Connecting with Students During a Crazy School Year

By Pete Barnes

Connecting with students on a personal level is always challenging for busy teachers, but this pandemic year has been especially difficult for getting to know students and their families. No matter what teaching models our schools are using, we must continue to work extra hard this school year to know students as people. Whether it is exposing our own quirks and personal passions, setting up class time for students to share, or finding ways to make students feel like individuals, teachers must make efforts to connect. The extra time is well-spent, as students who feel accepted and valued are far more likely to learn. Here are some strategies that work for me, with possible modifications for remote and hybrid learning scenarios:

1. Personalizing your space

My classroom space advertises my interests and opens doors for conversations. I teach science, but I hang up posters and objects that relate to many other topics. I love music, so one of my old guitars hangs in the room, along with a Beatles poster and another of Johnny Cash. Not many fifth graders like Johnny Cash or play guitar, but some do, or their parents do. This creates conversation starters and opens up students who might not want to discuss the moons of Jupiter. I hang drawings I have made on my travels and ask students to choose which they like best. I display a picture of Wrigley Field and always wear my Cubs hat if we are going outside. I hang an old cycling jersey and pictures of my family and display maps, coins, and souvenirs collected over the years. These items allow students to view me as a complete person, not just a fifth-grade science teacher. During remote instruction, many teachers have created a similar virtual atmosphere using Bitmoji classrooms. Perhaps students can create their own virtual displays, sharing things about their own lives that don’t come up during regular classroom instruction.

2. Question of the Day

We don’t get to it every day, but I love asking a probing question that students may choose to answer. Here are some of my favorites: What is the scariest dream you’ve ever had? If you could spend an entire day with any person, past or present, who would it be? If you could have one super-power, what would you choose? Often early in the year the extroverted students spend most of the time answering these questions, but I have found that as students become more comfortable even the shy ones start to answer the most fun and interesting ones. Sometimes I will match the question to what we are learning in class, but with a fun twist. When we study force and motion, I ask: If you could come to school in any vehicle on earth, what would it be? When we study Mars: If you were starting out on a nine-month journey to Mars, what three items would you bring with you? Question of the Day takes just five minutes at the beginning or end of class and can be easily adapted to remote learning situations. The time is well worth it, as I learn many interesting things about my students and, in turn, see my students gain deeper understanding of their classmates.

3. Barnes lunch

This is just for my homeroom; each week a different, small group from the class meets for lunch. No agenda, no study time, just hanging out and talking. With the boys we often talk about sports, movies, YouTube videos, and favorite memes. The girls tend toward friends, vacations, hobbies, and stories about family. I get to know students in ways that elude me in the classroom as they gradually relax and just have fun. I have curtailed this tradition during this pandemic year, but it could easily be adapted to remote learning by inviting small groups of students to log onto a Group Meet for lunch. I look forward to reviving Barnes lunch during more “normal” school days in the near future.

4. Siblings

I love when I get younger siblings from a family I previously taught. I have an instant connection and often a relationship with the parents. I tell students “Be nice to your brother” as they leave the classroom or write notes on a graded test like, “Not even your sister could do better than that!” Calling a student by their sibling’s name is a running joke—sometimes I do it on purpose just to get a reaction. However, I’m careful not to

ignite sibling rivalries or to compare siblings, especially if there are any jealousy issues or concerns about self-esteem. After teaching at the same school for sixteen years, I see a lot of families more than once, and this is just one more means for knowing students as individuals who have interesting lives outside of my classroom.

5. Chat around

Often when students work independently or in groups within the classroom, I circulate and provide feedback, answer questions, and make sure students are focused. Many days these tasks are all I can handle. But sometimes, students reach cruise control—they are past the initial question-asking stage, or working on independent assignments that require little support. It is tempting to spend these times at my desk, monitoring iPads on Apple classroom, and leaving students to their work. Instead, I try to use this time for chat arounds. I circulate and just talk to students for a couple of minutes. I ask them about their weekends, about upcoming sporting events, and about their families. There is a fine line between checking in with students and derailing them from productive work time, so I keep the conversations short and encourage them to continue their progress. These tiny conversations sometimes yield meaningful interactions that help me connect. I have used this same tactic during remote learning in breakout rooms on Google Classroom with similar effects.

6. Relish in teacher celebrity

I live in a small town, I teach 90-100 students a year, and I started my current job sixteen years ago. You do the math. I run into current, future, and former students all the time. Some teachers find this annoying or as an invasion of privacy, but I find it kind of fun. When I see students at the grocery store, the barber shop, or at the ball fields, I go out of my way to stop and say hi. If time allows, I start a conversation. Even the high school students who are too cool to acknowledge me get a wave and a kind word. I notice that the next time I see these “too cool” students they are much more likely to say hi. I think many are embarrassed or are worried that I won’t remember their names (which unfortunately does happen). What they forget is that teachers want to know what is

happening in their lives even years after they have left the classroom. We teach to help students become productive adults, not just successful test takers or obedient classmates.

7. Nicknames

Nicknames create instant connections that go beyond just teacher and student. I prefer when students suggest nicknames or tell me one they already have and like. If I stumble across one that seems to work, I always ask permission to use it. I don’t have the brain power to remember nicknames for every student, but I do like using them when they seem appropriate. In recent years, I have focused on nicknames mainly for my homeroom students, as my memory becomes less sharp. Sometimes former students will send emails or notes signed with nicknames I gave them years ago. Having a special name makes a student feel unique and valued and makes it more likely I will have a lasting connection with them.

8. Wall of Fame

I have an extra credit wall of fame. Students earn stickers by completing extra credit assignments—earn enough stickers and your name goes up permanently on a wall outside my classroom! Sometimes when I see high school or college students, they ask if their name is still up on the Wall. Former students stop by to find their names, younger siblings search the Wall and often compete to beat their older siblings in stickers earned. The extra credit projects don’t really affect the classroom grade—they are presentations and models and songs and skits on topics the students choose. Students learn about all sorts of science topics that we might not have time to cover in class and hopefully earn the right to see their name on a Wall many years from now. Most importantly, the Science Wall of Fame builds a lasting community of students that connects them to me beyond just the time we have together in the classroom.

Whatever your methods for connecting with students, I wish you the best of luck during a challenging time for educators. We all have so much on our plates right now, but I believe anything we can do to make students feel unique and valued is worth the extra effort.


Pete Barnes teaches fifth grade science in New Albany, Ohio. He has taught for 24 years at schools in Washington, DC, Williamsburg, Virginia, and central Ohio. Pete helps run the science fair, the greenhouse, the Elementary Science Olympiad Program, and all things STEM related at his school. When not teaching, he enjoys cycling, hiking, playing guitar, and hanging out with his wife and two children.

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