creative in how I deliver content or assess students, but I have always felt that I was a pretty good math teacher, just maybe not a great math teacher. However, when people have asked me over the years what my greatest strength is as a teacher, I have always responded that I feel like I am good at connecting with my students. And I have always felt as though this was one of the most important things we as teachers can do.

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Every teacher is different, and I believe this is a good thing. We need all sorts of teachers with different strengths, different styles, and different perspectives. And every student is different as well. We as teachers cannot make a student like us, or make a student love our subject area, but every teacher can make an attempt to connect with their students. This is something that we, as teachers, can control.

When I think back to my high school experience, I don’t necessarily remember the most organized teachers or the most intelligent teachers or the funniest teachers, but I do remember the teachers that I connected with. I remember the teachers that took an interest in the things I did outside of school. I remember the teachers that were caring and kind. I remember the teachers that were fair and listened to me. I remember the teachers that gave up their time to coach, direct, or run a club. I remember the teachers that made an effort. When I entered the teaching profession, I aspired to be and do all these things that I admired in my teachers.

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To this day, when I run into a former student, we don’t talk about that amazing math lesson I did, we talk about the trip we took together, or the close basketball game we won (or lost), or the musical we did together. And I do the same when I run into my former teachers. Connecting with students is a huge part of what we do, and students will remember and hold onto that.

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We can do small things as teachers to connect with students, they don’t have to be big things like coaching a sport or directing a musical. It may be as simple as saying hello in the morning or asking how their day is going. It may be as simple as asking about their interests, or going to seem them play a game, or sing at the choir concert. It may be as simple as opening up and letting them know something personal about yourself. It may be as simple as listening to their concerns and giving them a voice. It may be as simple as getting to know the student and their story.

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Of course all of the other stuff is important too. I think that all teachers should be organized and professional and experts in their content area, but I think that we get too wrapped up in the day to day grind. Curriculum, timelines, professional development, assessments, planning. Sometimes we lose sight of the small things that can mean a lot to our students. If we take the time to connect with our students it will make a difference. It did for me. So thank you to all of my teachers that connected with me. And I encourage all of the teachers who read this to continue the work they do to connect with their students. It will make all the difference in the world.

If you are in the mood for sharing, let me know what you do to make connections with students or share a memory from your own school experience. I would love to hear from you!


22 thoughts on “Making Connections With Students: It’s the Little Things!

  1. Hi, Ryan. I agree. Connecting with students is the most important thing to do. One of the interns on staff traveled with me to Greece. I remember one student talking about how transformative one of those trips was for him. It made him want to travel overseas. By the way, sharing your pictures in your blog makes me want to zip off again. Thanks for sharing your gifts with the students at school. You have many.

    • Thanks for your comment Gwen and thank you for your kind words. I have so many great memories of travelling with students. Both on Europe Trips and trips within Canada like choir trips or ski trips. It is such a great experience to get students our of the classroom and the school to build relationships and get to know them on a different level.

  2. Couldn’t agree more – relationships are crucial and they are what makes our job so amazing!!! Thanks for sharing – loved looking at all of your pics! It’s a good reminder that teaching practice is of course important but relationships with students can’t be over shadowed by it. I would say that the relationship is even more important. It’s often the glue and the stickiness that gets the kids to want to engage in what you’re ‘teaching’.

    • Yes, absolutely. I think that making connections with students can build the pathway to engagement. If a student connects with you and trusts you as a teacher, they will be more willing to engage with what you are teaching them. It is worth spending time on.

      Thanks for the comment Shauna! Glad you enjoyed the pics!

  3. I’m with you, Ryan! Sometimes it feels so easy to get caught up in the planning, marking, organizing, reporting, etc., and we lost sight of the most important thing on our to-do list: building relationships with kids. One simple thing that I enjoy is beginning each week with “talk time”, where my kids share one thing about their weekend. Over the year, I like that it builds a picture for me of how they spend some of their time at home and with their families. I have really enjoyed blogging as a way to get to know my kids better, too. I usually have students complete some kind of blogging challenge, where they post once a week about a highlight of their week.

    Great post!

    • Thanks for the comment! And thanks for sharing! I really enjoy talking to my students about their lives outside of school. I also enjoy just talking about current events and things going on in our world. And I know my students love it when we talk about anything besides math, lol.

      I am seriously considering trying to get one of my classes to set up a blog for math. I have loved the process of blogging and wonder if it could work for math. I’m glad to hear that it is working for you and your students.

  4. Great post! I was just in a conversation online with some teachers about the need to connect with students this morning! We have got to meet them where they are. It is cliche, but students really don’t care what we know until they feel we care about them. I have some difficult students, but as I connect with them, the difficulties start to melt away. Great job. You are awesome, Teacher Ryan!

    • Thank you so much! I appreciate your comments. It might be a cliché but it is true! Our students need to feel cared about and supported in order to have success, especially the “difficult” or marginalized students. Many of our students are dealing with so much in their lives outside of the school, and we sometimes forget that. If we take the time to get to know the students story and connect with them, you might get to the core of the issue. And when that happens, you are on somewhat level ground, and can move forward together. We need to offer a safe and caring environment for all of our students. Thanks again! YOU are awesome!

  5. Thanks for the great post Ryan and comments from everyone else. I especially like your photos. Like Gwen says it makes me want to go back to Europe again. Uuhhh! Anyways I don’t have much to add. I agree with all that has been said. The little things teachers did like ask how your weekend was goes a long way. I think even bigger for me were those teachers that did not thing they were so “above” or better than the students, that they knew all the answers. They did not take lightly to those challenging answers or ways of doing things. It was those teachers that met us at the level we were at, encouraged us and took an active role in our learning and were passionate about teaching, learning and the student that I remember.

    • Thanks Greg! And I agree whole-heartedly. I too appreciated teachers that did not put themselves and the content they taught on a pedestal. I have always tried to keep my ego out of the classroom. I acknowledge when I make mistakes, I allow students to try and attack a problem in a different way. I try not to make my methods too sacred. Thanks again for the comments!

  6. Hey Ryan! Great post and one that I agree whole-heartedly with! I spent a year teaching math in England and it was challenging to say the least. I remember feeling completely defeated because I could never get them to sit down and learn the math! My university prof gave me the best advice: forget about the math, get to know the students. Learn who the power players are and get to know your students. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Anyway, I took his advice, and ended up connecting with a difficult student over the craziest thing….Ice Road Truckers. It hadn’t even aired in Canada at that time, but it was quite popular in England and the student was completely fascinated with it. It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there, but having that connection certainly made some days a lot easier! And as you said, it’s the relationships and connections that students remember…not that brilliant algebra lesson. Thanks for posting!

    • Thanks for the comments Lindsay! And thanks for sharing your story. I am glad that you mentioned that after you connected with that student it wasn’t all clear sailing because this is true for all of us. Making connections doesn’t magically solve all of your problems but you are slowly bridging that gap and hopefully making that student feel like they are safe and they belong, or at the very least, they are learning to trust you. And your story just proves that you never know what you might have in common with a student until you try and find out!

  7. Teachers can learn strategies, curriculum, organization. But the ability to make another person feel valued is something that comes naturally and cannot be faked. I would take that kind of teacher over the “excellent academic” every time. Even better when they know they have things to learn and share it.

    • Thanks Tami! I think it is great when teachers have a bit of humility and can admit when they are wrong or that they are still learning as they go. I think that students appreciate that. I am constantly learning new things and enjoy sharing those things with my students. Thanks again for the comment!

  8. Well said! I believe in the power of relationships and trust. I find that working with special needs students relationships and trust are especially important. Many of my students have people in and out of their lives constantly, social workers, service providers, caregivers, EA’s, etc. Many times the teacher is the constant in their lives for 10 months, so creating a relationship build on trust is important and something the students value.
    I have a student that came to my classroom from elementary school after working with a specialist teacher since Kindergarten. The first 2 years were a struggle. He was withdrawn, uncooperative, and attendance was an issue. I started with activities that were of interest to him, positive feedback/humor, and honesty. Once I figured out that he responded positively to humor I ran with it. A few years after that, he was opening up to the point that he was talking to me about his home life, which he had never shared. This conversation provided an explanation to many questions the teaching staff had. To me, this was a breakthrough. We had created a relationship build on trust and was open to help that I could provide.
    My advise to interns, educational assistants, and support staff is to build positive relationships and the rest will follow. I share this at the beginning of each year.
    Thanks for sharing, Ryan! Your students are lucky to have you in their lives!

    • Thanks Shaela, you are too kind. I am always in awe of teachers, like yourself, that work with special needs students. And I think you are right, it is especially important to build relationships with these students, and often more challenging. But once you do, it can be really amazing. I also agree with your point that sometimes a teacher is the more constant people in many of our students lives. So it is that much more reason to try and make connections with the students.

      Thank you so much for your comments and thank you for sharing your personal story. There is not doubt that you made a difference in that students life and helped him and his teachers improve his learning.

  9. Relationships are huge. I was in my last school for eight years. I miss it. But I’m in a new school now and all I’m doing is working hard to build relationships once again. It takes time. Today I photobombed two of my students taking a “selfie”. One said, “Mr. Grayston, that’s why you’re my favourite teacher.” What a great feeling being welcomed into a new school!

    Keep up the good work with your kids!

    • Thanks for the comments Jason. You bring up an interesting point. We as teachers are constantly working to build new relationships and make new connections every time we switch schools or get a new class of unfamiliar faces. So well done Mr. Grayson! It looks like you are already making a good impression at your new school!

    • Thank you so much Jessica! I loved my time at Usher and have many great memories of the students there, yourself included. I still love to reminisce about those Europe trips, and choir trips, and musicals, and basketball seasons. Great memories. Thanks for the comments!

  10. Ryan – thanks for sharing this post – I’ve been talking a lot with my pre-service undergrads about the importance of relationship building, and I may just have to share your post with them. It’s also awesome to see the many comments on your post – it speaks to the relationships you’ve built with others in the class and to the excellent work you do in inviting others into your posts!

    • Thank you so much Katia! I appreciate the kind words. I have to admit, I have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of traffic I have been getting to my blog and overwhelmed by all the amazing comments that people have been leaving. I have really enjoyed the blogging experience so far and have found it a wonderful way to connect with people and have some great dialogue about what is happening in the education business.

      Thanks Katia! Cheers!

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