In his 28 years in the classroom, South Carolina teacher Jeff O’Shields has learned that sometimes the smallest moment of connection with a teacher makes the biggest difference to a student. So every time he sees a chance to connect, he takes it – and builds up the trust that keeps students coming to school.
In Mr. O’Shields’s own words:
“As educators, we all have those students who could easily get lost in the crowd. But if kids don’t feel like we see them, they won’t want to come to school. I teach large classes in a large high school, and it would be easy to get overwhelmed about reaching every student at once. So I focus on doing one little thing after another, one student at a time.”
Offer every opportunity to participate, every time
In addition to mailing “Welcome To Our Class” postcards to my Open House attendees, I also mail birthday postcards to each one of my students. I just look for simple ways to connect. When it’s time to work on our class Instagram channel, I don’t rely on kids to volunteer; I ask them if they want to get in front of the camera, set up props or direct. I offer different opportunities each time, because we can’t foresee what a student will respond to. Sometimes, the students who don’t seem to care are the ones taking the strongest interest – they just aren’t ready to show us. Kids need to know that if they aren’t ready to respond, we’re not going to say, “Forget it, that kid doesn’t want to participate,” and just let them drift to the back of the room. I’ve had students who acted distant and uncomfortable in class, and by giving them one chance after another, never judging them for saying no, I saw their attitudes change. Just the other day, a student who’s been turning me down all Fall walked in and asked, “Can I be in a class video one day?’” I said, “Sure, of course you can.” That might not seem like a big moment, but it could turn out to be an important one for him.
Open your door, and be a mentor
We’ve all had tough moments that made us think, “I’m not valued. I’m not seen. I don’t want to go back there.” As adults, we know how and when to put a bad day aside. But for a young person, a day of feeling unnoticed or unappreciated can change their whole outlook. So when we pass a kid in the hall, if we make an effort to speak – say good morning, smile, ask how they are – we may be the only one that day who reached out to connect. And that moment of being seen and smiled at may turn out to be the only reason that kid comes back the next day. That’s why my colleagues and I also build mentoring into the school day by maintaining an open-door policy during lunch. When students are going through something at home or struggling at school, a teacher who’s glad to see them at lunchtime can make all the difference. For those students, it’s a comfort to have a mentor they can talk to.
Model good attendance
Another simple step teachers can take is showing students that we take our own attendance seriously. When I model my commitment to showing up, kids notice. When I hear a student say, “Yeah, I always know Mr. O’Shields will be here,” I know they’re counting on that. And when they’re out sick for several days, I don’t leave them wondering if anyone noticed that they’re gone – I go ahead and send a “Get Well” card. Years later, former students will tell me that their families still have those cards on their refrigerators. Getting up and seeing my card might have been another little thing that brought one of those kids back to school.
I know I can’t reach every student all the time. And I may not be the one to reach every kid who needs somebody. But I can still do an awful lot, one kid at a time. Every teacher can.
This blog post was developed through a collaboration between Attendance Works and The Bill & Melinda Gates Teacher2Teacher project.