Student Engagement and the Power of Connecting

By Stephanie Filio

Student Engagement and the Power of ConnectingRetaining a student’s attention is only a small part of what educators do to ensure that students are engaged in material. Engagement in learning is a constant cognitive immersion. In environments where this constant immersion is occurring, teachers and students are mutually consumed by rapid cognitive network growth and inspired inquiry. This maintained learning is rooted in rapport building, which grows into shared excitement over subject matter until the learners receive new information without even realizing it. The feeling you get in these types of classrooms is exciting, and you never want to leave!

Information taught in school can be a bundle of facts for testing and promotion or a network of material that links old knowledge with new knowledge, allowing for deeper understanding, retention, and recall. Once students are on a path of engaged and continued learning, they are not only watching educators, they are part of the educational process. That’s what makes engagement meaningful and produces more successful students and more satisfied educators.

Student engagement is the difference between moving through the motions of the school day and interacting with content. There is nothing more invigorating for me than visiting a classroom where the students are fully engaged in the work they are doing. They are excited, they are all participating, and everyone is right there with one another on the same wavelength. Teachers in these classrooms are learning with their students, and they are presenting information that they clearly believe is essential to living. In these classrooms, kids are showing up to class willingly, and they are succeeding by completing work and waiting for the next step. As a bystander, I want to be a student too!

When classes are engaging like this, I get fewer students sent to me for discipline, and the teachers are enjoying their jobs more. So what is the key to creating such an addicting classroom experience?

The Importance of Rapport Building
By far, the quickest way to get students to “buy in” to their education is to build relationships with them. Before expectations are outlined or icebreakers introduce peers to one another, the teacher has to make a connection with each student. When teachers do this, students know they are not just seen as another body in a desk, but as an individual entity to be cared for. When students feel their teacher is an ally, they will trust that teacher. With trust, they will accept the information as important even if it’s daunting and know that if they have a difficult time, help will be available. When trust is lacking, the engagement process isn’t even possible because the student is shutting out information.

Many tried-and-true rapport-building tactics take very little time but yield strong relationships between students and educators. Here are a few examples from my own hallway.

  • Morning greetings. Greetings for each student in the morning can make a big difference. Have a consistent place where students will expect you, and flash your best coffee-induced smile while giving an audible “Good morning” with full eye contact. Double your impact with a reminder or a check-in about something personal to each student. You will not only be building rapport, you will be showing your students that you think about them when they are not there and that you remember them on a personal level.
  • Minute meetings. Meet in a semiprivate location for one minute with each student. I have done this in the hallway right outside the classroom by asking each student three preset questions, but a classroom teacher can easily integrate this into the day during small-group learning, circuit lessons, or “drop-everything-and-read” time. Even a quick word when students enter the hallway or classroom offers connection. Extra props to you if you collect quick data with something simple, such as three to five preset questions on a Google form.
  • Personal life mini-lesson. Letting students know information about you increases student trust and encourages them to be more open with their own sharing. Though you wouldn’t want to compare students to your own family or share beyond boundaries, it’s good for students to know that you are human, too, and to understand what it feels like to juggle multiple lives. I conduct a social media mini-lesson in which students find clues about my family from a collection of my personal pictures. (I generally pull these pictures off my personal social media sites and compile them into a PowerPoint presentation I share with students.) Students discover the name of my neighborhood, my children’s schools, and where I’ve been on trips, all based on clues from the photos. Once they’ve realized how much they were able to learn from simple photos, I circle back to internet safety by asking who else might have access to that information if my sites are not properly secured.
  • Note passing. Having a note-passing system in place is a great way to have private moments with students while managing many kids. Notes can be supportive, refer to individual students’ challenges, redirect attention, or just check-in. They can be on scrap pieces of paper or special stationary of your liking. I have postcards that I write encouraging or congratulatory notes on, and which I hand to students or place in their binders when I visit classrooms. I am often pleasantly surprised when students take it upon themselves to write me letters, as well, with questions or things they would like to discuss but are a little nervous about verbalizing. This is a simple extension of accessibility and offers another avenue for students who do better with more private modes of communication.

Shared Excitement and Continued Learning
Some of the most engaging teachers are not only offering information, they are covering material that they are still curious about themselves. Like anyone else, students can tell when teachers are actually excited about what they are talking about. Real passion isn’t easily faked, and when teachers are riding this roller coaster of gaining knowledge with students, the classroom becomes an experience. Students will be more engaged when their teachers are engaged too.

In counseling we say that we must act as a mirror for the client. In doing so, the client can see where they are, and we can elevate that mood by our own behavior. This type of symbiotic relationship is easy to emulate in the classroom or in the hallway. We do not want students to copy what they see; we want them to see themselves in it. So when an educator is enthusiastic about learning, students realize they can be enthusiastic as well and that this is a safe space to be curious and to experiment with the knowledge being presented to them. When students become captivated by a lesson, they are concentrating, focused, and investing their time. They are engaged, and they will find a determination to keep growing this connection.

Teachers spend a considerable amount of their day bouncing around the classroom to keep their students entertained. They are combating elementary distraction, preteen vulnerability, and young adult apathy. But true and meaningful student engagement is more than that. To the unassuming spectator, student engagement in education might look like a set of bells and whistles—fireworks, puppets, and riding on a unicycle in front of 27 young people to get them interested in multiplication. To us educators, student engagement is a masterpiece orchestration of subtle and constant connections made with students to create trust and buy-in. We tell the student that learning isn’t just fun, but that it is a part of us and a way to view the world.

Stephanie FilioStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

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