The Pitfalls of Connecting with Students: When Guidance is Misguided

“You’re the biggest underachiever I’ve ever met, Robin.”

Not quite the inspiring, uplifting words I was hoping for from my 11th-grade chemistry teacher after she had graded my final. She handed it back, and there was a red one followed by two zeros on the top next to my name.

Sure, my teacher, we’ll call her Mrs. Weber had a point. I suppose her comment had some merit. I had gotten a perfect score on the final and still received a C in the class. Not that I was surprised by the score on the final. I knew the material. I just didn’t care about school enough to do homework. To be honest, I hadn’t even studied for the final. I paid attention in class, and after all, it was only Intro to Chemistry. It just seemed to make sense.

“Thanks!” I said facetiously. Then, I grabbed my backpack and walked out of Mrs. Weber’s room for the last time.

The next year though was a different story. I really buckled down. I enrolled in 4 AP classes, became student-body president, started two non-profit organizations, became captain of the football team, was named valedictorian, and once and for all fixed that nagging copier that always jammed in the teachers’ lounge.

No, wait...

None of that happened--well the football thing did, but that and four bucks will buy me a cup of coffee nowadays. Believe it or not, my chemistry teacher’s supportive, encouraging pep talk did nothing for me as a student. In fact, I took two classes that summer just so I’d have an even easier senior year. For me, senioritis started in September.

I think about that interaction quite a bit...not fondly, though.

Why didn’t her remark motivate me?

Could it be because it came after I had turned in my final? I was done with her class, and she was done with me. Where was this constructive criticism in September? Or October even? Heck, any of the -ber months would’ve worked! Here I am getting a perfect score on the final--a final that Mrs. Weber herself feared to be so hard that she organized a study party on a weekend--and yet, I still got a C in the class. Now, I’m not blaming Mrs. Weber for my C. That was all me. I earned that sucker! I’m just curious how a teacher could let someone like that slip through the...well, crucible tongs since we’re talking chemistry. Mrs. Weber’s comment in June, which reeked of imitation tough love, did nothing to me because I hadn’t felt any of that love from September through May.

19 Years Later...

However, her misguided guidance, as I shall lovingly refer to it, has taught me something that I try to keep in the forefront of my own teaching practice 19 years later. Connecting with my students and knowing them as people has to come before anything else. My agenda, objectives, and lesson plans take a backseat to my students’ needs. I want to know what drives my students, what excites my students, and what irks my students. If I don’t know that, then any lessons I try to impart, whether academic or life, aren’t going to be heard. That personal connection has to come before the lesson.

Effective teachers know this and strive to connect with their students. They build bonds and relationships that open avenues to teaching those students.

The Pitfalls

There are two pitfalls in making connections with students that I’d like to caution against.

  1. One-way connections in which the teacher is the only one talking and sharing.

  2. Artificial connections that only serve the teacher’s needs of getting the student to do something the teacher wants.

Now, I do not say this from atop a soapbox. I share this from personal experience and going down this road more times than I care to admit. In fact, I still fall into these traps and have to consciously remind myself of them.

I could try to articulate the ins and outs of each, but I thought two anecdotes would be more fun and probably do a better job elucidating than I could anyway! Both stories actually involve the same student, who we’ll call Tyler.

I had Tyler my very first year teaching and even though I don’t have favorite students, he was one of my favorite students ever. In fact, he’d ask his mom to stay after school just so that he and I could talk. I’d clean up the classroom or set up for the next day and he’d just be keeping me company talking music, video games, or any other topic that came to mind. We first bonded through music. We’d geek out and debate compromising content for rhyme schemes in rap lyrics. He’d go on to tell me that his dad traveled a lot because he was a percussionist for a budding musician. He invited me to one of his dad’s shows, and so I went--even though it was on a school night. His dad was supposed to go on at 9, which easily turned into 9:30. Then 10. Then 11, and finally 12 on what I guess was technically a school morning now. I could go on about the many times Tyler and I had, but suffice to say we had a good relationship. He was mature, bright, and did extremely well in class.

One-Way Connections

The next year, Tyler was in fourth grade, and what a different year it was. The late-night shows and inconsistent routines started affecting his school work. Although, he had done all that in third grade, and it hadn't affected his work. So why was fourth grade any different?

Midway through the next year, Tyler’s teacher came to talk to me. She was a passionate teacher and really cared about her students. She asked me how I got Tyler to do anything. Somewhat shocked, I told her that there was nothing I had to do. I said he was just a good kid and did his work. We started swapping Tyler stories, and it was like we were talking about two different students. I mentioned that he often stayed after school to chat about music, and this sparked something in her. Her eyes lit up, and she said “Oh great! I love music! I’ll tell him about The Wooden Opossums!” Now, that’s obviously not the name of the band she actually mentioned, but this was 12 years ago so forgive me and my faulty memory. And I guess more to the point, whatever band she did mention, it might as well have been The Wooden Opossums because Tyler didn’t give an Opossum’s behind about either one.

That’s when it hit me. The reason we were seeing a different Tyler was that his teacher hadn’t found a way to connect with him yet, but not for lack of trying, of course. And that’s one of the most humbling experiences as a teacher; genuinely trying to connect with a student, but it just doesn’t happen for whatever reason. And now that she was going to try music, which was something Tyler truly loved, her connection was going to be about her—not him. It would be about the music she liked and listened to. I’m not implying that she’s a bad teacher. She was just setting up a one-way connection. Sadly, she never did fully connect with Tyler that year. They both struggled the whole year.

I’d venture a guess that we’ve all had one-way connections with students. Unfortunately, I still have them. But, I’m working on being more aware of when I’m heading down this one-way connection road. If I’m having a conversation with a student, I pay attention to who is doing most of the talking. I consciously remind myself to listen more than I talk. I ask specific questions that require the student to explain in even more detail. If I have a computer or my phone nearby, I pull it out, and together we research some facet of what the student is talking about, but I’m sure to have the student control the phone or computer so that they are driving the conversation and showing me what they want to show me. I have to remember it’s not about me. It’s about the student.

Artificial Connections

The other type of connection pitfall is an artificial connection. The difference between artificial connections and one-way connections is that in one-way connections, we genuinely have a common interest, but with artificial connections, we are using this “connection” as the means to an end.

Three years later and now Tyler is in seventh grade. After a successful fifth-grade year, he’d started to slip in sixth. By seventh, we throw hormones into the mix, and the issues become even more pronounced. Tyler was being kicked out of class, his mom was being called to the office all the time, and he wasn’t having a successful year. Being at a K-8 school, I get the luxury of being a part of students’ lives longer than a typical elementary school would afford; even with everything going on, Tyler still came to hang out in my classroom at least once a week. I’d built enough trust with Tyler that I could “lecture” him if necessary. He’d be open and honest with me and I’d do the same with him.

One day Tyler was sent to the office for some reason or another. The administrator knew I had a good relationship with him and she asked me if I’d sit in on a conference with Tyler. I agreed and met with Tyler, his teachers, the school counselor, and the administrator. I wish I could say I had the magical cure, and just my mere presence in the meeting made all the difference. But of course, it didn’t. I’m nobody special and don’t have the power to save anyone, nor would I really want that power. But what I can tell you is that I witnessed the artificial connection in action. I realized this probably wasn’t the first attempt to synthesize a connection, which would explain why Tyler had been having such a difficult year. The connection has to come first.

I won’t say who, but one of the adults in the room was giving Tyler the lecture of all lectures. You know the one...shape up, buckle down, do right, and any other verb plus preposition you could think of. But then the adult attempted to “connect” with Tyler. It was like having a front-row seat to a car accident. You want to look away, but something inside just won’t let you.

“You know, Tyler, my daughter is going to have a birthday party soon, and I really want you at that party. But with behavior like this, I don’t think I can trust you and I don’t think I can let you come to my house for my daughter’s birthday!” Now you have to imagine that soliloquy with a melodramatic delivery—slow, deliberate annunciation of certain words. The arched eyebrows and wide eyes. We all know it because sadly we’ve all done it. I looked at Tyler. I could tell he wasn’t buying what the adult was selling, so I matter-of-factly asked him about it. I said, “Tyler, would it even bother you not being invited to the party? Is that something you care about?” He looked at me in disbelief for a second. He flashed the faintest conspiratorial smile as if to say, “Can I really be honest here?” I gave him a slight nod, and then respectfully and authentically he said, “No, I don’t really care about getting invited to her party. Not trying to be mean, but we’re not even friends anyway.” I had to suppress a laugh. That kind of took the sails out of the meeting. And then it was my turn to talk.

Now let me preface this by saying, in no way did I think I was a miracle worker. I couldn’t wave a wand and everything would be sunshine and rainbows. I started by directly telling Tyler how his actions were affecting adults, students in his class, and, most importantly, him. I asked him why he thought the year had been going the way it was. He started with the patented, “I don’t know.” And I just let that breathe for a bit. I let the silence fill the room until it was deafening. Then, he slowly started mentioning a few interactions that he’d had with certain teachers and how they had rubbed him the wrong way. We got a few more details, and the teachers got to share their perspective of some of those same situations, and that was pretty much it. As I said, I’m not a miracle worker.

However, that was actually huge. It opened the dialogue and at least set the foundation for a connection between Tyler and his other teachers. They had been talking all year--just not the same language. Tyler had been speaking by acting out. His teachers had been speaking their own language--they communicated by kicking him out of class. At least now in that room, they were all hearing each other and speaking the same language. However, as I prefaced, there was no miracle. The year went on, maybe slightly better, but not a night-and-day difference.

Sadly, like the one-way connection, I still find myself occasionally faking connections with kids. But as odd as it sounds, I’m not doing it on purpose. I don’t think any educators are doing it on purpose. Just like in the Tyler example above, the person talking about her daughter’s party was not trying to fake a connection, it just came across as fake because she was really just trying to get Tyler to change his behavior. The meeting wasn’t about the party; it was about his behavior. I don’t know if the adult really wanted Tyler at the party or not--who knows, there might not have even been a party. But the reason we try to force a “connection” is that the student isn’t living up to their potential; so we feign interest in something to try and “motivate” them. We do it with good intentions, but it’s not real. And students can tell when someone isn’t being real.

So, What Now?

How do we avoid the pitfalls? Well, luckily both pitfalls can be avoided by taking the same medicine: authentically listen to students, be direct, and be honest. Three keys. Simple, but definitely not easy. And if I could add an overarching key and quite possibly the most important key: start early. The connection must come first. It’s more important than any lesson you could teach.

Authentically Listen

To authentically listen, we have to listen without a motive or agenda. I’m not choosing to interact with kids just so I can “get them on my side.” I choose to interact and have discussions with kids because I truly want to know what’s going on in their lives. And yes, that includes when they just talk about video games or other topics of which I know very little. I have to invest my time and care about the “small” stuff before I could ever dream of helping students through the bigger stuff. Because that "small" stuff matters to them, it has to matter to me.

Be Direct

Sometimes being direct seems harsh. I don’t beat around the bush and sugar coat my feedback, but at the same time, it comes from a place of genuine love. When it comes from that place of love, my words aren’t dripping with judgment or disdain. And because I have taken the time to show that love to my students all year long, I’ve found that students are more receptive to my direct approach. They know that I’m going to give it to them straight, but only because I care deeply about them. By the same token, I encourage students to be just as direct with me. I want them to give it to me straight, also. I’ve had whole-class meetings where a student will voice a concern with how I treated her. Here we are sitting in a circle as a whole group, and a student will say, "Robin, I didn't like it how you reacted when I was talking during math. It felt like you yelled at me." All eyes turn toward me. Kids wonder how I'll react, but it's really not a big deal. I model how to listen to the feedback, take responsibility for my actions, and promise to work on improving. No hard feelings. In fact, I always thank the student for bringing it to my attention. Being direct is a two-way street. (And yes, my students call me by my first name--it quite possibly helps with making connections, but I have no research to prove that).

Be Honest

Having honest communication dovetails beautifully with forging strong connections. I open up to my students about my home life, my struggles, my successes with the hopes that they will do the same. And that’s the goal! My talking about my life and interests is not--and can’t be--the goal of my communication. It is just a way to open the dialogue. My main goal is to get the student talking about their lives so that I can take an interest. However, I also don’t pretend to be interested in a topic if I’m really not. Kids sense fakeness.

Imagine I’m talking with a student about Pokemon, and I say, “Oh, I love Pokemon, too!” Then the student follows up with the dreaded, “Who’s your favorite?” Now I’m in the deep end without my floaties! This type of interaction actually hinders my connection with that student. My ignorance will be on display, and the student will see right through my disingenuous interest. That, of course, doesn’t mean I’m rude or dismissive when I don’t share the interest with the student. Quite the opposite. That’s actually my foot in the door. That’s when I can ask questions with a true motive to learn about the topic, and more importantly, learn more about why the student likes the topic. I don’t have to like Pokemon to have a connection with the student. I have to like the student to have a connection with the student. I become the student, and the student becomes the expert. They teach me about something that means a lot to them, and I learn about what they care about.

Sometimes I think about what would have happened if Mrs. Weber had attempted to connect with me earlier during my 11th-grade year. Would I have put forth any more effort? It’s hard to say. I suppose she’s right, though; I did underachieve in high school. But she never took the time to ask why. She had 10 months with me, sitting in her class every day; yet, she waited until I had turned in my final test and was leaving class for the last time to try to connect. So, Mrs. Weber, I guess we both underachieved that year, didn’t we?

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