Making Real Connections with Students

by Karla Bellinger

What was your favorite teacher from your school days?

Most likely you remember the connection you had with him or her better than the subject matter he or she taught. Learn how you can build and strengthen real human connections between you and your students.

Miss O’Riordon: Fifth grade. I was the new girl in an inner-city school. The white concrete-block building and the mix of students felt foreign and unfamiliar, but that young teacher made me feel comfortable and very much at home. I came alive in her classroom.

Can you name an educator who connected with you when you were a child? How did he or she do that? Was it just a special “something,” a magic mix of personal ingredients that bonded that teacher or coach or administrator with you? Or was there something specific that he or she did that was unforgettable and life-changing?

As you recall that teacher, how do you become like that teacher? Professional development programs often speak to differentiated instruction, classroom management, technological growth, curriculum development, and standards creation. But in the long haul, what fires an educator’s inner motor is to see that he or she has made a difference in a child’s life. Connecting with students is satisfying and warms the heart. Connecting with students is the reason most teachers teach. Is this trait of “connecting” something that can be learned? Is it something that we can get better at? If so, how?

To find that out, I asked questions. For my doctorate in preaching, I surveyed 561 Catholic high-school students from around the U.S. My research questions inquired of these young listeners, “How do we better connect our Catholic Sunday preaching with you?” What I found out from them about connection also transfers to the classroom and to everyday life. In the concluding Q&A at the first of my workshops at the 2013 NCEA convention in Houston, a woman raised her hand and said that she had come to get help in connecting with her third-graders; what she learned, she planned to take home and use with her husband. Creating connection is a conundrum we all have in common.

Symptoms of Connection and Disconnection

So first, how do we recognize when we are “connecting?” Think of a particular person and an unforgettable time when you were as close to someone as you have ever been. What did that feel like?
In the same way, I asked the students in my survey to identify an adult who best connected with them, and then to describe the symptoms of that connection. Most commonly, they named family members—mom, dad, uncle, grandma, etc. Second, they named educators—teachers, coaches, choir directors, etc.

Then they identified the following symptoms of connection: being comfortable together, naturally flowing conversation, easy laughter, feeling affirmed, having the freedom and safety to be oneself, open body posture, and (appropriate) touch. In their comments about connection, students emphasized a sense of lightness and peace—the relationship just “flowed.”

A 17-year-old girl described it like this: “Connection to me means to be able to relate well and be able to talk comfortably with that person. To connect also can mean to share common ideas and beliefs. The person I can think of that connects with me is a teacher. She makes eye contact, listens well, and gives great advice [that] I can relate to. I can feel a person truly cares when they connect with me. Signs of feeling safe.”

A 16-year-old said, “It feels very good when an older person connects with you because at a young age we often feel very confused. I feel that it is very good and healthy to have an older person that you can connect with.”

Now ponder the flip side of connection—a time of deep discord in a classroom, at a staff or parent meeting, a contract negotiation, a family feud, or your worst interpersonal experience. What did that disconnection feel like?

That too has identifiable symptoms: awkwardness and discomfort; jaw-clenching tension and stomach-wrenching fear; self-protectiveness and avoidance of conflict; feeling small and worthless when belittled or mocked; shrinking inward; an unwillingness to interact or engage; dullness, sleepiness, or boredom; or an explosion of anger or rage.

Human connections are messy. “Connecting” in cyberspace seems simpler. Yet, not one of the kids in my survey defined “connection” as more technology—they already live and breathe in that world. They hanker for personal touch.

How do we build those relationships? To strengthen a bond: 1) identify the symptoms of connection and disconnection; 2) diagnose your current state of affairs by locating the sources of connection and disconnection; and 3) each day, work on making one connection with one person in one moment. You won’t solve the world’s problems (or your own) in a day, but over your lifetime, small continual efforts at personal development will bear much fruit. So, from the words of young people and human relations research, I offer you ten steps to making better connections. We start from the base and build toward the summit.

Ten Ways to Make Human Connections
1. Don’t be “boring.” This is foundational. Much disconnection starts here. Kids use the word “boring” a lot. Why?

Weak communication is one root of “boring.” The lack of a compelling delivery, rambling, a monotone voice, poor eye contact, and stiff body language hinder effectiveness. Teachers may be unaware of their interactive and presentation skills. A mentor, friend, or coach can help.

What does “boring” mean in terms of content? “Tuning out” has many cognitive sources. It can be a lack of understanding: “I don’t get what you are talking about.” Repetition, “the-same-old-same-old,” engenders a “meh…” reaction (“You said that already…”). Lack of emotional resonance comes from “I don’t ‘get’ anything out of it.” If it “doesn’t speak to my life” or does not “move” me, there is the experiential disconnect of “you don’t know what I’m going through” or “you don’t understand the way that I think.” Check for those factors in your relationships. Then work to be both interesting and interested.

2. Capture our attention. As human beings, we are more attentive to that which is novel. One reason that some teachers prefer to work with younger elementary students is that the world is still fresh to them; they are innately inquisitive. How are we to connect with more jaded students? They say, “Get our attention.” “Use surprise.” “Come from an unexpected angle.” To hold their attention, “create a mystery”; “tell us something that we don’t know that applies to our lives.” It doesn’t matter whether we are in the classroom or in those hang-loose-in-the-hall interactions. We have to pass the “Who cares?” test.

3. Motivate. Three things motivate. 1) “Relate to me.” When something is personally relevant to us, when it matters, we are mentally triggered to focus. 2) Hooking into our values, goals, and personal needs inspires us. 3) “Push us a bit.” As opposed to the “same-old-same-old,” that which is moderately risky is actually more motivating: If it is somewhat inconsistent with prior attitudes, it stimulates. If it stretches us too much, it will demotivate—we shut down. That is why a (sensitively) demanding coach or a teacher with high expectations often gets good results.

4. Be pastoral. This is often the first step that comes to mind when we think of making personal connections. Two students said, “To connect means I can come to you” and “Help me up when I am down.” Not all means of connection are “touchy-feely”; but, where appropriate, the loving concern of a caring adult can strongly impact the resilience of a kid struggling to grow up.

5. Respect. This one is not negotiable. No respect equals no connection. Period. The kids say, “Respect us and let us respect you.” Connection will not happen if there is no perception of respect. It doesn’t matter what the sender believes about the respect that he or she is sending out. Kids have formidable antennae for “fakeness.” On the other hand, a deep, abiding, and mutual trust will form a powerful bond.

6. Be reciprocal/concrete/incarnational. Do things together. Share common interests and concrete experiences. What I remember as an athletic fifth-grader was that Miss O’Riordon came out at recess and played tag with us on the playground. I was the only kid in the class whom she could not catch! Service projects, too, can be an effective vehicle for common experiences. When you cannot connect with someone in any other way, focus on doing something together.

7. Create memories. It is out of memory that we form our beliefs. From what we believe, we form our attitudes. From attitudes come behaviors. Where we have an estranged connection, it may be that the underlying mental narrative must be recast: What is the story that is playing in each of our heads?
Memory matters. Develop and encourage warm and positive memories of family, school, and religious experience. That in turn will frame the belief systems out of which your young people will act.

8. Spend time just chillin’. Listen. Be there for each other. Put away the electronics and just be. Connection happens in relational moments. The gift of time is an unparalleled treasure. Take the time to get “in sync.”

9. You are an icon. You may think that you don’t matter that much. You do. You cannot get out of the way. You are the way. They are watching. Who you are and what you do, it matters. One boy said, “Someone that connects with me is someone that not only I can confide and trust in; they are someone that I look up to or hope to be like in some ways.” Did you also look up to a teacher? Become a warm memory. Teaching is a high calling. Live it well.

10. Teach us to see. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate connector, the tie that binds, and the source of our human connections. The bonds which are visible are signs of the love of the Trinity, which is invisible. All of the previous steps coalesce into this one. One youth said, “When [  ] talks to me, he makes me feel like I’m talking with God because I can see that he is really paying attention to what I am saying. He shows a lot of interest in my life.” The solidarity of a loving and connected community is a visible sign of the invisible care of God.

A teacher cannot be and do everything. Life is too overwhelming. But today, above and beyond your custom, connect for one minute with one student in one way, with focused attention and a smile in your eyes. Be there. And ask the Holy Spirit to bond your connection.
Karla Bellinger has been a high-school theology teacher and youth minister, as well as a parish pastoral associate, soccer and volleyball coach, and hospital chaplain. She is now the director of the Center for Preaching, Evangelization, and Prayer at Her upcoming book, Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation in Catholic Preaching, will be published by Liturgical Press in the spring of 2014.

Source: Today’s Catholic Teacher, November/December 2013