By Teachers, For Teachers
I originally thought that teaching “Bell to bell” was the proper way to manage a classroom. My school operates with 50-minute periods, and I believed it was my responsibility to use classroom management to ensure every second of each period was strictly dedicated to academic work.
If students weren’t in their seats when the bell rang, it was a tardy. If students packed their belongings into their bags before the bell dismissed them, they were reprimanded. If anything interrupted the flow and design of a lesson, I grew angry and felt defeated. Learning, after all, was a serious business.
But over recent years I’ve relaxed, some. I still believe learning is a serious business, but I also believe that how we use classroom management to go about it matters. Instead of strictly running the class period on a bell-to-bell mentality that limited all teacher-student interaction to the business of “Learning,” I now try to take intentional steps throughout my time with students to build relationships.
One simple change I’ve made is to dedicate, at a minimum, the first two minutes and the last two minutes of each class period to intentionally connect with students.
Before we even talk about those first two minutes, I want to address how students enter my classroom. It used to be quite common for students to walk into the room and find their busy teacher distracted, scrambling to get the final elements of the lesson prepped. I’d be rummaging around the room, sifting through files on my computer, or otherwise have my head buried in some I-feel-like-I-must-do-this-right-now-but-it’s-not-actually-that-important sort of task.
But I don’t want students to so easily avoid me. I don’t want them to slip into class unnoticed. I want them to know I see them and that I care. So now I make sure that anything I need, I have ready to go before students even enter the room. Then I stand outside the doorway and greet each and every student as they enter.
When I greet students, I smile, say hello, greet them by name, and ask them how they are doing. Sometimes I end up conversing with one or more students before they enter the room, other times they hardly acknowledge me. But the important factor is that I acknowledge them; an adult has positively reached out and enthusiastically welcomed their presence. This sets the tone for the entire class period together.
So the bell rings, and my “Old self” would have jumped directly into that day’s task. But now I’m not so anxious to dive headlong into the learning. We’ll get there. But my first priority is connecting with my students.
Now, these first two minutes are not a free-for-all when students are at liberty to do as they please around or outside of the room. It’s not recess, social club, or study hall. But it is a more relaxed, some say “Easing into” the day’s lesson. I may have instructions posted on the screen or board, or I may ask students to open up to the work they left off doing the day before. But it’s in these moments – these casual, opening moments of class – that I dedicate to connecting with students.
Here are a few things I try:
Talk to the whole class. I might begin by asking a general question, like “Who did something fun this weekend?” or “Can you believe the weather today?” There’s no magic in the question, we just take a few minutes to connect about something other than what we’ll spend most of class studying.
Tell a story. There’s something about stories that act as a sort of cultural “Glue.” For some reason, when I tell a student, it feels like I have more attention from students than during our academic tasks. Sometimes my stories have something to do with class that day, sometimes not. Other times, I solicit other students to tell their stories.
Check in with one or two specific students. Instead of talking to the whole class, I may just wander the room and target one or two students who may benefit from direct attention. I ask them how they are doing, what their opinion is on this or that, and just generally talk to them like a human being rather than as a student in an authoritarian school setting.
Welcome the student who has been gone. Sometimes students miss a few days, and I like to welcome them back to class and ask them how they’re doing. Yes, we’ll briefly cover anything that they may have missed, but the priority is to let them know I noticed they were gone in the first place.
Show them something I care about. There’s something contagious about passion, even when the topic doesn’t align with someone else’s passion. Sometimes I start just by opening up to students and showing them something I’m passionate about. This helps open the door for students talking about what’s important to them, and often sets a great tone for the learning that’s about to follow.
Mention something going on around the school. If there’s a school play, a sporting event, or a cool promotion, I tell students about it and encourage them to participate.
The overall positivity and connectedness matter much more than your specific approach. I never let these interactions devolve into a class period of social interaction – there is learning to be done. But when we allocate time toward building relationships, we’ll find that the actual learning happens in a much more positive way as well.
So the class period is about to end, the learning task is wrapping up, and we have two minutes left … what should we do? Like the first two minutes, I dedicate the last few toward connecting with students. I no longer feel like I need to scramble headlong into the dismissal bell to get out every last ounce of learning. Instead, I try to take a few moments just to focus on relationships.
I don’t have a magic formula or a “Top Ten” list of the best ways to start a conversation with students. I’m just myself around them for a few minutes, and I give them permission to be themselves around me too. We chat, we joke, we laugh, we wrap up, we wish another good days, and so on.
At times, I do try to single out one or two students who, during the class period, said or did something that I want to follow up on. Sometimes it’s just an interesting thought they had, or sometimes they just didn’t seem like themselves and I check in to see if they’re OK.
Like when they entered, I’m standing by the doorway saying goodbye. Big smile, lavish compliments, and warm wishes included. Yes, I do have to hustle to get to my next period’s classroom, but for a few moments I ignore that fact and let my belongings sit idle. My hands are free, and my attention is focused solely on my students.
This article is not focus on learning, but rather on the learning environment. I find that when we build relationships with our students, we are making an investment that has payoffs in the immediate and distant future. Students feel respected, understood, and confident when their teacher notices them. They feel comfortable in class, and more prone toward positive social and learning behaviors.
If I were to sit down and “Do the math” on the best way to spend our first and last minutes together in class, I firmly believe that allocating that time towards relationship building makes a bigger impact than squeezing in four more minutes of instruction. What do you think?
How do you spend your opening and closing minutes of class? What are other ways you intentionally build relationships with students? Tell our TeachHUB.com community all about it in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.