I’ve taught for three decades, and I’ve learned a lot about professional development. But at its core, education is a people business. Yet, I can’t recall a single professional development opportunity that explored in-depth the essential task of bonding with students. In his landmark book, Visible Learning, John Hattie developed a master list of 138 influences on student learning, and student-teacher relationships finished in 11th place, far ahead of many other pedagogical factors.
So, if you think your staff could do a little better in the bonding department, you might want to consider tackling the problem using reverse engineering. Instead of directing your staff to stalk students or come on too strongly, encourage your teachers to become more interesting or approachable to students. To coax reluctant students out of their shells, melt arctic exteriors, or win over the disruptive ones, teachers need to become more intriguing, familiar, safe, and, absolutely nonthreatening.
An excellent way to implement this strategy is for your teachers to tell stories about themselves. The power of storytelling can truly be amazing. Teachers need to allow students to get to know them. Isn’t that the way most relationships are forged?
Teachers as Photojournalists
Images make stories more powerful. Encourage your staff to become photojournalists with their smartphones. Inspire them to share interesting stories from their weekend on Monday mornings. Be prepared, however, to have some staff push back with comments such as “What a tremendous waste of instructional time,” “Teachers need to be respected, but not as entertainers,” and “My students would look at me like I’m an idiot!”
Certainly, spending a few minutes at the beginning of class bonding with kids can be a fruitful use of time, particularly if you believe, like John Hattie, that relationships are essential to the learning process. You might find improved rapport magically leads to better student performance. And your teachers don’t need to be court jesters or stand-up comedians, or even extroverts to succeed in this mission. The experiences they share don’t even have to be humorous.
In general, most teachers are at least extroverted (and some of them, of course, are extremely extroverted). I also realize that, for certain teachers, it is not particularly easy to open up or to be bit of a “ham,” so to speak. But it is essential that educators strive to become fascinating adults that students can find appealing and interesting. Yes, that means bringing students into your world. No, not literally-I’m not proposing that teachers invite students to dinner-but I am suggesting that teachers allow kids to live vicariously through hearing about their intriguing adventures and personal experiences.
But please warn your staff that when they first go down this sharing path, some kids may be dismissive or hostile, reacting with remarks such as “What’s this gotta do with what we’re studying?” or “Why are you telling us this stuff?” Reassure them that one crabby student doesn’t constitute a consensus. I’ve often found that kids who are initially the most persnickety later tend to be the first to start sharing back. …”Mr. Sturtevant, guess where my family ate last night?” Or, “Mr. Sturtevant, let me show you a picture of my dog.”
Finally, remember that today’s student seems totally comfortable sharing trivial details of daily existence, posting on social media massive photo albums of themselves, complete with their favorite teams, food, music, movies, shows, games, and apps.
James Sturtevant teaches global studies and dual enrollment world cvilization at Big Walnut High School in Sunbury, OH.
Sidebar: Making it Work
Bonding with students—by having your staff tell stories about themselves—works. Start the process by having your staff convene in small groups and dialogue about the implications of sharing stories with students. Allow them to practice these skills among their peers before trying them out in the classroom. Then follow these steps to implement a successful bonding program involving storytelling at your next staff meeting:
- Challenge each teacher to find an intriguing photo on his or her phone to share with colleagues.
- Have staff walk around the room for 10 -15 minutes describing their image to colleagues.
- Ask staff to describe something they learned about a colleague.
- Ask a few willing staff members to email you their image and project it on a screen to the rest of the staff as your “brave volunteer” regales the room.