By: Sari Laberis
Educators all know that keeping students connected and engaged is critical to their success in school. This can of course be challenging, especially as the school year progresses.
How can you help build deep and meaningful relationships with students and families? How can you keep students motivated? And, how can you make sure your teaching remains fresh and fun?
I recently spoke to a group of award-winning teachers from across the country and they shared their tips and best practices to help ensure a successful school year for all.
Make students feel welcomed
Greeting students at the door when they arrive is a great way to show them you care and start the day off positively.
“Just being there and being present. I meet students at the door, and we say good morning every day. We start the morning with ‘How are you doing how’s your day?’ And if they’ve had a bad day, we’re going to change that up. If their day’s great, we’re going to keep it going great.” – Becki Cope, kindergarten teacher in Desoto County Schools in Mississippi
“We try to stand out there and just smile at them and tell everyone ‘Good morning, how are you doing?’ You know, just take one or two seconds to interact with them. Letting them know you’re trying to get to know them I think is important, especially for middle schoolers, and that you care enough to stand at your door and speak to them in the mornings.” – Jessica Medley, eighth-grade math teacher in Phenix City Schools in Alabama
Providing positive affirmations – and inviting students to repeat those affirmations themselves – is another way to help students feel welcomed and appreciated. It also helps to build their confidence.
“I’m really big on doing affirmations. I remind students, ‘You are a winner. You are a champion. You are worthy. You are a great thinker.’ You don’t necessarily have to be smart. You have to put forth the effort. When my students put forth the effort, I say, ‘oh, you worked so hard’ instead of saying ‘you’re so smart.’ Because if you miss a question, does that mean you’re not smart? No. You worked hard at it and that’s what’s important.” – Sharicka Gray, an elementary school teacher in Columbus Municipal School District in Mississippi
Build relationships with students and their families
Developing positive relationships with students starts with getting to know them and taking a genuine interest in the things they care about. It’s also important to let them know you’re there for them, even on their bad days.
“I think one of the most important things you can learn in order to get to know the student, I think, is get to know their interests. I know last year I had a little boy who loved to fish. I don’t know anything about fishing (but) if I needed to pull him in, I’d say ‘Hey, it’s like if you went fishing and you did this.’ My son played hockey. That was all that mattered to him. And I remember his third-grade teacher let him bring in all of his equipment and that meant the world to him. I also have parents fill out a survey about their children. Did they go to preschool? Do they have siblings? Are they the oldest? Are they the youngest? What does your child like to do? Do they like blocks? Do they like hot wheels? What kind of things interest your child? Just getting to know them and figuring out how I can use what they like to motivate them is important.” – Becki Cope
“I teach middle school and students are going through a lot at this age. So just being there for them, even on their bad days, and telling them ‘Hey, if you need anything, let me know. If you need me, I’m here’ is really important.” – Jessica Medley
Relationships with students’ families are just as important. Calling parents to share the good news about their child can be a great way to make those connections.
“I make sure I am calling parents. They know my number personally. I’m constantly sending them pictures of their child reading. Or telling them ‘Your child did really good on her lesson today. Make sure you give her a high five.’ I’m involving them in their child’s education even when they’re at work or if they can’t be there. I’ll send them a text message ‘Thank you so much for helping them with their homework last night,’ just small things to let them know I appreciate them. And I have their support. If I tell the parents ‘I need you to work with them on comprehension,’ they say ‘Okay. Ms. Gray, you said this is what you need? I’m doing this.’” – Sharicka Gray
Keep students motivated throughout the year
Offering rewards for positive behavior can be a powerful motivator for students. It becomes a fun challenge for them while helping to reinforce good behavior, positive attitudes, and hard work.
“My school uses the positive behavior intervention and we use Positive Paws. Positive Paws are a little square piece of paper ticket students can earn in the hallways for being quiet or in the classroom for listening, or for doing their work. Every adult in the building has them and can pass them out. Those really get the kids motivated. If you have five tickets, you can trade those in to sit with the teacher at lunch. I have one of those green Adirondack plastic chairs you get at Walmart. And I said, if you want to sit there, it’s 10 tickets, just silly things like that. They can sit in the teacher’s chair to do their morning work. You know, things like that to just get them earning more tickets and wanting to do more work, to motivate them.” – Becki Cope
It can sometimes be a struggle to keep students engaged as the school year goes on. Try teaching lessons in new ways and find opportunities to have students take the lead.
“Having small group instruction and rotations and stations in eighth grade is very helpful. The kids are more engaged. You’re going to have less kids asleep. you’re going to have less kids getting into trouble. And they just enjoy it more. One week I was teaching the geometry unit and three of the kids were asleep. I was like, this is so boring. I’ve got to figure out a different way to teach this. So, I came up with this whole project where they would go into groups and make their own posters. Or they could make a TikTok (video) documenting their process and create slides about it. They were just so much more engaged and everybody was working. Sometimes as a teacher, you have to step back and say, this isn’t working. Try something new. Don’t be afraid.” – Jessica Medley
Keep yourself motivated
Teaching is incredibly rewarding, but it can also be a difficult job. If you start feeling frustrated or burned out, it can be helpful to go back and think about why you are doing this work and why it’s so important.
“I get my mind right first thing to prepare just mentally and personally. I go back and think about what is my, “why,” why am I here? And I remind myself that I am in a perfect position to be able to make a difference with these students. I look at this as my ministry. I come in every day to make a huge impact on little bitty people who are going to go out into the world and do big things. And one thing I have the power to do is to be able to build them up, or I have the power to tear them down. So just being conscious of my words and walking in every day knowing you have to forgive, because these are little bitty kids, just like we have to be forgiven. We’re not perfect. There are going be some days it’s going great and some days it’s like, ‘oh gosh,’ but when I go back to why I am doing this, I know I am needed.” – Sharicka Gray
While there will undoubtedly be some hiccups at one point or another, these best practices can go a long way in helping your students feel engaged, motivated, and supported throughout the year.
Sari Laberis is the Associate Director, Educator Community, at Curriculum Associates. She runs the Extraordinary Educator advocate program, hosts the Extraordinary Educator podcast, and is building an online educator community.