This past school year was my very first year treating middle and high school students. Up until then, I'm sure I haven't serviced a child over the age of 11 in over 20 years. I will admit I was very nervous. However, I quickly realized that my older students were just as amazing as my younger ones. AND, one huge advantage...they were MUCH better at troubleshooting the technology during teletherapy glitches, than I was.
After a successful year, I closed our final sessions with "goodbyes", and attempted to give them some final "words of wisdom".
In was in those moments, I realized that something really amazing had transpired over the months we were in session.
THESE students especially, had really made a connection with me. Most of them asked me if they might be able to email me over the summer, just to keep in contact. Some nervously asked if I would be returning to their school next year. Several students revealed that they TRULY did enjoy our experiences together, and couldn't wait to see what Fall might bring.
I've spent a lot of time reflecting on this lately. Why? Why did these older students appear to connect with me easily? It wasn't too long ago when these same students needed some poking and prodding just to SIT at the computer, let alone TALK with me. What had changed, from those first few speech sessions early on in the school year? For once, I had wondered what I did RIGHT.
I had some ideas as to why I was able to build such great rapport with my older students (I am kind of warm and fuzzy, you see), but it wasn't until I sat down with my OWN daughter (age 13) that I had a light bulb moment. In thinking about those students with whom I had made a real connection, I asked her to describe for me some qualities about her favorite teachers. What IS it, about him or her, that motivates you to do your best? In those classes you looked forward to, what WAS it about those teachers that inspired you, and made you try, even if you might fail? What did these teachers DO or SAY that made you want to become a better version of yourself? Why did you look forward to participating in their classes?
My daughter said, "Well mom, that's easy. I will write it down for you." Here's what she told me about her GREATEST teachers.
1.) They were warm, welcoming, and open. These teachers smiled ALL the time, even when they might not want to. They had such a pleasant disposition, it was easy to confide in them, or make a mistake. Their classrooms were always a soft place to fall. The culture of their classroom was warm and accepting of everyone. Laughter was common, and encouraged.
2.) No idea was EVER a bad idea. Every idea was welcome, even the most silly, or ridiculous. These wonderful teachers allowed for creativity and growth, and believed in the craziest of possibilities. Their classrooms allowed for deeper discussion, even when there was "work" to be done. It was clear that the BEST teachers enjoyed giving every student a voice, even when the idea might be far fetched or incorrect.
3. They were 100% INVESTED in me. "What does that LOOK like?" I asked. She explained to me that these teachers took time to ask about her family, her pets, and her after school activities. They knew her taste in music, and that she liked cats rather than dogs. These teachers not only knew about her casual likes and dislikes, but also her academic strengths and weaknesses. They appeared interested in her whether she exceeded performance, or worked well below her peers. Teachers who appeared invested took extra time to know her as a young adult, rather than a number. Some teachers even asked how she might learn BEST- video, audio, books, drawings, pictures, etc.
4. There was reciprocal sharing about personal lives. My daughter explained how it really made a difference when her teachers shared information about their own lives- their children, their husbands, their weekend projects. Not only did they ask about HER life, but they consistently made time for casual classroom conversation, and included personal details that made her teacher appear more human. She explained how the reciprocal sharing created a better environment for learning, and helped establish connections of partnership between student and teacher. Knowing her teacher was "just like any other mom/dad", provided a foundation for trust in the classroom.
5. They CREATED their own materials. Her favorite teachers apparently ditched reading textbooks out loud, and veered from teacher guides. They spent time creating their own unique materials for lessons- with engaging pictures, diagrams and real life examples she could connect to. They provided more hands-on learning opportunities, and made learning interactive, rather than passive. There were very few black and white worksheets to complete, which, in turn, allowed for more discussion and more connection.
I was quite astonished when she was done with her list. I realized she was super smart and mature for her age, and that most everything she had described, I had naturally done with my students. I was proud of HER, and, I was proud of MYSELF.
When we think about our older students who receive services through telepractice, I believe it's important to consider these points. Most of our students have experienced a large turnover of therapists, or have never received consistent therapy due to location or shortages. They've most likely struggled academically, for long periods of time, maybe without adequate support. They might come to the computer for the first time jaded or resistant. Maybe they think you are just "another teacher" they are forced to work with each week. Or, another adult who just "doesn't care". The combination of academic struggles mixed with hormones and pressure to be cool, can make it difficult to establish a foundation of trust.
If you are experiencing lack of motivation and connection with your middle or junior high students, consider spending more time building rapport. Make your own materials around their interests, and take time to remember personal details. I consistently encourage risks and failure- it's simply a learning tool. My students are reminded weekly that our therapy room is a "safe space" to talk about anything. Taking this extra time will certainly help build that foundation of trust. With that trust, you can do just about anything :-).
Need a great way to build rapport this school year? Click here for a great FIRST day introduction.
Need engaging products for middle school students? Click here for a BUNDLE of resources!