Connecting with Students

Making an effort to connect with your students can have a meaningful impact on the relationships you form. And we all know relationships are the foundation for any great school.

*This video contains graphic language*

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Adam) does not know if he will survive his cancer diagnosis in the 2011 film 50/50. His best friend, Seth Rogen (Kyle), is with him every step of the way.

In this scene things finally come to a head for Adam. Frustrated and uncertain about his fate, Adam berates Kyle for his selfish actions. Up to this point Kyle has seemingly ignored the potential death sentence of Adam’s cancer diagnosis. Kyle’s focus has remained on the stereotypical concerns of a mid-twenties male.

However, when Adam drops his inebriated friend off at his apartment he notices something while washing up. A copy of the book Facing Cancer Together is in the bathroom. Not only does he discover the book, but sees several dog-eared pages. With no dialogue we learn that Kyle’s actions were not self-centered. He was trying to distract Adam from constantly focusing on his own mortality. Kyle was ensuring that if it were in fact Adam’s final months, he was going to enjoy them.

There are times when connections come easy for teachers and students. A physical education teacher will often form relationships with athletically inclined students because they share a common love for sports. Band teachers will gravitate towards students with a passion for playing music. Students with a love for the Civil War can often talk with social studies teachers for extended periods of time.

It is most challenging to make connections when there is no common interest, but sometimes these situations can yield the most impressive results. In these cases, books and music are two easy ways to start building a connection.

Education is constantly changing. One thing that does not change is that adolescents love listening to music. The artists and genres are not the same from 20 or even 5 years ago, but the passion and opinions about music remain as powerful as ever. It is impossible to walk in any middle or high school in the country and not notice students transitioning with their AirPods in.

Students are more than happy to share the names of artists and songs they are listening to. One thing they do not expect is for teachers to go out and actually listen to their music. But in doing so, a teacher may accomplish two important things; the teacher might learn something about his student and he might form a meaningful connection with that student.

It is difficult to get into the psyche of a middle schooler. Often, adults choose to block out that period of time from their lives. And even if they could remember, a lot has changed. By listening to the lyrics of current musicians, teachers get a glimpse into some of the social and emotional issues students are facing. Additionally, everyone has a social media presence. In taking the time to explore popular musicians on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter you may be able to uncover some of the issues they are speaking about or against. Often, students steal their ideas and perspectives from the musicians they listen to.

There is certainly no guarantee that teachers will enjoy the same music that their students are listening to. But, when you make the effort to listen, you are able to intelligently speak with your students about the music. You are able to ask specific questions about songs and bands. Even if you do not love the music, students will notice and appreciate the effort that you are making.

Another area where administrators and teachers can connect with students is through literature. It is extremely easy to go to the media center and ask the media center specialist what are the most checked out books. Because young adult novels are so easy to read, an educator can quickly go through the most popular selections.

Just like you see students with AirPods transitioning from class to class, it is easy to pop into the cafeteria and see students reading off in the corner. To be able to go up to a student who is reading and make a comment about the book they are reading (because you have read the book) will shock and amaze a student. That comment will sometimes lead to you making book recommendations to the student and better yet that student making book recommendation for you.

Books and music are just two examples of ways to connect with your students. There are countless other interests that students immerse themselves in. You do not need look very hard to find out what they are. Even though you might not understand how those books or music speak to your students (just like Kyle could never understand what it was like for Adam to be dealing with cancer), your students will appreciate the time and energy you are putting in to making stronger connections with them.


The emotional toll education takes on teachers makes balance essential to a happy career and a happy life.

Rocky last post and now Mr. Miyagi. The venerable Socrates and Plato of the modern era. Both use combat sports (boxing and karate) as the vehicle to bestow wisdom to their sons (for Daniel, Mr. Miyagi is the father figure he lacked his entire life).

Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi) has just given Ralph Macchio (Daniel) a new car for his birthday. Mr. Miyagi sees how excited Daniel is, but senses something is still troubling him. Daniel shares that he is worried about the upcoming karate tournament.

Mr. Miyagi reminds Daniel of a prior karate lesson on the importance of balance. He shares that balance is not only critical for success in the tournament, but also in life. Handing Daniel a picture of his girlfriend is a reminder that there is more to life than the karate tournament. And, when you focus too much on one area it leads to stress and worry.

Every day teachers invest time, energy, and their hearts into supporting the academic and social emotional needs of their students. It is an incredibly rewarding profession, but also an incredibly draining profession. If a teacher is unable to balance school and their personal life, it is impossible for them to sustain the wonderful things they are doing in the classroom.

There are definite highs in education: establishing trusting relationships with students that allow them to take risks, creating unique learning experiences that engage the most reluctant of learners, collaborating with colleagues to capitalize on the strengths of the whole. The list goes on and on. But, there are times when relationships fail, lessons bomb, and colleagues choose to work in isolation. It is during these moments when balance is most critical.

Every setback is amplified when it is all you have. Without balance there is no avenue to rebound, reset, and refocus. You fester. You stew. You doubt yourself.

Often the best way to recover from a failure is to turn your attention to something else. That something could be family, a hobby, a budding interest…anything. Focusing outside of education does two things: allows you to find joy and gives your brain the time it needs to process and reflect.

When you come home from school and the day, or week, has not gone as planned, it is important to have something to pick you up. You need an escape. You need something that will take your mind off of the problems of the day. You need something to look forward to. As a teacher, it is a necessity to find that something or somethings, because it is too much to put all you happiness eggs in your teacher basket.

Having an escape not only provides joy, but it gives the much needed time away from a recent road block. With time, your brain has time to process what happened, why it happened, and ways to make adjustments moving forward. When you try to fix a problem at school right after it happens, you can easily be either too emotional or too close to it to identify potential solutions.

An administrator’s need for balance is equally important. Because a principal’s job contains such a variety of components, it can be challenging to leave work at work. A “to do” list is often playing on loop in your head. Sometimes you have to tell yourself, occasionally out-loud, to stop thinking about school.

Family and hobbies are two areas suggested earlier to help live a balanced life. An additional one, that is extremely valuable for administrators, is having a group of supportive friends. It would be great to have friends work in professions outside of education, so that the conversations do not constantly revolve around school. However, people tend to gravitate towards those in similar professions, because they spend time together and often share common beliefs.

A principal having other principal friends can be extremely beneficial. A principalship can be lonely, so having friends who face the same challenges is comforting. You never have to say, “But, you don’t understand,” because they do.

One important note to remember is not to let school conversations dominate when you are meeting up with friends outside of school. Remember it is all about balance, and you do not want the lines between school and friends to blur. Otherwise, when things are going poorly at school, you will not want to meet up with friends either.

Deliberately look for things not school related to share with friends. Be the one who suggests a new restaurant to eat at, sporting event to attend, or show to binge watch together. Your administrator friends will thank you, because even though they understand the importance of balance, they might not always make the choices to live balanced.

Educators experience highs and lows. When you hit a rough patch, having balance allows you to ride out the low times and get you back to what you do best…changing lives!

Coping with Failure

If you have a growth mindset, you know that failure is part of the learning process. That does not make it any easier to deal with, however. It is critical to not let setbacks impede your progress.

I cannot believe it took until my twelfth post to include a clip from a Rocky movie. Truth be told, this whole blog could have been crafted around the Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) franchise.

In this scene from Rocky Balboa, Rocky is speaking with his son, Milo Ventimiglia (Robert), outside his restaurant. Robert is upset that Rocky is taking a fight when he is clearly past his prime. However, Robert’s concern does not lie in the safety of his father, but rather how he will be perceived. While there is a lot to unpack from this scene, the most important takeaway is about about continuing on in spite of obstacles.

Rocky preaches, “But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” Rocky knows that people will criticize his decision. They will not understand his choice to return to boxing. The easy path would be to remain retired, but Rocky believes there are some things he still needs to sort out…and Rocky does his best sorting out in the ring.

There is a lot for Rocky to overcome leading up to his fight: criticism, disrespect, taunting, humiliation, and fear. Life is what is going to “hit” Rocky, not his opponent. By “moving forward” through the adversity, Rocky is going to win, no matter what the outcome of the fight is.

Winning and losing in the classroom can take on a variety of forms. On a small scale, a single lesson can crash and burn. If you look much larger, maybe you were never able to reach a child that you knew was in desperate need of a positive relationship with a trusted adult.

Anyone who has taught has experienced the epiphany of an amazing lesson. Anyone who has taught has also experienced the pure misery of that magical lesson falling flat on its face. Sometimes what plays out in our heads is not what plays out in the classroom. But that is 100% normal and 100% okay. No risks means no rewards. To stifle creativity in fear of a lesson bombing is a disservice to students.

Relationships are at the heart of every great educator. Early in the school year teachers can pinpoint which students have never had the connection with an educator necessary to generate a love of learning. Great educators live and breathe this sort of challenge. They provide love, support, patience, time, an ear, effort, and energy to the student who may have never experienced any of it.

The dream is that ten years down the road that student is giving their valedictorian speech and reminisces about you and how their life was headed down one path and that all changed because of you. It is a marvelous thought. Unfortunately, it does not alway work out that way. Sometimes all the time and effort you spend trying to make a connection with a student does not pan out.

So what does that teacher do? Never go above the call of duty to reach a lost child? Play it safe because opening up can lead to pain? Absolutely not! It will not always work out the way you imagine. But it will never work out if you do not put in the effort to change the trajectory of the lives of your students. In order to make a difference, you have to take that risk.

For a principal, a lot rides on standardized test results. Scores are important. They show the areas where a school is growing and where a school is underperforming. So what do you do when a years worth of work results in less than ideal scores?

It is really easy to do the following: discount the scores, blame someone/something for the results, get angry, or even get depressed. Rocky would not consider any of these options. The best two things to do are to not shy away from the data and look for the areas to celebrate.

Staring at spreadsheets that display unanticipated results is a tough pill to swallow. But, when you take the time to look closely at the scores you will start to see patterns and make connections to what might have led to those results. It is when you choose to ignore poor scores that you miss out on understanding where you might have gone wrong. Fast-forwarding a year, without looking at the data, will give you zero confidence. But digging deeper and making alterations based on the results will have you feeling much more optimistic the next go round.

Lastly, nothing is ever all bad. There is a silver lining in even the most dire of test results. Look for the positive. Teachers will want their principal to be honest, but they need hope as well. Find the area(s) where the school made growth. Highlight what the teachers did that yielded those results. When people are recognized for the successes they create, they will desire that feeling again and again. So when you do share scores that were not so great, they will want to do everything in their power to turn the concern into an area of celebration for next year.

“You, me, or nobody is going to hit as hard as life.” The most important choice we make is the one when life knocks us down. Do we choose to give up, make an excuse, or look for a way out? No, we are educators, so we choose to “keep moving forward” and do everything in our power to better the lives of our students.

Asking and Answering Questions

There is an assumption that those in leadership positions have all the right answers. Although they frequently do have more experience, greater access to resources, and the benefit of seeing things from a broader perspective than other teachers, questioning ideas, initiatives, and lines of thinking increases dialogue. Through discourse, more educators are brought to the table. More educators means more perspectives, and a greater chance at finding the right solution.

No one has any questions for John Heard (Paul) following his Transformers knockoff proposal. No one, that is, until Tom Hanks (Josh) raises his hand. In this scene from Big, Josh does not understand why kids would want to have buildings transform into robots because, “What’s fun about playing with a building?”

“I don’t get it.” Four simple words that disrupt the entire meeting. Josh is not trying to be difficult, he is trying to understand. What makes Josh a great toy company employee is that he understands the demographic, because he is the demographic.

Paul tries to use reports and data to make his point. He is too far removed from the job (creating toys that kids want to play with) to understand Josh’s concern. Maybe there was time when Paul was in-tune with what kids wanted to play with, but that time has long past.

The scene starts with a very sterile pitch. No one is inspired. No one has questions. No one is involved. By making one simple statement, Josh transforms (pun intended) a boring meeting into a lively conversation where everyone is contributing.

Principals oversee the direction of schools, from mission and vision statements to bell schedules and grading policies. Decisions that impact school stakeholders are either made by the principal or under their direction.

The problem arises, when a principal becomes so far removed from teaching that they overlook the nuances of the classroom. So how do principals stay connected? They welcome questions and use those questions to drive conversations.

Principals are equipped to be the ultimate change agents in a school. If they combine their experience and access to resources with the wealth of knowledge that comes from teachers in the building, there is no limit to a school’s potential The staff’s knowledge base is tapped through the encouragement of questions. Principals should never shy away from considering alternatives or explaining the reasoning for decisions. Not only does it foster more ideas, it supports an inclusive climate that all teachers love working in.

Teachers need to ask questions for two important reasons: to generate ideas and for clarification.

The best ideas come from teachers because they work in the ultimate proving grounds…the classroom. Teachers know what works and what does not work. You will frequently here a teacher say, “Well that crashed and burned.” Teachers change instruction from class period to class period. They use student response to improve instruction.

When teachers ask questions they open the door for other teachers to share ideas. Teachers use the anecdotal evidence from the classroom to feed off each other and create new ideas. The great thing about these forums is that it provides a rare opportunity for teachers to hear what colleagues are doing in the classroom. Instead of 1+1=2, it becomes 1+1=3.

Lastly, no one likes be given directives with no explanation. When teachers ask clarifying questions, they allow principals to provide the reasons for decisions. Teachers who understand an initiative are far more likely to support it. A two minute explanation in front of the faculty will increase buy-in exponentially.

Principals should not see questions as a threat. They should see them as a means to generate greater staff involvement and creativity. Teachers, do not be afraid to ask questions, because questions help everyone understand the direction of a school and open the doors to the brilliance that comes from the classroom.

There is No End Zone

The very thing that makes education so challenging makes it so rewarding. You never complete a project, close a sale, or finalize a build. Teaching is never ending. That might sound ominous, but it is the constant struggle that forces educators to grow, making each victory a little sweeter…even if there is no time to stop and enjoy it.

In this scene from 1989’s Parenthood, Jason Robards (Frank) is giving his son, Steve Martin (Gil), insight about when you finish being a parent. The message is clear, “It never, never ends.”

Frank is the father of four grown children, each with their own children. Frank’s youngest son, Tom Hulce (Larry), is a constant disappointment. Despite his failures, Frank is perpetually backing Larry’s ill-planned ideas, much to the confusion of oldest son, Gil. Contrary to Larry, Gil is a successful family man, but is struggling with his oldest son, Jasen Fisher (Kevin).

In one of the final scenes of the movie, Frank sheds light on why he continues to support Larry. It is not that he believes Larry’s get rich schemes will work, it is because he knows that no matter how old Larry gets, he needs his father in his corner. There is no symbolic bird leaving the nest. The work of a parent is endless.

Every year schools set goals: reduce suspensions, increase growth scores, decrease staff turnover, etc. At the end of the year, the school uses data to chart which goals were successful and which ones continue to need attention. Even accomplished goals are never complete. Just because suspensions are reduced does not mean there are not ways to continue to increase seat time. Improved growth scores does not necessarily mean all subgroups made growth. Having less staff leave is great, but there are always way to provide a more supportive environment for the educators in the building.

Sometimes the strategies used to accomplish goals one year do not work the next year. Every students is different, every teacher is different, and every year is different. This seems extremely disheartening. But it is not. It is what makes education far more rewarding than typical 9-5 jobs. Educators are forced to constantly problem solve, troubleshoot, and brainstorm. And they cannot do it on their own. It takes the collaboration of many to attend to these problems.

As a teacher, this is true on an even smaller scale. Tuesday might have gone off without a hitch, but Wednesday was a total nightmare. You never really figure it out. Constant tweaking and planning and differentiating is a daily occurrence. Those modifications are not happening in isolation, they are happening on teams, in departments, and in committees.

The irreplaceable teachers are the ones who continuously reinvent themselves. Through reading, professional development, or meaningful conversation with colleagues, they develop new strategies to create relationships with students, increase engagement, and spark a love of learning in their students. Great teachers understand that the formula for success is ever changing. The only way to approach it is through self-improvement.

“There is no end zone. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball, and do your touchdown dance.” And that is okay, because the rewards you get as an educator for bettering yourself and positively impacting students far outweigh the trivial accolades you might get in another profession.

%d bloggers like this: