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September 10, 2021

11 Tried and True Strategies for Getting to Know Your Students

August sneaks into our summer flow and suddenly those pesky reality reminders start to infiltrate daily thoughts. The lists that circulate inside our barely semi-rested brains are long with “to-do priorities” that can scare us right out of our teacher minds.  

There’s the book on 21st Century teaching skills or Classroom Collaborations that you fully intended to read. There are new math centers and writing workshop lessons you needed to create. There are colleagues you hoped to connect with to design grade-level science units. Self-judgement is something too many teachers face during the final weeks of summer break. 

But far worse than all these common August teacher hauntings are the fears that creep up regarding the needs of individual students who will soon cross your classroom threshold and become your instructional responsibility for the next school year. Yep, that list of precious children (from preschoolers through teens in high school) will soon land in your staff mailbox, and in that moment, you become accountable for their individual progress.   

As a classroom teacher, I remember thinking, “this is the only 6th-grade year these kids are ever going to get – it’s gotta be so, so good.” I put instant pressure on myself to prioritize each child and do my professional best to meet every need. No big deal… 

How do we even begin to prioritize each child?  What does that mean or look like? Every single student?  How is that even possible? 

Has your back-to-school anxiety catapulted to “Code Red?” 

After 25 years of teaching, I have firm opinions about this! Successful school years start, build, and end with creating connections and caring relationships with every single student. 

Break it down to individual daily connections. Any touchpoint counts, a simple smile, greeting by name, or commenting on a student’s favorite t-shirt. Intentional actions add up to build a strong student-teacher relationship, which is the foundation for all successful teaching and learning. 

Before any extra ideas and inspiration, here is one quick suggestion: you must learn how to correctly pronounce each student’s name. This may take some research (former teachers, office support staff, parent phone calls), but it’s a mandatory requirement for getting to know your students. Write down phonetic spellings and ask each child when you meet them to verify your pronunciation. Speak each child’s name 3 times during the first day. Make it your goal to know every name (and how to pronounce it) within 2 days.  

When you great someone

Daily greetings and knowing names will always provide the kickstart you need. If you’d like a few more ideas for your plan book, here are some “getting to know your students” activities and strategies:  

1. Postcards or letters

(Downside: postage costs), phone calls home (yippee: free!) – talk to parents and ask to speak to the child a week before school begins. 

2. My name

Any ice-breaker activity that involves sharing names in class throughout the first month.  Here’s a link to a few Name Games.

3. Peer interviews

Design your own or here’s an idea: Peer Interviews

4. iPads

Family introduction videos – create a short list of family intro items for students to film on school-issued tablets. This is a great visual connection for students of all ages. Share in pairs, small groups, or daily on the classroom projector. 

5. Family interview assignment

Create a short survey with 10 items for students to ask family members – allow for a week, then have students come back and share in pairs, small groups, or one-on-one with you! 

6. Walk and talks

Switch partners every loop – share preset conversation topics intended to connect students and you, too, as you walk together.  This builds meaning, moving relationships! 

7. Circle of us

Create a list of 20 likes/dislikes – (i.e. Dogs are awesome!); then circle around and have students listen to each item and step in if they agree (it’s true for them) or stay put if they don’t agree.  This gives students a chance to learn about each other’s tastes and make connections by noticing who steps in or stays put with them for each item. 

8. Student interest survey

Research supports this important engagement tool for every teacher and every classroom every year.  Here’s a sample you might like to try: Student Interest Survey

9. Guess your classmate

Use the completed Student Interest Surveys or select 5 items and have students record answers on an index card; collect cards and use them to play “guess your classmate” during the first few weeks of school. Use the guessing game as a transition task for a few weeks until you have included every student. 

10. Morning meetings

Include greetings and incorporate “getting to know me” elements in your morning routines. Responsive Classroom has a great framework and some sample starters to try with this Morning Meeting booklet.

11. Name poems

Have each student write their name and add an adjective that describes for each letter – simple, but works for all ages.  Check out this link to an acrostic poem generator! 

Oh, and one last thing- don’t forget to share a bit about yourself. If you give a student interest survey, take it yourself and post your answers so students can read about you. Write a bio/welcome note and hand it out on the first day. Make some references to pop culture that will automatically connect you to various students. Pop culture topics for you to consider:  movies, TV shows, songs, professional sports, video games, hair, clothes, shoes. This may sound superficial, but research proves pop culture connections are effective for building relationships with young people. Besides, it’s universally fun to find fellow super-fans to share any crazy obsession!  

If this blog post seems to have digressed to random connections, fear not – that’s the whole goal! Teachers who prioritize positive relationships by making constant connections will be more successful with academic achievement outcomes than those who just wait a while and listen in to learn about their students over time. 

Let’s agree, this is the part of teaching that’s most gratifying and deserves our complete attention in August more than any other scary item on the long list of “Back to School – Gotta Do’s.” Let’s connect with kids and make the school year come alive starting on Day #1!    


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