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Connect Now or Lose Forever: Teachers and Student Relationships

Human connection is essential for student success.

That was the life and career-defining mantra of veteran teacher, counselor, and assistant principal Rita F. Pierson.

Pierson unfortunately passed away in June 2013. But not before she delivered an entertaining and important TED Talk  on why teachers absolutely must prioritize student engagement to ensure their success. To date, her presentation has been viewed more than 6 million times. In an age of shifting school priorities, her message resonates as much today as it did back then. Talk about a lasting legacy!

As Pierson tells the audience:

“A colleague said to me one time, ‘They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to teach a lesson. I should teach it, they should learn it. Case closed.’ Well, I said to her, ‘You know kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.’”

The best teachers know that they have to earn the respect of their students before learning can happen. Teachers have to make an investment in student outcomes—and they can only do that by learning to connect with kids on a human level, Pierson says.

In an increasingly competitive school market, school district leaders have to ensure students are motivated and challenged, and feel valued. If not, students and families have other options. And they might well choose out for another provider.

Earning students’ respect shouldn’t be hard, Pierson says. Here’s a few steps teachers can take to ensure they’re connecting with their students:

1. Understand your students, before you ask them to understand you

Before the first lesson is ever taught, make sure you know each one of your students and their motivations. Ask them questions about themselves. Ask them what their goals are for the school year. Invite feedback on how you’re doing and what they think you should improve in your classroom. And adjust your approach based on their feedback. Then thank them for their input.

2. Apologize when you are wrong

Pierson tells the story of when she realized she had taught an entire math lesson wrong. The next day she apologized in front of the whole class. The students were surprised but heartened by the gesture, and Pierson earned their respect.

Sometimes teachers have to be authority figures. But that doesn’t mean you’re never wrong. And when you are, you should acknowledge it. Showing your human side will only help strengthen your connection to your students.

3. Remind your students of their potential

Teaching is supposed to be hard, Pierson reminds us. Not every student is easy to deal with all the time. But even for struggling students, it’s your job to encourage and remind them what they’re capable of.

“Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them,” Pierson says. Teachers need to be those champions.

For Pierson’s entire TED Talk, check out the full video below.

What do you think of her enduring message? What steps are you taking to champion and engage students in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas about how to empower students this year? Read How student voice inspires leadership.