It’s common enough to see a really well-meaning teacher whose chief goal is to create a classroom where kids feel welcome, included, enjoyed, and honored, but to forget that this is only half the battle. Yes, we need kids to all identify with school, to identify with our class culture, to feel that who we’re asking them to be lines up with who they are. And yes, this is very, very challenging with many of our kids. In my own practice, I’ve found this challenging in Baltimore, MD, Cedar Springs, MI, and in the various substitute gigs I took while living in New York City.
Yet belonging alone isn’t enough. Rather, it’s only the first of two difficult steps suggested by one of the four academic mindsets. (See #1 in Figure 1.) The second step is equally critical: belong to what?
In today’s article, I want to examine the efficient means through which I aim to create belonging. Next time, I’ll explore the second step — belonging to what?
Tracking Genuine Connections
At the start of the school year, I get all of my kids’ names onto a single piece of paper, clip it onto my clipboard (see Figure 2), and keep track of moments of genuine connection. I don’t always write down what the moment was or what we connected on, but I always at least make a marking (e.g., a green dot) next to kids whom I’ve connected with at least once. I’m going to share some examples of the types of things that get said during these “moments of genuine connection” because I think that’s the clearest way of communicating what I mean by “moment of genuine connection.”
- A student who succeeded after setbacks: “Henry, I know you joined this class late, and I want you to know that I realize the challenges that come with that. When you scored so well on our most recent quiz, that spoke to me of your determination to improve — and that’s exactly what I’m after in you this year. Keep it up, young man.”
- A student who I know is shy: “Jessica, the last thing I was expecting today for our first pop-up debate was for you to stand up first, boldly making your point. Even now with class over, I’m blown away by that, Jessica, just blown away.”
- A former student in the hallway: “Noah, I heard you saying that you had a sophomore slump, but listen to me: it sounds like you’ve recognized that as a problem and that you’ve set your eyes on doing better in your junior year. Doing better happens one day at a time, Noah. Improve one day at a time. If you need anything, I’m here.”
- A student who seemed goofy at the start of the school year but showed a real aptitude with one of our recurring tasks: “Kylie, when we do the dates warm-up, I noticed the other day that you’re really sharp at it — when other students were fifty percent done, you were closer to ninety percent. That’s crazy — keep up the good work, young lady!”
- A student who I don’t know that well yet: “Austin, I just wanted to say that I’m glad you’re in my class. If you work hard this year, I know you will set yourself up for a successful high school experience. It will be my job to teach you how to do that while we also learn world history.”
- A twin who’s fairly quiet: “Maddie, you are twins with Cliff! What’s it like being in the same class as Cliff? … I am fortunate to get to teach you both.”
- An eleventh grade student who gave a flippant answer to my ‘plan after graduation’ question: “Bobby, by the end of this year I want you to be able to tell me, without any joking or shame, what your plan is after graduation. You are an enjoyable young man who deserves a life of providing for himself; whether the plan is working right after high school or community college or whatever else, I want you to be able to quickly state it when I ask you to. Let me know if I can help talk it through with you.”
While these are all unique examples for the past few months, there are at least things they have in common.
- First, it’s not a moment of genuine connection if it’s not genuine. Duplicity is the enemy of belonging. I can’t hate my kids behind their backs and genuinely connect with them while they’re with me. The integrated life is what we’re after — that’s what will make us saner in life and better at teaching, all at the same time.
- Second, regardless of the situation or the kid, I’m trying to communicate, each time, “Hey, I see you, and I see you as one of us. I’m glad I get to be around you this year. I see potential in you.” Psychologists would call this identity-based motivation. I am speaking to their sense of self and arguing for that identity to include a shard about being a part of my class.
- Third, as I looked through my clipboard and chose the above examples to share with you, I didn’t do any editing in writing them. Despite that, when I look back at them, I see me saying the kid’s name, every time. Early on in my career, I had a mentor named Trent Gladstone who always used my name when he would talk to me — probably once a minute almost. I don’t have any research to back this up, but there seems to be something powerful about the use of a person’s name.
The importance of keeping track
Once or twice per school day, I’ll go through my list and add any “moments of genuine connection” that I’ve had with kids, marking them and moving on to other work. I jokingly refer to my “high-tech” clipboard in Figure 2’s caption, but this really is a key component of the effort. If I don’t keep track of these moments of genuine connection on the clipboard, guess what happens? I forget kids. Had I not kept track this year, I wouldn’t have known that Isaac, Aden, and Easton needed a minute of my time, either in the hallway or during class.
So, there you have it: a simple technique for working at the initial goal of making kids feel like they belong. Next time, let’s look at this question: belong to what? And all throughout, let’s keep in mind that this isn’t for the ooshy-gooshy feel-gooders, it’s part of a systematic approach at leveraging noncognitive factors to create classrooms where more kids are motivated to learn, all without forcing us all to the family-sacrificing lady from Freedom Writers.