Guest Post via @rdene915: Staying Strong throughout the School Year – Focus on Relationships

When the new school year starts, it really does feel like the prior year just ended.  It seems like summer “break” always passes by so quickly, in the blink of an eye, but yet sometimes if you look back on all of the things that you did, it does feel like it was a long time ago since the school year ended. And once the school year gets started, time passes quickly again.

I spend time during the summer reading, reflecting, relaxing, but mostly looking for opportunities to build on my knowledge and come up with some new ideas for the new school year. I am excited during the summer, every time I participate in an online conference with EduPassions, set up the Tweet deck for some Twitter chats, or this summer, the great opportunities for learning through Edumatch Edcamp and EdCampGlobal.  Besides the online events, there was also the tremendous experiences of ISTE, Summer Spark in Milwaukee, and EdCampUsa.  These events have extended my PLN, I have gained new knowledge and perspectives, made new connections and had been eagerly anticipating the start of the year.

  I started the year with loft aspirations of trying new tools, new ideas, and many to-do lists,some of which stayed with me all summer.  But I was trying to slowly work through them over the summer, to devise my plan for the new year.  Where should we start?  For me, I am always anxious to see what my students think of the new ideas. They are always asking me what I have come up with during the summer or after a holiday break. It is a lot of fun, very exciting to see how they react and figure out where to start first. But even though I couldn’t wait to try some of these new tools and activities, to involve the students in the experiences, those new ideas had to take second place to what I think is the most important way to start the new school year.  So what is it?

So, after a summer “off”, we head back into our classrooms, hopefully feeling refreshed, looking forward to the new classes and another year,  and we have to prepare for what we will do on that  first day or during the first week.  So what is the most important way to start the year?  Well, we have to cover all of the procedural information about our class, tell students what they can expect, go over our rules and expectations, and make sure that we have everything ready for a successful beginning to the school year. All of these tasks, setting up our classroom, planning our instruction and methods, everything, is easier when we know our students.  We need to interact with them, involve them in different learning activities, talk with them individually, make them feel comfortable and let them know that we care about and support them.  The most important task for me at the beginning of the year? Work on building relationships. 

What to do first?

Be visible. Present.  Engaged. I think the first thing we should do is be there at our classroom door, or in the office, greeting the students. And I don’t mean just the students who are entering our classroom on that first day, but all students as we see them passing by in the halls, in the cafeteria, and as they come into and leave the building.  We need to make them feel welcome. We have to create a welcoming environment and a positive culture in the building. It starts with us. Students should see us, know that we are there, we are available to support them, we are happy to see them and that we are excited about the new school year. It can be difficult to come back after the summer break.  It is a change in routine, a schedule to follow, we all deal with alarm clocks and a busier life, but if we set a good example by engaging our students in conversations, welcoming them, showing an interest in them and what they care about, it will make a difference.  We can lead the way to positive classroom culture and strong relationships. 

It’s a time to reconnect, to build new relationships, to share our experiences since the last time that we were together in class or to learn about each student and what they are bringing to the classroom. So this is why I think some of the first steps, if not the first step, should be getting to know the students. By playing a game or using some other kind of interactive activity on the first day, we can take time to learn about each other. Use this as an opportunity to encourage students to share their thoughts and interests and what and how they hope to learn in your class. Get the students talking. Give them time to interact with you and their peers. Create your culture starting on day one.  And if not on day one, then start  creating your culture and learning about your students tomorrow. It is never to late to take this step. You just have to start somewhere.

What do we need to know?

We need ways to find out what our students are thinking.  We need to be available when they need us, so that our support is constant and students can feel confident and comfortable. But how can we do this? Communication and having a way to connect with each other is key. How are you going to be available to the students when they need you? When the class ends, their questions do not end, their need for feedback and support do not end either. I recommend that you put in place some way for students to be able to connect with you, to ask questions when they have them, to be able to access helpful resources. There are so many options out there for doing this, it just takes a bit of time to find something that works for you and your students. We can all share experiences and perspectives, but we do not experience the same classroom setting or have students with the same backgrounds.  So we need to learn about each other first.

It is also important to find out what kind of technology is available to the students as well. If you are planning to have students use digital tools, or participate in any blended or flipped learning experiences, we want to make sure that all students have access to the devices and the resources when they need it.

How do we learn about our students?

We all have different ways of interacting with students, learning about them, building our classroom relationships. Students want to feel a connection in the classroom and to know that they matter.  They need to know they are valued in the classroom and that the support is there for them. So take some time to have some fun with them, start building those connections so that students will feel comfortable coming to you when they need help. Throughout the school year there are many times the students will need our help, and knowing that they are supported, having these foundations, are crucial for classroom success.  

One way to help build relationships and learn about the students at the start of the year, which I tried this year, is to create a collaborative Google Presentation in which each student contributes by adding information about themselves, their summer, some of their favorite things or other information, depending on what you teach and each level.  You can also create a Padlet wall for students to add information and this gives each student an opportunity to “talk “with their peers and share experiences.It will spark some conversations, build connections and create your classroom culture. 

There are a lot of options for getting to know each other and I have spent more time this year than prior years, learning more about my students but also to helping the students learn about each other.  We played some icebreaker bingo, created a Padlet about our summers, and did some other fun activities in each class. I wanted the students to be up and moving, actively learning, creating some new peer connections. I wanted them to feel comfortable first.  My hope was that it would be a good way to understand the culture of our classroom and start building our relationships. And it has been just that.

In just the first grading period, I  learned a lot about each of my students and I know that they have also learned a lot about me and each other. We have shared interesting stories, played those icebreaker games, and spent time building our classroom culture.  Each class has its own funny experiences, memories, and every day we add more to “our story.”   

And now, heading into another break, it is a good time to look back on what we have done, reflect and make some plans moving forward. It is never too late, you can use the first day back from break to get to know the students. Save the lesson for the next day, we need to build those relationships.

Start your classroom story today.  Learn about the students, let them learn about you, and see what happens.  It leads to a positive environment and can be a real adventure, but one that will definitely be worth it!

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