Connecting With Students

Three Ways to Keep Your Informal Education Program Fresh

On the podcast this week, music teacher Jim Cornfoot talked about connection – how, as a piano teacher, he spends part of every lesson establishing a personal rapport. And not just with new students, either – he continues to connect, at every meeting, even after knowing a student for years.

What’s that about?

Teachers have so much content to deal with, from Jim’s music theory and technique to Kady’s fossil names. We know that classroom educators don’t have enough time to cover everything, we informal educators get even less – sometimes only an hour at a time!

So, given that – why should we spend a few of our precious teaching minutes finding out about students’ worries and successes? Why waste time connecting with them?

Well, the short answer is: it’s not a waste. Here’s the lesson:

Connecting is teaching.

Personally, I enjoy feeling a connection with learners, but it’s not just a pleasant by-product of the job. Connecting is teaching. A UCLA psychiatrist named Dan Siegel describes it this way:

Dan Siegel
Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Relationships that are “connecting” and allow for collaboration appear to offer children a wealth of interpersonal closeness that supports the development of many domains, including social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. (p. 78)

Siegel has a lot to say about the topic, but the nickel wisdom is this: humans are hard-wired to learn through connections to others. Babies learn what is safe to eat; preschoolers learn their culture’s foundational songs; older kids learn reading and writing and arithmetic – all mediated by connections to their caregivers and teachers. Cultivating those connections, even when we only have a few minutes to spend with our students,

How to cultivate connections?

Lots of ways, and which you choose of course depends on your teaching persona, the age and attitude of the learners, or even the time of year.

  • Ask and listen. It’s brutal to start a program or lesson with a “Hi, open your books” – spend just a little time to establish that you care who your learners are. Here’s how Jim Cornfoot described it:

It’s the first two to three minutes. Every single lesson – my students practically have my script memorized – I’m going to ask them, “What’s new in your world? Or this week? … For my graduating seniors, I want to know where they’re at with their college applications. With my high school freshmen, I want to know how they’re adjusting to being a high school student, or with my sixth graders, I want to know how they’re adjusting to be being a middle schooler. So that personal connection to them as a whole person is very important to me.

  • Captivate; don’t perform. This is a really thin distinction, I know -— and the best teachers often have a little ham in them. Here’s what I mean: don’t start with a joke – one of your old standards – because that’s performative. You’re not learning about your audience if you’re joking. (I say probably because there are ways to use humor to elicit a personal response – but it can be tricky.)

  • Keep it fresh! You probably started teaching informally with a script or outline of some sort, which is fine. But don’t let that substitute for the real work of teaching, which is engagement. Some ideas don’t land with every group. Get used to adapting as you go.

Perspective Taking

All these (and more) connection techniques fall under the umbrella of perspective taking. The skill to cultivate is placing yourselves into the position of your learners to imagine how your program comes across to them. For a fourth grader, would your delivery have enough oomph? For an adult, is your story deep and detailed enough?

Because that’s the goal: to project yourself into the audience space and explore their point of view.

Find out more!

  • Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (1st ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
  • Kirylo, J. D. (2021). The thoughtful teacher: Making connections with a diverse student population. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Siegel, D. J. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: Attachment relationships, “mindsight,” and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1–2), 67–94.
Several people overlapping their hands, illustrating the concept of connection.


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