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Are You Really Connecting with Your Students?


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Listen to my interview with Jim Sturtevant (transcript):

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I’ll never forget what one of my college professors told me when I was studying to become a teacher. She said the number one factor in our effectiveness as teachers would be the relationships we built with our students. She felt so strongly about this that she paused, looked around so she could make eye contact with every person in the room, then repeated it: “More important than anything else you do as a teacher is the relationship you build with your students.”

I kind of didn’t believe her. I mean, I understood what she meant in theory, but I was pretty sure that planning interesting lessons and having a clear set of classroom guidelines were at least as important as “relationships.” I appeared to be listening attentively, but inside, I thought she was a little off the mark.

That was before I started teaching. Now I agree with her 100 percent. And even before I started reading James Sturtevant’s book, You’ve Gotta Connect — just skimming the table of contents — I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone who believed the same as me and my college professor, that the relationships you build with your students are the key to working wonders in your classroom.


You’ve Gotta Connect: Building Relationships That Lead to Engaged Students, Productive Classrooms, and Higher Achievement
by James Sturtevant, 278 pages, Incentive Publications, March 2014

And the book definitely lived up to the promises made by that quick preview. You’ve Gotta Connect is full of practical, actionable advice and loaded with tools to strengthen the quality of your connection with students.

Keys to Connecting with Students

Although I recommend you read the whole book, here are a few take-away lessons from the book that can improve the way you connect with students right now:

1. Drop the nostalgia. One big barrier to connecting with students is our nostalgia for the past, the way we constantly compare our current students with the (better) ones we used to teach. “Do you remember earlier teaching years when parents were more involved and students were less hostile? Do you wish you were in that other school where you taught before — where you had fewer discipline problems and struggled with fewer slackers? Do you pine for last year when you got through all the material with students who behaved pretty well and seemed to enjoy learning? I don’t know any teacher who does not have bouts of nostalgia. But hear me now: you’ve gotta let go of it! This nostalgia interferes with connection to present students. It keeps you from seeing THESE students — their needs and gifts” (52).

2. Tell your own stories. When you share parts of your own personal life with students, they get more comfortable sharing their own, and this is how connections are made. “Try to tell some sort of a personal story about once a week. It doesn’t have to be long. It does not have to be earth shattering. When you get a lot of feedback or stories of their own, you know you have struck gold!” (202).

3. Learn their culture. Students live in a very different world than the one we lived in at their age. “You are, by definition, not ‘one of them.’ You don’t need to and should not be ‘one of them.’ If you want to connect to them, however, they must immediately sense that you value them” (81). Sturtevant urges us to learn about students’ musical tastes, the movies and T.V. shows they’re into, and the slang terms they use. “These actions show you care enough to pay attention to their world, even if it pulls you a bit out of your comfort zone to do so” (86).

4. Keep prying. Keep persisting. Be patient. With students who are slower to warm up, we need to put our egos aside and just keep trying. “Gentle, focused nudging of a reluctant student toward being comfortable enough to open up a bit” is what will ultimately get you there, but don’t rush it: “Be cool! You have time, perhaps all year. The goal is to have a strong relationship as soon as possible, but accept that it may not happen until late in the game” (88-89).

5. Run toward trouble. Connecting with students isn’t just about smiles and funny stories. “Troubled times are the best times for connection,” Sturtevant writes (226). “Be on the lookout for difficult times, blowups, setbacks, failures, hurt, and disappointments,” resolve problems in a constructive, respectful way, and your connection to those students will be stronger.

Helpful Tools for Personal or Group Study

You’ll get a lot of insight by reading You’ve Gotta Connect on your own, but it would also make an excellent book for group study. Sturtevant has included dozens of hands-on tools you can use to develop and examine your own practice, like the “Environment Stealth Check” worksheet, which asks you to sit in your teacher’s lounge and tally up the number of positive comments you hear about students versus the number of negative comments you hear, or the “Anatomy of a Conflict” worksheet, where you break down the components of past conflicts and get a clearer understanding of how you might have handled them better. These reproducible tools help you take the theories and ideas Sturtevant presents and apply them to your own teaching.

Listen to the Interview!

I also had the privilege of interviewing James Sturtevant for my podcast. In our conversation, he talks about how to deal with students who resist his attempts to connect, what it looks like when he has to reprimand a student, the research that shows the connection between teacher-student relationship and learning, and how people who aren’t naturally extroverted can still build strong relationships with their students.

You can listen to the interview using the player above. A full transcript is also available if you aren’t able to listen, but James is a pretty entertaining guy to listen to, so it’s worth the time if you can make it happen.

About the Author


James Sturtevant teaches social studies at Big Walnut High School in Sunbury, Ohio. You can find him at his website (his latest post is on reverse engineering your connection with students) or on Twitter at @jamessturtevant.

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  1. When teachers bond with students, it creates a magical atmosphere where learning thrives! For students, such classrooms are life altering! And don’t forget teachers…they’re people too. They also soar when relationships blossom!

  2. For the book by John Hattie with 138 research-backed impacts on student learning, which was referenced in the interview by Sturtevant, it is called “Visible Learning.” Here is a link to “Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning” from Amazon:

    I came looking for it here, and thought I would share the link for others. Thank you for the podcast!

  3. Ann Modarelli says:

    Loved this podcast! In the beginning you mentioned in passing that you weren’t aware of others writing on this topic. Eric Jensen addresses some of this in “Poor Kids, Rich Teaching”. The premise is, again, you have to connect with your students.

    Thanks for all the great resources!

  4. Hannah Golden says:

    I completely agree with the importance of connecting with students. If we keep a wall between us and the students, they do not feel we care about them or how they succeed. However, by connecting with them, it makes time in the classroom more enjoyable and a time that they may look forward to…or at least they won’t dread it. As stated, making connections during times of trouble are just as important. I am a firm believer of restorative discipline. When I have a student acting up in class or causing distractions, I attempt to have a conversation with them. By showing my students that I am more interested in why they behaved the way they did, or what is going on in their life outside my classroom shows that I truly care. When they realize a teacher cares, the connection is made and they begin to behave better.

  5. Tara Brown says:

    I LOVE everything about this post! Thank you so much for sharing! I’ve been teaching high school in an urban setting district for the past 19 years. Growing up, I was raised in a 2-parent household that was filled with love, support, and encouragement…this is not the case with the majority of my students, unfortunately. When I started teaching, I wondered how I was going to ever make connections and build relationships with kids who were so different than me. But, I think it was our differences that actually helped us bond and become a “team.” Without my students, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I love them all and care about their success 100%, now and in the future. However, hearing your teachers say they care is one thing, but trusting, believing, and feeling it is another. The trust we have built, on a 1:1 basis and as a class (with each hour having its own special mix), is the reason that we are able to learn and grow together each day Obviously, some days are more challenging than others, but we are all a work in progress, and we’re all in it together! If it wasn’t for those more difficult/challenging moments, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the great ones, and we wouldn’t grow, academically or personally. Bottom line is this…once I came to the realization that I need my students as much as they need me, my days became much more enjoyable, my attitude toward everything seemed brighter, and my lessons were much more successful! A little love, care, and kindness goes a long way! Thank you, again…all of this made me smile! 🙂

  6. Dora says:

    This article that I’ve had read was amazing, I loved it I am doing Cadet teaching and just bonding with the kids is an amazing feeling, it’s a feeling that you’ll never let go on it’s amazing there are some kids that have trouble needs or just have a hard time getting to open up but it’s all about patience that it’s okay to be afraid I love working with kids there everything to me.

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