Last week I wrote about how the sudden transition from being a brick-and-mortar teacher to an online one had left me unsure of my next steps and how I looked to solve that problem by turning to the students and asking them to write me a letter about what they needed right now.

These letters were not graded, but I still got more students who turned them in than any other graded assignment of the year–nearly 90% of students ultimately replied. Many of the letters were quite long too, with students going on for pages about their stresses, sadness, and strategies concerning the crisis and the sudden loss of school.

I learned a lot of things from these letters. I learned that far more students than I would have ever imagined have immunocompromised people in their lives who are high-risk in regards to COVID-19 and that a great deal of them are being asked to care for younger siblings and relatives whose school is also cancelled. I was reminded of just how varied students are, with some taking this in stride and others feeling unable to leave their beds. I also stood amazed and uplifted at the overall thoughtfulness, empathy, and strength that I saw again and again from members of a generation that is often maligned by others as not having those things.

In reading all of these responses, it became really clear to me that my students needed two things from me as a teacher right now. The first was a sense of normalcy, so despite the fact that my state still has no clear plan for how, if, or when school will return, I have been encouraging them to keep up their choice reading and giving them daily writing opportunities that are ungraded but designed to keep their skills sharp and growing.

But the second and far bigger need was that many of them appear to be desperately looking for meaningful human connection. Many said as much directly, but the tones of the letters and the 90+% turn-in rate made this point abundantly clear.

That is why the bulk of my plan this week as I wait for the next steps from my state is to engage slowly in a Dave Stuart Jr. technique called Moments of Genuine Connection from his book These Six Things. The concept behind it is simple: We talk a lot in schools about building relationships and connecting to students, yet in the day-to-day scramble of teaching, we often lose sight of building relationships and connections in favor of focusing on content, testing, and grades. Consequently, without realizing it, we can go days or even weeks without engaging in real human moments with students at all.

Moments of Genuine Connection is a tool for helping teachers to stay focused and committed to making those connections by having them track the moments where they have real human connection with students. Stuart Jr. takes this so seriously that he even carries a clipboard with him to record these moments, which he explains this way:

At the start of the school year, I get all of my kids’ names onto a single piece of paper, clip it onto my clipboard, and keep track of moments of genuine connection. I don’t always write down what the moment was or what we connected on, but I always at least make a marking (e.g., a green dot) next to kids whom I’ve connected with at least once.

-Dave Stuart Jr.

Since I learned about it, I, too, have created my own Moments of Genuine Connection clipboard, and while the clipboard is currently locked in my school, this week I have recreated it and I am going through the letters students sent me and making sure to have a moment of genuine connection where I quickly respond to each in a way that shows that I was listening. I am also reaching out to those who I haven’t heard from to see how they are doing and ask one question that shows that while the semester is still relatively young, I know them pretty well already.

In one post on his blog, Stuart Jr. explains that while the goal of school is teaching and guiding students (as opposed to connecting with them), the reason to focus on genuine connections is that when students feel genuinely connected to a teacher, it lays a foundation for the student to be more successful in these other areas. That is the basic idea behind my approach this week. The clearest lesson I got from the letters is that students–like nearly all of us right now–are desperate for human contact, clear-thinking role models, and anchors in a world that feels unmoored, and if I can help to provide those things in my own small way, it will hopefully both help them a little bit today and lay a firm foundation for the learning to come tomorrow, whatever form it takes.

Yours in teaching,

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4 thoughts on “What My Students Need Right Now

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