Empowering Educators to Get to Know Their Students: A Conversation with Authors Andy Moral and Heather Young
Early in the school year, all educators are faced with the same important task: getting to know their new students. To learn some effective strategies for making connections with students at the beginning of a new school year, Responsive Classroom sat down with Andy Moral and Heather Young. Andy and Heather are both Responsive Classroom consulting teachers and contributing authors for the forthcoming Empowering Educators series (Andy worked on Empowering Educators for Grades 3, 4, 5, while Heather worked on Empowering Educators for Grades 6, 7, 8). Here is some of what they shared.
The Empowering Educators series covers how educators at each grade level from K-8 can use the physical space of a classroom to get to know their students. Is there one organizational tip in particular you want to highlight?
AM: When I arrange the student desks at the beginning of the year, I try to make sure that I can make eye contact with all students when I’m at the board. Some students just need that friendly face to put them at ease. Other times, as they’re getting used to the way that I give directions or explain something, I can read their body language and use that to help build the community and just start those relationships with my students.
HY: I think the thing that comes to mind for me is setting up your classroom in a way where you’re able to walk around, check in with students, and have quick chats while they’re working. Being able to move around the room makes that more natural. Along with pathways for movement, have some open space in your room for brain breaks or movement-based interactive learning structures – all of those provide opportunities to get to know your students better just by interacting with them.
How might classroom organization be impacted by COVID health and safety protocols?
AM: This year, we’re still going to be implementing a lot of the social distancing precautions. What I’m envisioning is that there will be a three- to six-foot distance between desks, and I’ll be teaching students how to be flexible with the arrangement of the room so that they can turn and talk with a peer. So much of what we want to do is help students get to know each other, get to know the routines, and feel at ease, while also being mindful of the protocols that have to be followed.
One thing that I did last year – and I know I’m going to do again this year – was we would take our snacks outside. I would eat really quickly, then I would really try to go around and have check-in conversations that weren’t about what we were doing in school. It was more: “Hey, what are some activities you’re doing?” or “What’s a book you’re enjoying?” and just trying to have more organic interactions.
What is a productive step educators can take early in the school year to get to know their students better?
HY: It might feel obvious, but just learning students’ names as quickly as possible and pronouncing them correctly. If the student has a name that might be difficult to pronounce, sometimes they will say, “Just call me this.” I tell them, “What does your family call you? I would love to use that name if that’s okay.” Also making sure to honor any students who go by nicknames or different names than they are born with. I turn it into a game at the beginning of the year. When kids are in their seats, once we’ve figured out where they’re sitting, I will take a minute and say, “I think I’m going to try it and see how far I can get,” and say their names out loud. If I make a mistake, I go back to the beginning, and the kids just laugh at me when I mess up. It’s a fun way to build relationships. I tell the kids if I call them by the wrong name, they get to call me by the wrong name one time.
The Empowering Educators series also examines effective discipline strategies. How can what teachers learn about their students inform their discipline strategies?
AM: I think it’s so important every year to remember that we really want to focus on proactive discipline by taking the time to get to know them on a personal level – to really find out what motivates them, what their interests are – and then use that to structure sharing activities at Morning Meeting.
HY: If you’re taking time to get to know your students, your discipline strategy should come from a place of teacher empathy and understanding where your students come from. I’m not excusing any misbehavior that might happen, but I’m understanding that there are many different factors that might lead to these behavior mistakes they’re making. Getting to know my students and interacting with them allows me to support them in building those social-emotional skills like self-regulation. Once you get to know them, you personalize your discipline strategies, so your logical consequences might look different for different students based on the skills they need to work on.
I had two different students in the same year who both struggled with outbursts in the classroom. In getting to know the two of them, I knew that student A would benefit from Space and Time. He knew how to use it and he could do that on his own. But student B needed a problem-solving conference where he could chat with me to figure out what was causing the issue. Sometimes problem-solving conferences are seen as only a response to major misbehavior, but I think they can be really useful in getting to know your students and preemptively talking about situations where the student might start to boil over so you can catch that before they have more problem behaviors.
AM: Teaching time-out looked so different this past year because we couldn’t have a designated space, but something I did was to give students a pink card they could pull out and put on their desk to show me they needed a break. Then, they would take time-out right there at their seat. They might take deep breaths or just sit for a moment and collect their thoughts. The pink cards gave my fourth graders that control where they felt like they were regulating their emotions on their own.
Responsive Classroom stresses the importance of knowing your students individually, culturally, and developmentally. What does it look like when this important information is practically applied in the classroom?
AM: Early on in the school year, during the sharing component of Morning Meeting, my students have opportunities to create a photo page. On the photo page, students will either put a picture or drawing of themselves in the middle, and then they will put things that are of interest to them. I try to make it inclusive for all students, so it’s a collection of hobbies, activities they do outside of school, holidays they recognize and celebrate, and other things that might be unique about their own families. I have each student share that page, then we create a display board in our classroom where all the pages go, just so they can get to know each other. Then, during transition times I can ask students about some of the things shared on those photo pages.
HY: Students in middle school want to interact with each other and they crave social interaction. If I keep in mind where they’re at developmentally, I can use that to my advantage by crafting lessons that meet their need for social interaction and movement in a way that feels natural for the students. That means there might be noise in your classroom, but it’s the noise of learning and it’s the sound of collaboration.
At the beginning of the year I take time to ask questions and I have a little form for them to fill out. Once I’ve gotten to know my students, I make sure that the materials I use – the books, content, the images I use as I teach – reflect the students. They need to see themselves in the space, so it feels not like it’s Miss Young’s space but our space as a class.
This Empowering Educators series is full of engaging anecdotes. Is there one anecdote about adults getting to know their students that you would like to highlight?
AM: One of the anecdotes that got put in the book that I find so powerful is called the Donald Graves activity. After the first three or four weeks, at some point on the weekend I will get a piece of paper and list the kids in my class to see which ones come to mind. Then I ask myself, do I know any activities, interests, hobbies, or strengths that those kids have, and do they know that I know that about them? Oftentimes, I find that I struggle with that early in the school year. For those kids that I can’t list, I go in on Monday and rearrange the furniture in the room and put their desks close to me so that I get the time to have those personal interactions. Pedagogy is important, but it all stems from a place of caring about our students. We want to build those relationships and we need to take the time to get to know them.
HY: I think a big part of getting to know your students is letting your students get to know you, and so you need to choose what pieces of your personal life you feel okay sharing with your students. It’s okay to still have some pieces for yourself of course, and to be mindful of the age of the students you teach. I share a lot about my educational background – I teach in the building I went to school in.
Any advice for a teacher who is picking up an Empowering Educators book for the first time?
AM: I think educators should look at the book in its entirety. Don’t go into it saying, “I’m a fifth grade teacher, I’m just going to read the fifth grade section.” There’s so much in all the sections. A fifth grade teacher can take an idea from the third grade section and know how to make it developmentally appropriate for older students, or vice versa. There are just so many ideas to take a look at in these books.
HY: I think it depends on what your capacity is at the start of the year. If you’re really overwhelmed, maybe just start by reading the overview in your grade section, and that’s okay. If you’ve got a little more time and you can do a little more, I would encourage people to read the whole thing because I think even though it’s divided by grade there’s awesome stories and anecdotes in all the grade sections.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.