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Virginia Journal of Education

The Same Wavelength

by Marsha Lopez

"This is stupid ," Mandy emphatically proclaimed when she learned of the assignment to create a role-play about conflict and conflict resolution. "I'm not gettin' up in front of the class and doin' this."

Of course, I could hear her comments, even though she was sitting in the very back of the classroom while I was up front. As the other students began working on their projects, I walked back and asked Mandy if she could step outside the class with me for a moment. Of course, I got the standard teenage "eye roll," but she followed me without much coaxing.

"What's the matter, Mandy?" I asked. "What is it about the assignment you don't like?"

"It's just stupid, Ms. Lopez. I can't get up in front of all those people and do that," she said sincerely.

"But Mandy," I replied, "you'll be great at this! As a matter of fact, you're one of the students I had in mind when I created this assignment. You have such a strong voice, and you're so cute and funny. You'll be a wonderful little actress."

I could see the change in her demeanor immediately. "Do you really think so?" she asked anxiously.

"Of course I do! How about if I help your group get started with the role-play and then you can take it from there?" I cajoled.

"OK," she said, and almost skipped back into the room.

In a matter of minutes, Mandy had gone from dreading an assignment to being excited about it, and all it took was establishing a connection.

Sounds easy, huh? However, it's not often that simple when dealing with teenagers, their hormones and their emotions. As teachers, however, we all know the importance of building rapport with students. Studies have clearly shown that making a connection with your students enhances their learning, increases your effectiveness as a teacher, and improves classroom discipline. Here's just one example of how good rapport can make a big difference: One year, I had a senior who always wanted to be the center of attention. He was one of only two boys in my College Notetaking class, so he had a beautiful audience filled with his female peers. I was lecturing one day, and Donnie decided that he needed a little extra attention. He began yelling out inappropriate remarks while I was trying to teach, and finally the young ladies in my class got tired of it. One of the girls turned around and said, "Donnie, be quiet! Ms. Lopez is trying to teach!" "Yeah, Donnie," said her friend, "stop being such a jerk! You can't treat Ms. Lopez like that!" That put Donnie in his place, and he proceeded to sit there quietly and listen like his classmates. Because of the relationship I had established with my class, they actually came to my defense to ensure classroom management and discipline, and I didn't even need to say a word.

Clearly, there are definite advantages to connecting with your high school students in the classroom. What are some things you can do to help establish this connection?

First, learn your students' names. It's impossible to build rapport with your students if you don't even know their names. Learn their names early and use them both in and out of class. I will never forget my religion professor from college because I passed him in a walkway the first week of class, and although he literally had hundreds of students and had just met us all for the new semester, he spoke to me by name. We are still in touch over 20 years later.

Another way to connect with your students is to model respect for them. Really listen to what they have to say. Make eye contact and use your body language to let them know you're not only listening, but that you actually care and understand. Also, a little politeness goes a long way. Say "please" and "thank you" to your teenage students, and you'd be surprised how many of them will reciprocate.

It's also very important that you are accessible and responsive to your students. Sometimes teenagers might act like they don't care what you think, but it's just a fa�ade. Let your students know that they can come to you for assistance and make sure that they know where to find you. I had a freshman class once that wanted to have "talk time," so at the end of class one day a week, I would ask if there was anyone who needed to talk to me in the hall. I would get everything from Susie who wanted to tell me about cheerleading tryouts to Brandon who was having trouble getting along with his new stepbrother at home. My students looked forward to this "activity" so much that they started to actually sign up a week ahead of time just to ensure they would get their own individual talk time with me in the hall.

Part of being responsive is providing feedback to your students on any assignments they turn in. Make sure you write notes on their papers so students will know that you read and thought about their work. Don't let the bravado fool you-high school students love compliments as much as anyone else does. You might even want to use stickers at times-they like them, too.

It's also extremely helpful in making connections to identify your students' interests. Ask them to write in a journal-reading these will provide you with some much needed insight into their thoughts. I've asked my students to write on topics ranging from "My Favorite Food" to "My Most Embarrassing Moment" to "My Family," and I am always surprised at how willing they are to open up to me in this manner. I love reading the journals because it gives me a sense of who each student is as an individual, which helps me know how to relate to them in class. Don't forget to let the students know that the journals are confidential. When possible, try to share some of your personal experiences with them that relate to their entries. They will appreciate the fact that you are willing to disclose such information to them, and they will respond accordingly.

It's very important that you show your students that you care. Little things like displaying their work and bragging about them to their parents or other teachers will go a long way because they want to know that you are proud of them. Another easy way to show them you care is to acknowledge their birthdays. I have a "birthday bag" in my classroom, and each student gets to select a present from the bag on his or her special day. I put things like candy bars, pencils, costume jewelry, super-bouncy balls and bubbles in it, and they love digging around in there to find that special little something to brighten their birthday. I like to make them food like brownies or chocolate chip cookies for winning ball games or for scoring a perfect 600 on a Standards of Learning test. Also, students love it when their teachers attend their games, concerts and other special events. Every time my students see me at one, their eyes just light up.

Finally, never underestimate the power of sharing your enthusiasm! Be animated in your classroom-perhaps even dress up, dance, gesticulate, tell stories-do what it takes to keep the students interested. They want to see that you are excited about teaching so that they can get excited about learning. Last year, I taught an extremely difficult lesson about entity relationship diagrams to my ORACLE class, and they were getting a little despondent about the work due to its complexity. I made a deal with them that I would do a cartwheel in class if they would all finish their diagrams and earn an A or B on the assignment. Of course, they all did as I asked, and they were overjoyed to see my "old lady" cartwheel right in the middle of their business class. Some of them still talk about it.

Sometimes, making that connection is as easy as a simple human gesture of kindness. Victor Borge once said, "A smile is the shortest distance between two people." This saying applies to you and your teenage students, so make sure you smile, smile, smile! Let your students know that you are excited about the fact that they're there-smile when they enter your classroom. Laugh when they tell you a joke. When you pass them in the hall or you see them in WalMart, smile and show your enthusiasm. I bet you they will smile back!

As you know, you spend more time with some of your students than anyone else in their lives. You very well might be the only positive influence they have. Be the teacher who connects with them in the classroom today-they will remember you tomorrow.

Lopez, a member of the Franklin County Education Association, is a business education teacher at Franklin County High School. She is the 2007 Region VI Virginia Teacher of the Year.



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