7 Ways to Build Stronger Relationships with Students

It’s one thing to philosophize about students in the summer; the fall is when the pedagogical rubber hits the road.

I’ve mentioned that I want to strengthen my relationships with students this year. Why? Because as the late Dr. Rita Pierson said, “students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.” And I want my students to learn. A LOT.

So, this year, I’m aiming to be a teacher students like. And no, not in a buddy-buddy way, but in a way that students know I have their best interests at heart.

The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.
Start small. Lots of small gestures add up to big feelings for kids.

I’ve attempted to foster relationships, so far, in several ways:

1. I’m teaching a low-stakes computer science class through Exploring Computer Science. There is no regents exam connected to the course, there is no homework in the course, and students drive most of the classwork. It’s fun and curiosity driven. It engages the kids. They learn in spite of themselves. The course isn’t even called “computer science.” It’s called “Solving Problems with Creativity, Art, and Technology.” We call it CAT Class, for short.

2. I’m trying to bring more fun into classes I co-teach. I wear silly hats, wigs, cat ears (ahem, CAT class), and try to incorporate games and interesting current events. This is an approach I’ve stolen from Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate methodology.


A picture of the author wearing a pirate hat and wig.
I look just like Christopher Columbus. This is a very serious picture.

3. I’m always on the lookout for free or PAID opportunities and contests for students at my school. Even the more ornery ones know that I’m the teacher who will help them out. Opportunities I’ve helped students get since June: paid summer experience with the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, writing opportunities with Teen Reviewers and Critics Program, Internship with Metropolitan Museum of the Arts. I’m pretty sure that at least two more students will get into BAM’s Dancing into the Future program, as well.

4. I’m interviewing SpEd students about their goals and future plans so I have a lot I can write meaningful IEPs. Not only does it make the IEP easier to write, but the kids like answering questions about themselves. I’ve been using this survey because it has questions about their horse riding and car racing experiences that make my inner city students giggle. Curiously, I’ve learned that quite a few of my kids go bowling on a regular basis.

5. In one-on-one conversations, I’m giving advice less and listening and asking questions more. This is something I’m doing in my life, in general, inspired by The Lost Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols.

6. I’m being nice to myself. This is an important one. I used to beat up on myself a lot for not being better at lots of things. And when I felt frustrated at myself, the emotion spilled over onto my kids. Teens are living, emotion-sensing machines, and they know when you are feeling bad. Of course, they assume it’s about them and get defensive. So it’s important to try to feel good.


The author's hand with a cat sleeping on it.
Having a cat who will lay on my arm whenever he wants helps me feel good. Sorta. Not so much when I want to type, but otherwise…

7. I’m learning every thing I can about being emotionally supportive. I’m researching schools and youth organizations with Restorative Justice practices. In fact, I’m leading an affinity/research group on restorative justice that you are welcome to join if you are in NYC. Sign up here (public school teachers in NYC will be paid per session!): Sign up for The Restorative Justice Affinity Group.




Our Students Need More Time to Reflect and Prepare

It’s been a spell, and for that I apologize. I’ve been busy trying to get back into the grind of being IN BED at 10 p.m., up at 5:30 a.m. (because I am slow in the morning and need time to get my wits about me).

This year I have the best schedule EVER. I have a first period class three days a week teaching the Exploring Computer Science curriculum, which is fun. Five days per week, I have second period OFF to PLAN. Then five days per week, I co-teach two classes. Then lunch. Then advisory two days per week. Then co-teaching two more classes, then done! Or, well, done TEACHING. Still have to grade, eat, meditate, etc.


graphic showing all the different things to consider in managing time
There are so many aspects to time management. Perhaps we just need to allow ourselves more time.

Having breaks throughout the day does wonders for my state of mind. Frequent breaks give me time to get my materials together and to get my head right for the next task I have to do.

I have to wonder if many breaks during the day would help our students, as well. How many of them go from room to room having forgotten their books, their pens or pencils, some paper to write on, or a trip to the bathroom? So many.

A picture of a bomb
When a student comes to class without the right materials or frame of mind, they are a ticking frustration bomb.

Unlike a lot of teachers, I’m not organized by nature. It’s something I have to work on a lot. I have learned all my organizational systems from books. Except one: I give myself lots of time to complete tasks. Remember what I said about getting up at 5:30 a.m.? I don’t actually leave my house until around 7 a.m. I only need 20 minutes to get ready, but I always think of something else to do in the morning. Maybe I want to spend extra time with my cat.

Cat sitting on open laptop
Okay, so maybe he DEMANDS that I play with him in the morning.

Maybe the weather report didn’t quite match the weather outside, and I need to come back in and get a warmer coat or lighter sweater. Maybe my mom (yes, this happens) decides to call at an inopportune hour. Maybe NPR plays a song that I MUST SHAZAM IMMEDIATELY.

How can we provide students with more time to think in class? How can we change the school day to allow for real reflection and not just academic channel-flipping every few minutes? Yes, I’m a special education teacher, but this isn’t just a special education accommodation. I think a lot of students need more time to think.

Teachers: Stop Going Crazy Trying to Connect with Parents.

Did you catch that incendiary headline? Of course you did; that’s why you’re here.

I don’t, of course, mean it literally. But this isn’t a bait and switch. I DO want you (and me!)  to stop pulling your hair out trying to get parents to come to parents’ nights and to answer your calls and to give you updated phone and address information so that you can work together with parents and guardians for student success.

I want to share with you some tips that I learned while attending the TACD Summer Institute earlier this summer.

So, the name of the workshop was “The Power of School-Community-University Partnership,” and it was led by some really inspiring folks who are running what appears to be a strong parent-partnership committee in Upstate New York.

Since you can click the link above and look at their presentation, I’m not going to go over everything I learned. But I’ll give you my top 3 big takeaways.

1. If Your Parent Outreach Efforts Are Not Working, It’s Time To Try Something New. At my school, we have tried raffles for big ticket items, making food available to parents to eat, email blasts, phone blasts, individualized calls home, and postal mail reminders on a regular basis. Parent involvement at school still remains low.

2. If The Parents Aren’t Coming to the School, We Have To Ask Them Why. I think that for some parents, simply walking into a school building feels decidedly unpleasant, particularly if the student has a history of discipline problems or doing poorly at school. The key might just be making the school a more hospitable place. At  The Power of School-Community-University Partnership workshop, the presenters suggested engaging families through The Parent Cafe. Do this by

  • Identifying parent leaders who can invite friends and neighbors to the school
  • Encouraging parents to work together to solve some of the schools problems
  • Community partners (local politicians, mental health services, physical health services) help recruit other parents and community members to participate
  • During meetings, be there to LISTEN, not to TEACH. Ask: What’s it like to raise a child in this community? Can you give an example of a positive experience with the school? Can you give an example of a difficult experience with the school? If you could talk to the superintendent or principal, and you knew they would really listen and not judge you, what would you want to say?

3. When Parents See They Have a Voice, Help Them Take It To The Big Dogs and Affect Education Policy. At my school, we acknowledge really helpful and active senior parents with an award at graduation. We all appreciate them, and I think they enjoy being appreciated. But what about those active parents whose kids are younger? How can we give them some real world payoff? Well, the folks who gave the presentation suggested giving them the power to suggest political, educational issues to rally around, or leading outreach efforts to less involved parents to keep them aware of school programs.

Clearly, this is a lot of work. But building a community partnership is not about getting frustrated at low parent involvement. It’s about finding ways to truly build a community around the school. And that, my friends, is a great feeling. I know that when my school has events and talent shows to allow students to show how great they are at the arts, or dancing, or singing, entire families show up. We can fill an auditorium!

With the right outreach, parent contact needn’t be a painful chore.

Here are some other great tips for working with parents: 12 Conversation Starters on What Parents Want You to Know

How To Find Free $$ for Your Teaching Needs (Tech, PD, Etc.)

I know what you’re thinking: “What? Is this some sort of teacher scam to get me to buy some new teaching thing?”

Well, no. Not unless you really want to. In which case, I have this WONDERFUL bridge I’d like to sell you…

Brooklyn Bridg Photo
A picture of the Brooklyn Bridge. I will sell it to you for a super low price!

A couple of days ago,  with minimal effort on my part,  I was able to secure $26,000 in tech funding for my school.

In May, I secured about $2,000 funding for me to attend a PD on blended learning and teaching computer science.

In June, I was given funding to attend a week-long PD at The Tenement Museum through Facing History and Ourselves.

In November of 2013,  I was given funding to attend the Journalism Educators Association biannual convention in Boston and the summer convention in Las Vegas.

Last summer I got (and am still receiving) a free subscription to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and free accompanying PD to learn how to use both of those tools.

How did I do it? Simple: by signing up for as many educational email lists, twitter feeds, and actual postal mail lists as possible, and simply reading my mail periodically. That’s it. I stay on top of information and erase/toss out information I don’t want.

Picture of a smelly garbage can
Toss out any email/postal mail garbage! Keep the informational, non-garbage morsels for mental eating. Or something else. That’s a bad metaphor.



How do I find the lists? I start national, then go local. Nationally, I keep an eye on the following (related to my disciplines of ELA, U.S. History, SpEd, Journalism, and Computer Science):

Council for Exceptional Children


CSTA (Computer Science Teachers of America)

JEA (Journalism Education Association)

U.S. Dept. of Education

National Center for Learning Disabilities

Ready by 21


Adobe Education Exchange

Google Teacher Academy

Poynter Institute

Loads of U.S. History-related websites

Loads of English Literature-related websites


Locally, I follow mostly (related to my disciplines of ELA, U.S. History, SpEd, Journalism, and Computer Science)


A picture of a human head with different parts of the brain labelled like food. Metaphor: tasty mental morsels.
Mmmm, tasty mental morsels. Not garbage. Morsels.

United Federation of Teachers

New York City Department of Education Teacher PD and Student Opportunities Page

New York City Department of Education Guidance Counselor Page

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Local Museums of all sorts 

Local Colleges of all sorts — vocational and liberal arts and technical

Event listings (from colleges, from meetup.com,

As you can see, I get a lot of information, all of the time. I also try to attend conferences during much of the summer, and I’ve recently discovered the wonderment of Twitter. I’ve learned a lot about opportunities through twitter chats.

Keeping on top of lists and information delivered to me regularly is also a great way to find student opportunities to enter poetry contests, math contests, public speaking contests. Through my procrastination careful monitoring of postal mail and email, I have forged (some tenuous, some very strong) relationships with all sorts of local institutions.

How you go through your email once you have gotten on to all of these lists is a very personal thing. But, since I’m a big fan of gamifying and automating many aspects of my life, I like to use The Email Game to keep my gmail inbox clean.

The Email Game home page
The Email Game

There are lots of other approaches to try, such as the Inbox Empty method, which will help you get through your ten billion email messages, as well.

So, to return to what I was saying earlier in this post… no. You don’t have to buy anything. 

Just sign up for stuff.

This year, I have gotten about $35,000 in free PD, technology, and other goods and services just for a few minutes a day of erasing and saving email.

You can, too! If you need help, reach out to me @spedtools, and I’m super happy to help.

How To Keep GenEd Teachers “In The Know”

An IEP only works when everyone approaches it without cynicism. Unfortunately, because there is so much information to know, and there are so many people involved in sharing information and there are only 24 hours in a day, it can seem like a daunting task to let Gen Ed teachers know how they can help the student with special needs in their CTT classes.

Sharing IEP Information

Here in New York, we have a useful system of keeping teachers up to date on students’ accommodations and yearly goals called SESIS (Special Education Student Information System) that serves as an easy-to-access source of IEP information, though it leaves a lot to be desired in the design department (it looks like it was created during the DOS era).

But what do you do if your school district doesn’t HAVE a SESIS-like system?

You have three possibilities:

  • Tried and True. Print out all of the IEPs in the beginning of the year and give relevant IEPs to each teacher.

  • Speed it up. Print out summaries of all of the IEPs in the beginning of the year and give to relevant teachers, being sure to let them know that hard copies are always available through you.
  • Tech It Up. Find a SECURE SESIS-like system that you can buy for your school. I have found a couple online that look pretty interesting, like  IEP Writer (which is easy to use and beautifully designed).

No matter what you do, it’s incredibly important that you let the GenEd teachers know what the students with special needs will require to function optimally in their classes. As we all know, it can be difficult in an ICT situation to get the GenEd teacher to incorporate your SpEd expertise. But don’t let that stop you from providing GenEd teachers with the information they need to best serve the students.

Make it easy to find, make it easy to use.