Holly Valentine | April 2019

Making Real Connections

Over the last weeks, I have had numerous teachers look at me in frustration and sadness, ready to give up because they know their kids are bored and not engaged, and their bag of tricks seems to have a hole in the bottom. Nothing seems to be working. We all know what it is like to look out into the sea of faces in front of us and notice blank stares, perhaps glossed over, chins in hand, or even worse, heads down on desks. Stop and think – why do you need that bag of tricks? Why are you going home the one that’s exhausted at the end of the day?

Think back to a favorite PD Session (yes, there are some good ones!) when you knew you were engaged, and forgot to look at your phone, or check your email, or look at the clock every five minutes. Think about what made you engaged as a learner and the fundamental needs of learning, and then consider how well you are addressing those needs in your own classroom.

Make REAL connections

There are a handful of leaders and speakers that have inspired me, engaged me, and wanted me to be a better teacher and person. What was it about these people? I found a connection to them and related to them. They welcomed a connection and were open to it. It all comes back to connections and relationships. How well do you really know your students? How well do they know you?

Right now, could you share five or more positive traits and interests about each and every student in your classroom? I’m talking about REAL things… not the canned expected responses.

  • Do you know what really makes them tick?
  • When you hear a name, do you smile first, or feel frustration?
  • Have you had “a moment” with each of your students this year where you were feeling like you were making a difference?
  • Have you let your students feel like they had a special moment with just you?  

If it’s been a while since you have taken the time for this, it’s time to reset! Go back to the beginning of the school year when you spent time getting to know them. Try one of those favorite activities, like the Take What You Need Strategy. Customize the things they have to share now that the newness of the year has worn off – make them dig deeper!

Take a Step Back

I was working with a teacher recently who was feeling the frustration, and I suggested that she just take a step back to reconnect with her kids. She took the time to let the kids share their feelings through a written letter, and she did the same. Let students see you as human, someone who also struggles with the same things. What if you took this to the next level, and created a shared visual journal between you and your students? Have you tried visual journaling yet? It’s amazing! Check out some great tips from Amy Traggianese’s recent article on essential tips for visual journaling.  What a treasure this could be by the end of the year if it went back and forth between the two of you!

By the way, the same afternoon that teacher and her kids wrote their letters, I received a text from her about how awesome those letters were. She was so excited to have done it. Those kids saw her on a different level too, when she shared her letter with them. I have no doubt the days ahead might be a little more encouraging.

Value them!

I learned the “testing game” as a kid in school. It wasn’t my preferred way of showing mastery of a subject, but I knew all the tricks for answering questions. I always scored well as a result.  Because I learned how to play the game, I felt successful when we had testing days and on most assignments. I had the “right” answers and many times I was bored but successful, and teachers praised me. Same process, same formats, different subject, different year.  

When I look back on my own school years, there are two teachers that quickly come to mind as “hating me” and I was bored in their classes. Now I wonder if I was feeling this way because I always wanted to find a way to do things a little differently, creatively, and they just wanted me to just spit back answers neatly and with a No. 2 pencil. (What… no color?!)  The kids in front of us are the same way. They know what we want to hear.

Don’t Stifle Creativity

Have you ever really asked your students a sincere and interesting question, open to their thinking of any kind?  Tell them that they are going to be the creators, and they can show their thinking in any way of their choosing. Sadly, this often throws kids for two reasons:

  • They simply can’t imagine really being asked their own thoughts about something.
  • It has become very hard for many students to think in any way besides paper and pen, and traditional responding/writing. They have been so ingrained that there is only being one proper way to show work, take notes, or earn a grade that it has become hard for most to use their imagination, creativity and think outside the box. You need to find ways to stir their imaginations!

Stop stifling student creativity and imagination by expecting only one format of answers.  Of course, having students choose their own form of assessment may make the scoring process a little harder for you…..but I would absolutely take that difficulty over those horrible feelings of frustration and disengagement any day.

Of course, there are topics in our curriculum that are hard to energize sometimes. But without a doubt, those topics won’t be as painful if you have truly engaged your students by forming a real connection with them and letting them know their thoughts are valued. They will want to be in your classroom not just to learn the topics, but to learn from you. Give yourself the gift of time. Do it today. It’s never too late to make the connections, to engage your students, and to let yourself feel a little bit lighter.

About the Author

Holly Valentine is currently an Arts Integration Teacher in the Gates Chili Central School District, a suburb of Rochester, NY where she has been for 20 years. She is a certified Arts Integration Specialist and has served as an Arts Standards Writer for the New York State Education Department. She was a 2014 recipient of NYC Broadway League's Apple Award for her work in Arts Education. Holly also serves as the Director of Education for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, where she has created nationally recognized programs and develops standards-based curriculum for touring Broadway shows in order to bring the theatre to classrooms and classrooms to the theatre.