After yesterday's post about the negative side of my mathematics experience, I could sit and talk about this topic forEVER. This is where I excel.

I said to my friend Rachel once that I wish there was a job where I could decorate classrooms and do the clubs and just sit and talk with students all day, without teaching math. "Oh," she says, "you want to be a parent." While that is super true, my classroom and my students will have to do.

Disclaimer: I feel like some of this comes naturally because I teach at a tiny school where the students have gone to school together all of their lives and everyone knows everyone.

  • Names! I always know everyone's names before day 1. I have the same students every year so I only have to learn freshman names and I usually know 80% of them already by...osmosis or something. I also go out of my way to make sure I pronounce them correctly and ask if they want me to call them something else.
  • Laughter! I try to throw in some jokes right off the bat to release the tension and awkwardness of school starting. It's not as great as when it spontaneously happens throughout the year but it helps.
  • Greetings! I definitely have rbf and the students always say they think I am mean until they actually have me in class. I'm always at the door but it's very hard for me to not cross my arms so I look mean but I try to give compliments or ask questions to students as they come in or pass by. As the year progresses, I can see it manifest more when the students greet me first or come talk between classes. Also, once the bell rings and class starts, I like to ask the class how they are doing, how was lunch, how are they feeling, etc. I don't get a huge response but one time a student told me I'm the only teacher who actually cares about how they are doing. The little things matter.
  • Compliments! I try to give compliments often but only authentic ones. I know when we'v moved from a class to a community when students give me compliments back. I don't want that to sound weird or anything, but it's like they start out really focused on themselves and I feel like when they start to give me compliments, they recognize that I am a person too.
  • Birthdays! My first day of school activity always involved them writing down their name, birthday, and their favorite candy. I tell them that I will bring them candy for their birthday and immediately the heads swivel in disbelief. When the first student's birthday comes up and I *actually* bring them candy, I immediately have buy in. Even if you don't want to buy candy, there's a million things you can do: send out a class Remind birthday message, write it on the board, give them a sticker or pencil, let them sit in your chair, draw a message on their desk, etc. Celebrations matter.
  • Random questions! Every week I post two random questions and ask students to respond. I always read them and respond back. When students start to ask random questions out loud during class or 'save' a random question they've found to tell me, I consider that a success.
  • Questions! This is my favorite way to get to know people of any age. Ask them about anything. Start by asking every kid about their weekend, if they would like to share anything. Then, just look for ways each day to ask them questions about anything. How did the game go? Did you dye your hair? Where did you get that shirt? Where do you work? What did you do for your birthday? If you actually like your students, you will naturally want to know more about them anyway. But be prepared for them to start asking you questions to....my favorite movie/song/book are always the hardest for me to answer.
  • Body language! As the year goes on and students are coming in to class, I start to see more eye contact, head up, smiles, and talking as they enter the room. Then when I see eyes downcast or shoulders slumping, I can take the time to ask if they are okay. Just notice the children are actual children, k? And don't assume the negative body language has anything to do with you.
  • Classroom jokes! You can't really make them happen but once they do, I love to bring them up again so we can laugh together. There is never too much laughing together.
  • Sharing! When students share their pencils or their knowledge or repeat the directions for each other without my prompting, I feel like they care about each other and are looking out for one another. 
  • Pictures! I have a bulletin board decorated to kind of look like an instagram feed and each month I have a theme. I ask students to send me pictures related to that theme and keep the board full all the time. Everyone wants to be seen!
  • Extracurriculars! For me this is mostly sports but anytime you can spend time with students outside of the classroom, you add in another dimension to your relationship and perspective. Going to games and concerts to see students perform show them that you literally, will show up for them. 
  • Traditions! Every Monday, I ask them about their weekend. Before we go on breaks, I ask them what they are looking forward to. At the end of the year,  I give out an award to every single student in every single class. I also give them a list of nice things their classmates said about them. No one ever wants to miss that day and it is a great way to wrap up the year. On picture day, we all take a class picture too. On the last day before Christmas break, we have a Christmas sweater day and I always show the movie Elf. It's my favorite Christmas movie and the kids know it. I don't give free days. Now this might sound weird to say out loud but I'm one of the only teachers who abides by this. As the students get older and the classes get harder, they will tell me they came back from a doctor's appointment just for my class or they were sick but came because they didn't want to miss math or even not go on field trips because they don't want to miss class. Now they say they don't want to get behind in class but I also know it's a little bit because they don't want to miss me. ;)
  • Effort! I preach all day every day that effort is attractive in all areas of life. I think the students enjoy my classroom because I've built a classroom culture of effort. I put effort into everything: how I dress, how my classroom looks, how my curriculum works, how I teach, how I treat people. And it shows! I mean imagine....out of all the classrooms you visit each day, only one has Kleenex and air freshener and decorations of any kind and pictures of you and your friends and water and cups for you to drink out of and a teacher who asks about you and asks you things and is happy to be here and happy that you are too.

To me, the key to students feeling like they belong is making them feel connected to you. They need to feel noticed. And every day has hundreds of little moments to connect. Those repeated moments build all year into a beam of support that each student can add to their network. And each beam takes them a little closer to who they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do.

And I just can't leave this post without saying.....if you don't really like students, why are you even a teacher! If you like your students, it should be somewhat natural to get to know them better. But I also recognize that when you are good at something, it can be hard to put into words since it does seem so natural to you. So while these seem so obvious to me, I really hope it can trigger something for you to try or share as well.

I would love to talk more about this in the comments or on Twitter!

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