One Piece at a Time: The transformative power of the student-teacher connection

My 23-year-old daughter surprised me this past year when she became a dissectologist, spending hours perfecting her jigsaw puzzle-assembly skills. At any given time, her puzzle table displays an array of sorted pieces, assembled edges, and partial pictures. Her love of puzzles motivates her to persist during the arduous process of connecting each piece, anticipating the completed image as her reward. 

One day, while observing my daughter’s puzzle-assembly process, I began to reflect on the commonalities shared by a teacher and a dissectologist. I quickly realized that both have one powerful trait in common—both are masters of connection

As a teacher, I recognize that God has purposefully placed each student in my classroom. Similar to my daughter’s puzzle table, my classroom is full of students with assorted personalities, interests, and challenges. And like most puzzles, some connections come easily while others take time to find the right fit. But, regardless of the difficulty level, making a connection with my students matters. 

My personal experience as a classroom teacher has taught me that pursuing a positive connection with each of my students is my first responsibility.

Much has been written on the power of connection in education. According to Waterford.org’s article “Why Strong Teacher Relationships Lead to Student Engagement and a Better School Environment,” students’ academic achievement and self-regulation are strengthened when teachers pursue connections with their students. Also, positive relationships between students and teachers have been proven to reduce chronic absenteeism and promote self-motivation. And, when students believe their teacher genuinely cares, they are more inclined to trust and respond to constructive feedback from that teacher. 

In addition to the extensive data supporting the importance of connection, my personal experience as a classroom teacher has taught me that pursuing a positive connection with each of my students is my first responsibility. While serving in my classroom, I was blessed to witness first-hand the transformative power of the student-teacher connection in the life of one of my students...I’ll call him Jake.

I remember Jake’s demeanor at the beginning of the school year. He preferred to hang his head, avoid eye contact, and rebuff communication. Jake was unkind to classmates and disrespectful to authority. He did not want to be at school, and he gave me the strong impression that he didn’t like me. Greeting Jake each day, as I did all my students, with an enthusiastic smile and positive affirmation did not seem to have an impact on him. My encouraging words when he struggled to complete his classwork had little effect on his effort. When I met with Jake individually to discuss his negative behavior, he was reluctant to reflect on his contribution to the situation. Much like trying to force a puzzle piece in the wrong place, my attempts to connect with Jake did little to inspire a love of school and learning. 

I needed help, and for me, this meant focused prayer for both my student and myself. I asked God for wisdom, according to James 1:5, and then made a plan to connect with Jake. I needed to know more about Jake’s background, so I scheduled a meeting with his mom. Our conversation revealed that Jake’s past educational encounters were less than ideal. He needed a positive school experience, so I decided to ask Jake to have lunch with me. During our time together, we talked about his interest in airplanes. Although he was reluctant, conversations about aviation were the beginning of a positive dialogue between us. That personal connection eventually led to a better understanding of his educational needs. I learned that Jake was significantly behind his peers in reading and math. The more I got to know him, the better I was able to adapt Jake’s learning tools. 

First, I used flexible methods to assess his content mastery and watched with great joy as Jake was finally able to experience academic success. Then, I implemented modified instructional practices, which encouraged Jake’s self-efficacy. Since I wanted him to feel safe during this process, I intentionally seated Jake nearby so I could address his concerns quickly. And eventually, I implemented cooperative learning strategies to encourage positive interactions with his peers. Connecting with Jake was a slow process, but I started to see improvements in his attitude and behavior.

Jake continued to progress during the school year. He made friends, improved academically, and grew to accept and respond to my constructive feedback. With God’s help, Jake made the connections he needed to embrace his educational experience. 

On the last day of school, my students lined up to exit the classroom. I stood at the beginning of the line to hand each student their final report card. Before giving each one his or her envelope, I shared something endearing about the student and offered a big hug. When it was Jake’s turn, he did not wait for the kind words but immediately hugged me and tearfully said, “I am going to miss you so much, Mrs. Keso!”

At the start of each school year, teachers expect that there will be challenges. However, our desire to create meaningful connections with our students motivates us to persist.

I knew at that moment that my connection with Jake had made a lasting difference in his life… 

Almost a decade after the day Jake entered my classroom for the first time, a handsome young man in a military outfit walked into my room as I was preparing my classroom for my first day of the new school year. It was Jake. He told me about his journey to success and happiness. Before he left, he made sure to let me know that his connection with me years earlier had contributed to his achievements. 

When my daughter begins a new puzzle, she is aware of the challenges that await her. However, her desire to complete the picture motivates her to embrace the inevitable difficulties during the puzzle-making process. Likewise, at the start of each school year, teachers expect that there will be challenges. However, our desire to create meaningful connections with our students motivates us to persist. 

In this season of my career, I no longer welcome young children to a new year. Instead, I now welcome young adults preparing for a teaching career. I often discuss the value of connections with my college students. Current data suggests that 25-40% of new teachers are likely to leave the field of education within five years. However, the evidence also suggests that building positive connections with students can decrease this percentage by showing teachers that their careers can change lives (Waterford.org). When a teacher is looking for a greater sense of fulfillment, making connections that impact students, in turn, gives meaning and value to their work. 

The moment when my daughter picks up the final piece of a puzzle and places it in the remaining space, she smiles with great satisfaction as she completes the picture made possible by many successful connections. While teachers encounter different types of puzzle pieces, the commonality in achieving success is the same—it’s all about CONNECTIONS! 

Jesus changed lives through connection 
In Luke 19, Jesus is traveling in a crowd through Jericho. A man named Zacchaeus was watching from a tree, trying to get a glimpse of Jesus. Even though Jesus knew that Zacchaeus most likely stole money in his job as a tax collector, Jesus still initiated an invitation to share a meal and make a personal connection with Zacchaeus. This connection with Jesus prompted Zacchaeus to repay everything he had stolen and give away half of his possessions to people in need. Most likely, Zaccheaus was no longer the most hated man in his community, but rather a welcomed friend. 
As Christian teachers, we can follow the example of Jesus and notice students who look at us from a distance and, like Zacchaeus, need our attention. When we ask God to show us the students who need our care, we can anticipate and initiate personal connections. These God-appointed, transformational connections can make all the difference, especially for our struggling students!

Michelle Keso’s career includes educating children, young adults, and teachers. She is an Assistant Adjunct Professor for the College of Education at Grand Canyon University. She also serves as the Arizona State Representative for CEAI. Her heart is to encourage educators to invest in strong relationships and instructional practices to promote a passion for learning.


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