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Building student connection means building trust and ensuring the best learning outcomes. Using the right classroom engagement strategies, you can make this a regular occurrence in all your classes.
Teachers that connect meaningfully to students can make the biggest difference in their lives. It ends up being what they're known and remembered for. The positive impact you make can last long after your students have created lives outside of school.
The moment to make that difference is now, in your classroom today. Consider how you can employ the 7 classroom engagement strategies below to bridge gaps and strengthen the bond that matters between learner and educator.
1. Get Student Culture
Our kids live in a different world today. Instant entertainment and social connection are the cultural norm for them. We know they tend to gravitate towards certain digital stimuli as well. Because of all this, we face a new kind of student. As an educator, it's important to familiarize yourself with the habits and mindsets that define our digital generation.
Student culture includes a number of different subcultures to look at. But should you spend your time with things like wrapping levels on the latest video game, or binge-watching The Vampire Dairies? Not at all. All you need to do is try to understand why these kinds of things are important to them.
2. Share Your Life
This is one of those classroom engagement strategies that can work wonders if you do it right. Often teachers are expected to put up a front, and this can create a serious barrier to student connection. From time to time, relax and open up a little. Choose some stories to tell about yourself to show students that behind the mask of professionalism is someone just as human as they are.
Of course, you must choose what you say discriminately. What you share doesn't need to be deeply private or personally precious. Maybe something funny or unexpected happened to you recently. Perhaps you discovered an app or a website you think students might be interested in. Maybe you heard a joke (class appropriate, of course) that you want to share.
If the reaction to any of these things isn't instantaneous or earth-shattering, don't worry. Fostering connection and engagement can take time. Keep at it and reinforce the openness you're willing to demonstrate. After a time, kids will feel much more comfortable talking about themselves in an environment you've made safe for them.
3. Rock the First 5 Minutes
FFM is something of a trend in business and social engagements. That's probably because it works wonders for making a connection. As far as classroom engagement strategies go, the premise here is that these first few minutes before class will be used as a warm-up. Meetings of any kind, social or otherwise, very rarely jump right into the important stuff. Those first few minutes are spent on pleasantries; catching up, setting up, and teeing up to get down to business.
Think about it for a minute. When was the last time you walked into a classroom and saw eyes forward, backs straight, and pens at the ready? Pretty much never, but there's nothing wrong with that. Students need and deserve a bit of breathing room to be themselves at the beginning of a class before we begin to put expectations on them.
Chat about what they did the night before, what they've been reading, or the latest news that intrigued them. Answer their questions and listen to their stories. The possibilities for casual connection are endless. Before you know it, the first five minutes are up and everyone's ready to work.
4. Tackle Problems Together
We've talked before about the importance of letting students know they aren't alone. Problems in and out of the classroom sometimes need a collaborative approach. The teacher's role today has moved away from being the gatekeeper of all knowledge and solutions. We are now guides, mentors, and supporters of the quest for discovery in learning, and also self-discovery.
Our position is still a vital one in that students thrive on collaboration and teamwork. Show a willingness to work through problems with them as partners and as part of an unbeatable team.
5. Show Them You Care
If there is one student need that tops their list, it's the need to know their teachers care about them. Unfortunately, this idea can also often be misunderstood. This is mostly because teachers fear the risk of overstepping certain boundaries, and rightfully so. Here's what showing students you care doesn't mean:
- constant 24/7 availability
- interfering in their personal lives
- trying to be their best friend
- assimilating every facet of their culture
This is what showing students you care does mean:
- listening actively
- valuing their opinions
- greeting and talking to them
- having patience
- honoring their individuality
This is the kind of attention that lets students know they matter. The academic stress and social pressure that are a part of being in school can often leave little time for celebrating the moments that make us feel human and special. You are the perfect person to provide what's missing.
6. Bury the Past
This one is a nod to Jennifer Gonzalez and her amazing blog Cult of Pedagogy. She warns of the dangers of yearning for the days of yore when classrooms (and students) were very different from what they are like now. The danger she specifies is in simply missing out.
When we stay stuck in the past, we can't put an eye on the present and the future. We risk shunning learning opportunities and teachable moments as we yearn for a simpler time before technology changed the game. We can lose sight of the creativity and brilliance shining in our kids right here, right now.
One paradoxical truth we can expect never to change is that nothing will ever stay the same. This is a time for discovering the wonder and the challenges of what is happening now in education, and in the exponentially changing world. Embrace it, and it will embrace you back.
7. Keep Smiling
Employing effective classroom engagement strategies sometimes means doing what others swear up and down will not work. The simple act of smiling through difficulty is one of them. It's been given a bad rap over the years, and it's time to lay that to rest. Smiling works and it works well, for a number of reasons.
It's more than just a polite social tactic. It generates real positive feelings in both the giver and the receiver if it's genuine. Smiling is also a show of strength in troubling times. It's reassuring for students to see that you're willing to display that kind of courage. There are physiological benefits to smiling as well.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published May 24, 2019, updated Dec 17, 2021