All students are different: How they learn, what concepts they pick up quickly, and also how much they open up to their teachers. Surely you’ve had students who you feel you’ve really gotten to know, while others seem to have kept up a wall. So how do you break down those walls (or at least soften the cement a bit)? These 10 middle and high school teachers have some real-life recommendations. Take a look:
1. Write a letter to your incoming students (and ask for a letter in return).
“Every year I write a letter to my incoming freshmen and juniors, introducing myself and giving them some information about me that will help them feel more at ease in class. In turn, I ask them to write a letter back to me. It’s amazing how much they’re willing to share in that letter, and I really feel like I get to know my kids. I also do my best to be open and ‘laugh at myself a little’ while still maintaining my authority. I admit when things are hard for me, I admit when I’m trying something new with them, and I admit when I’m feeling like I could have done a better job teaching a particular lesson. Fifteen years of teaching has taught me that students are more willing to engage and take risks if they know that I (their teacher) am not afraid to take risks, laugh at myself, and try something new.” – Making Meaning with Melissa
2. Learn their names.
“Learn their names, preferably before the first day of school. I used the previous year’s yearbook to start memorizing the faces of students on my roster. My goal was being able to welcome each of my students by name on the first day of school. Of course, you always have the newly enrolled students, or a change in your roster, so you probably won’t know everyone on the first day. But knowing most of your students’ names as soon as possible makes such a difference in starting the school year off well. Think about how it makes you feel if someone uses your name soon after meeting you. Our names matter to us. When someone remembers your name, it makes you feel that you matter to them. Everyone likes that feeling!” – UtahRoots
3. Ease into activities that encourage sharing out.
“I always start the year by sharing a bit about myself and showing a few photos of my family. I then open it up to students to share out. We do a weekend share-out every Monday throughout the year where students who want to share about their weekends can do so. Some weeks, it’s just verbal. Other weeks, I have them journal it and share it out. And sometimes I asked that it be shared in a certain structure that helps them review a certain skill we’re working on (such as summarizing).
At the beginning of the year, I don’t push it. I let the exuberant students share out and the introverts listen in. Then, I usually check in later with those who didn’t share out. Full disclosure: I teach intervention classes and have 10 students max, so it’s a different time commitment than a class of 30+! However, I do have a general education colleague who does a verbal share every Monday with her full class. The kids love it, and it helps them see we really care about them.
A few weeks into school, I do a one-on-one check-in on how 7th grade is going and what I can help them work on. By that time, most middle schoolers are willing to be a bit more open with me. And I know them and their learning strengths and needs enough to help them do more than a shoulder shrug/’I don’t know’ combo that middle schoolers are so famous for.” – Activated Education
4. Attend an outside event of each of your students.
“The best way I really got to know my students and what really allowed those walls to come down was making it a point to attend an outside event for each of them. Whether it was a school basketball game, a play, or a ballet recital, I wanted my students to know that I saw them as a whole person and not just another kid in my classroom. It really worked wonders for me and allowed me to build great trust relationships with all of my students.” – The Colorado Classroom
5. Shake their hands every day when they walk in the room.
“The kids at my school come from poor, rough neighborhoods. School is their sanctuary. The first thing I do to try and understand them better is to shake their hands every day when they enter my classroom. It’s a personal greeting, a time to ask them how they’re doing. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge that I can see something is wrong and to give them personal praise from another teacher. The teachers at my school are great at letting other teachers know if someone is having a hard time, if they’re concerned about a student, or if a student did something really amazing. It’s a family at my school.” – Adventures in ISTEM
6. Encourage them, be observant, and ask lots of questions.
“I like to start with encouragement. Some students are so closed off because they lack the confidence needed to open up. A quick note of praise or a pat on the back can mean so much. Students take that stuff to heart whether you know it or not! I also ask questions… and more questions. I’m very observant to what my students are listening to, what band name they have scribbled on their notebook, and what they’re googling when they’re finished taking tests. It gives me an in to connecting with them. Then when I see them in the hallway, I can use my observations to spark discussions. And I never give up, even on the kids who are introverted. It’s more important that they know I care rather than them talking to me!” – Smith Science and Lit
7. Let them open up through writing, journaling, and monitored online chats.
“Some students are vocal and very easy to ‘get to know’ right away. Others are not going to share orally no matter how much you try. They are shy, even when it’s a one-on-one meeting, so I don’t force it. However, these students are often the very opposite online and/or in writing. So I have all of my students write blogs, participate in online chats (that I monitor), and write in their personal journals through our grading software so only I can see their entries. I write back to them in the same way they communicate to me and their classmates: through the comments on the blogs, in the chat, and by responding to their journal entries. It’s amazing what they share with me and how much I actually learn about them through written communication. It is, by far, the most effective way I’ve found to get to know them.” – Tracee Orman
8. Head up a school club or sports team.
“I helped to start the first robotics club at the school in which I taught. It was great to get to know some of my students in a different context and meet other students I don’t teach (who are often friends with students in my classes). I also ran an after-school science research program where I met with many students one-on-one, and I got to know a lot of them better this way. The more moments you share that aren’t behind desks, the better.” – Science and Math With Mrs Lau
9. Make it known you’ll give them another chance.
“I’ve been the detention supervisor at my school for the past eight years. Many teachers think this would be a terrible job, but I love it. The kids that come into detention are often squirmy freshmen who can’t sit still, or seniors who feel too cool for school. But either way, no matter what brought a kid into detention, there’s a real opportunity to get to know (and help!) the kids that need it most. I’m strict in the detention room, but then friendly and supportive in the hallways. It’s so good for the students to know that even though they’ve messed up, their lives aren’t ruined forever if they’re willing to make the effort to turn things around. Being detention supervisor is part of my job that I really love — and often where I teach the best lessons. – Strawberry Shake
10. Help students see things from their parents’ perspective.
“I teach ELA, and one writing exercise I love doing is this: I have my students write a series of diary entries from the perspective of one of their parents, writing about their child (my student). It’s amazing to get them to step outside of themselves (especially as teenagers tend to be a little too self-obsessed from time to time!) and to see things from their parents’ perspective. It also shows me a lot about how they perceive themselves, a bit more about their relationship with their parents, and how empathetic they are.” – Stacey Lloyd