When we think about school, we often remember the teachers who showed up for us, and how they went above and beyond to engage us in learning. Chances are they even helped inspire your passion for education.
As a teacher, one of the strongest impressions you can make on students is how you make them feel. When students feel you care about them, then mutual trust is established and they are more likely to engage. It’s these strong, supportive relationships with their teachers that feed their academic achievement and reduces disruptive behavior. “You can’t do anything as a teacher unless the students have buy-in,” confirms Jeff Wolfhope, a sixth-grade ancient history and science teacher who has reinvented the classroom experience for his pupils.
We sat down and chatted with Jeff to discuss how he’s building meaningful relationships with his class and sparking student engagement along the way.
Create a comfortable classroom
Establishing a supportive classroom environment can come from how it’s physically presented and Jeff has shaped his into a uniquely welcoming space. “I just created the room I wanted to be in,” he shared. Instead of overhead fluorescent lights, he uses lamps to make the classroom more comforting. Lego and other tactile objects quietly wait, encouraging students to manipulate their surroundings. In fact, most elements in his classroom are interactive, even some of the furniture. “I use Wobble Stools for kids who are preoccupied with movement. It gives them a way to maintain focus while moving their bodies,” continues Wolfhope.
Celebrate student work
Part of creating a comfortable environment is having students contribute to it as well. Encouraging students to contribute to their environment is another easy way to create a strong bond. Making use of their creations, for example, is an easy and rewarding option. “I laminate their art and keep it forever,” says Wolfhope. “Many kids feel self-conscious about having test scores or papers highlighted in the classroom, but there’s a lot of joy when it comes to their art. And, it’s good to celebrate them beyond their academic achievement.”
Jeff believes that celebrating student work should also include helping students acknowledge themselves. “I don’t like it when I hear students say, ‘This test was too easy,’ it’s a statement that dismisses the hard work and preparation leading up to the test. I like to continuously remind them that they are constantly improving.”
Be an active resource for students
“I don’t know everything,” begins Wolfhope, “but if a kid has a question, I make sure to find an answer.” Often, diving into a student’s question will build genuine interest in the topic. “My work is to help them engage in the subject with something relevant to their lives,” he explained. A simple strategy for him is to make answers as visual as possible. “I create YouTube playlists to help answer questions I can’t visually describe, and then I save and write down analogies to make sure I can properly answer students’ questions in ways that are relevant to them.” Anytime a link between the subject and something students do on their own time helps foster engagement.
Set clear expectations
When Jeff starts the year, he sets classroom behavior expectations immediately. “I have four rules: respect, effort, praise, and responsibility. I use these four rules as groundwork to help students communicate and collaborate,” says Wolfhope. Instead of proving themselves worthy of Jeff’s trust, students receive full privileges on their first day, such as sitting where they want and listening to music during independent study. “There’s nothing to unlock,” continues Wolfhope, “everything available is already there; they just have to care for and maintain it. Things are taken away if they don’t respect the space.”
Help students understand consequences
Though Jeff begins the year with a baseline of trust where students can access everything in the classroom, access is taken away if a student doesn’t honor one of the four rules or their privileges. “If a student falls asleep on one of the pillows during class, they won’t have the pillow the next day, and we have a conversation about what happened,” says Wolfhope. It’s important for him that students understand what happened and why. Since baseline trust is already established in his class, consequences have more impact in behavior management practices and can be remedied through restorative practices.
Since there are many variables in a student’s upbringing that you don’t see, particularly in their home environment, there’s always a chance that you’re one of the few consistent adult figures in their lives. Trust is critical and often hard to build.
“Students know when you’re not being sincere, so you need to follow through with your commitments to them,” says Wolfhope. For him, educators should focus more on being the kind of person that students want to be around instead of pretending to be their friend. “Nobody goes to teacher’s college for four years to yell at kids. The sooner that students understand you’re supporting them, the sooner they’ll participate and build positive classroom culture — but it needs to start with the teacher.”
A big thank you to teacher Jeff Wolfhope for sharing his personal insights and experiences with us. It was greatly appreciated and we were touched to learn more about his dedicated approach.