1.) Be ready for them. Know their names, Have the room arranged for them. There is one thing that I do every year that sends a big message. When I arrange my room I always incorporate one or two extra desks into the set up. It depends on how many are on my list but I always add one or two. Then when a new student arrives, they usually do, instead of griping that my perfect arrangement is now difficult to manage I simply turn and say, “We have been waiting for you, come on in and let’s get started.” Children are believers and literal thinkers at the age of 6 or 7. They will feel honored instead of being a burden. This year I had 21 students but my room is set up in 6 groups of 4. Three sections have an extra desk.
2.) Correct behavior not the children. Too often a knee jerk response to inappropriate behavior is to stop the child and correct them. We are sending a bad message to young learners that they are wrong and need fixing. When in fact they are great but their behavior or choice needs fixing. I had a young girl, she was the youngest of the class with a September 5th birthday, who once came in and walked past my desk and said, “Hello Dunlea!”. Personally I thought it was hysterical but I knew it was not the right way to address her teacher in the classroom. I laughed and asked her to come back. She was all smiles. I asked her to do it again so I could video her doing it and she happily complied. Then I talked to her about how funny it was but that the classroom was a place where she needed to be more respectful to her teacher. I made sure she understood that she was great and celebrated for having such a funny sense of humor but her timing was wrong to share it. Here is that video. I feel I protected the dignity of the child while teaching her to do the right thing next time. It never happened again but that kid remained that kid the whole year. She was very expressive and funny without coming across disrespectful.
3.) Allow the children to be children, the children they are, not the ones you want them to be. The quirkier the better is my motto. I want as many different colors in my crayon box and that comes across to my students. I have had students every year who are individuals. Early on I find out their unique qualities and let them thrive. One student was obviously gifted and wanted to share with the class his knowledge of the periodic table. I gave him time to express himself. Long before the trendy “Genius Hour” I have been allowing my second graders to voluntarily sign up to do a project of their complete choosing. They choose the topic, the medium, the resources, and they work off a rubric to guide them. The projects must have a written or typed component to prevent just another show and tell episode. Parents, grandparents and siblings are invited in on presentation day and students even take questions from their “fans”. I have had children suffering from major anxiety feel the security of the classroom culture to stand before their peers and deliver projects without so much as a stutter, uhm, like, or any other hallmark of presenting trip ups. Parents and siblings of these most fragile learners are often crying at the end to see such a transformation occur in the student’s confidence and ability. I give them the space and the encouragement and the rest is up to them.
4.) Keep in touch. I maintain email addresses as best as I can for the parents of my students each year. The night before school begins in my district I send out emails to every student I ever had wishing them good luck in the new year and that I have faith in them being very successful. I do the same thing the night before standardized testing begins. I simply remind them of a story from their year in my class that was funny and tell them to think of it if things get too stressful during the tests. I tell them that I know how smart they are and no number will ever define them. Do your best and don’t stress the test is the general message. These simple emails are emailed to the whole class of parents at the same time but each year gets a personalized version. Parents and students will email back thanking me. Many will say later that they were stressed until the email and then they relaxed a little. When you honestly care about a student you don’t stop caring at day 181.
5.) Celebrate their successes. My district is Pre-K-6th grade. Students leave and attend middle and high school in the neighboring district. Upon graduation from 6th grade , 4 years after they left my class, I send the class of students a gift of a video montage of pictures set to music. I create these videos once a year for that group and upload it to YouTube to make the sharing easier. Just before the end of the school year I email out the link. My students know that I still care about them and want them to be successful. That I believe in them and have faith in their ability to change the world. Don’t let your relationships be defined by a calendar. I don’t and my students know I care.