How To Reach–And Change–Your Students

How Can You Reach And Change Your Students?

by Terry Heick

Reaching students emotionally might just be overlooked.

Considering our goal as educators is to make a difference in the lives of others around us, we might consider the legacy we leave in the minds (and hearts) of students. If and how you will be remembered by students may sound like a bit of an ego trip, but the truth of the matter is, if you’re not making any kind of an impression, they’re probably not learning.

(Unless you can imagine a classroom of stunning and robotic efficiency in which you shape the minds of students without ever reaching them as human beings.)

This doesn’t require every teacher to be Jaime Escalante or Mr. Keating from Dead Poet’s Society to make an impact, but rather it requires you to find your own way into the heads and hearts of your students. Below are a few ideas to help jumpstart your thinking on how this might happen.

How To Reach Students: 18 Simple Ways To Make A Lasting Impact

1. Make them curious.

Curiosity is the fuel for discovery, inquiry, and learning. It is a state of mind that is open and flexible and in-tune with something substantive and accessible. Or seeks to be in-tune with something substantive and accessible.

Curious students are guided by something other than compliance, and its other byproducts –investigation, collaboration, reflection, and others—can last a lifetime.

2. Model macro-thinking.

Absolutely, focus on your learning target that is standards-based, but model the macro-context that target fits within, and not just at the beginning of class, but over and over again. Then sketch out for them the context for the everything else they do: reading, writing, thinking. Help them see the big picture without chiding or sounding preachy.

And don’t tell them-help them see it themselves.

3. Tell stories.

Everybody loves a story. Tell them—in a way that is natural and comfortable for you—and students will begin to see you in three dimensions, as a full human being interacting with them for their own intellectual growth. (See our post, “Storytelling Tips for Teachers.”)

4. Know what to overlook.

Knowing what to ‘pretend not to notice’ is an important part of any relationship. Not everything is a teaching point. Not every mistake needs correcting, and certainly doesn’t need correcting by you. Doing so only ensures that the terms of your relationship with that student will defined by a constant struggle, and a tone of judgment and ‘correction.’

5. Set them up to surprise themselves.

To have an enduring impact on students, they need to ultimately see themselves differently somehow: more aware, more reflective, more capable. If your work with them doesn’t result in them seeing themselves in a new light, it has less of a chance to ‘take hold’ and last. Do your best to place them in situations where they can see not only their growth academically, but personally as well.

6. Make them feel on even ground when you speak.

Make eye contact. Use tone that implies both respect and appreciation. Choose body language that communicates interest and compassion. ‘Even ground’ doesn’t require you to lose ‘authority,’ but rather to move from ‘speaking to’ students to ‘talking with’ students.

7. Acknowledge & honor emotions.

Emotions matter. Use them to prime the pump for learning, to inspire self-direction, and to recognize each student full as a human being. Challenge yourself not to react personally to certain emotions that may seem antagonizing or otherwise problematic, but rather to focus on students feeling not just heard, but fully understood as human beings with complex histories and circumstances that color their learning experiences no matter how clinical you try to make them.

8. Show trust.

Trusting a student communicates more than you can otherwise put into words. Give them chances to see the value and complexity of trust.

9. Compliment them (authentically).

Everyone loves to be complimented. And don’t patronize them. They can tell.

10. Pay attention.

Recognizing the nuance of each student—their patterns, their insecurities, the fact that they wear two different shoes because they think it looks cool—proves to them that you see them as people, not students. This is no small shift.

11. Go out of your way to speak to them outside of class.

Find them in the halls, in pep rallies, in the lunch room, during extra-curricular activities, athletic events, etc. Well, maybe don’t “find them”—that’s kind of stalkerish. But use your instincts to know to say hello, when to smile, and when to sit down with them in the lunchroom and make them feel awkward.

12. Model the challenging of convention.

You want credibility with students? Beyond playing video games and listening to ‘cool music,’ one way to really get their attention is to challenge convention. For many students, their lives are dominated by one non-stop routine of listen-and-do.

Showing them when, how, and why to challenge social rules and public expectation will not only make a lasting impression, but will also help them learn to do so in a ‘healthy’ manner.

13. Be honest.

Students have excellent bologna detectors, unfortunately. Lie, mislead, ‘spin’ at your own risk.

14. See through their behavior & academic performance.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about their performance in the classroom, only that you see it in its context of their lives. You see its causes and effects. You see the person behind the performance, and focus on them. In fact, that’s a theme with all of these strategies: focus on the human being.

15. Convince them they can.

Focus as much on self-efficacy as standards-based proficiency. One leads to the other.

16. Be human.

Admit mistakes. Laugh. Get distracted. Let them prove you wrong. Crazy thing, but students like humans more than teachers.

17. Take extra time.

Do your best to take extra time, in spots, with all students. This could be in the classroom, in the hallway, or in the margin of their latest essay. The one finite and critical resource teachers need is time. Spending it on students says everything.

18. Establish a relationship.

See all of the above.

How To Reach–And Change–Your Students

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