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Connecting with Students

Instruction

When working as an outdoor educator, one of the most common problems is lack of time. Depending on the type of program, students may only be there for a few days, or sometimes just a few hours if it’s an in-school field trip. Lack of time compounded with having one of you and ten to twelve of them can complicate things. This means that finding the time to get to know the students and feel like you connected with them can sometimes fall to the wayside, especially when you feel you have other lessons and program objectives to meet. But finding ways to connect with your students is vital. Why should your students care about your ecosystem lesson if they feel you don’t care about their lives, or what they have to say outside of the lesson?

While connecting with students in a short time can be challenging, here’s a few tried and true tricks to help you get started:

connecting with studentsLearn their names. Taking the time to learn your students’ names tells them that they are important to you. They aren’t just another child you have to teach something to. Learning their names honors their individuality. Figure out how feasible this is in your timeframe, and do your best with it. This can be easier if you have your students for a few days, but even if it is for only a short field trip, try to make some effort. If you are addressing a child directly, ask their name and then use it when you address them. If you aren’t good at remembering names, try some memory games to help, or use name games that associate that name with something.

Eye contact is key. This one may seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate its importance. When talking with your students, make sure to look them in the eyes. Or, if it’s a student that seems uncomfortable with eye contact, mirror the amount of eye contact they use. This is another to way to show your students that they matter to you, because it shows that they have your full attention when you are talking with them.

Trail conversations are a great time to build rapport. Walking from point A to point B with your students is a great time to connect with them. Not every single moment needs to be filled up with activities and lessons, especially trail time. By giving them time to do what they want as you walk, this time can serve as a brain break and as a time for you to chat with your students. I love to place myself throughout the group and just listen to the conversations around me. I also find that students will often start talking with me about various things, both related and unrelated to our programming, or I can strike up conversations with nearby students. This is a great start to getting to know your students: what their family is like, what pets they have, favorite movies, books, TV shows, what that keychain on their backpack is from. There are endless topics to cover when walking the trails.

Remember what they told you. Once you’ve started to get to know your students, make it clear that you remember what they told you. Use recall to bring up previous things they’ve already told you. For example, a student mentions they have a dog and tells you about some silly antic their dog does sometimes. At a later time, ask for more details. What’s the dog’s name? What kind of dog is it? How long has the student had the dog? This shows your students that you listen when they talk to you, and that what they say is important enough to you for you to remember it.

Be open and authentic. This can be a little tricky, and ultimately depends on your comfort level. Oftentimes opening yourself up and sharing yourself with your students will help them open up to you. I like to start off my time with my students by making it clear that I will, within reason, answer questions about myself and share with them. I also make it clear that I am my own person, outside of being an educator. I do my best to be myself with them, which can also help me find things we have in common. For example, when teaching throughout the winter, I wore a hat with logos of my favorite NFL team. My favorite team was not a popular choice with my students, and many of them would vocalize that, and while we would agree to disagree as to whose team was better, football gave me common ground with some of my students. Sometimes just being yourself and being authentic with your students can help create a space where they feel comfortable enough to share a little bit and try to connect with you.

When working as an outdoor educator, one of the most common problems is lack of time. Depending on the type of program, students may only be there for a few days, or sometimes just a few hours if it’s an in-school field trip. Lack of time compounded with having one of you and ten to twelve of them can complicate things. This means that finding the time to get to know the students and feel like you connected with them can sometimes fall to the wayside, especially when you feel you have other lessons and program objectives to meet. But finding ways to connect with your students is vital. Why should your students care about your ecosystem lesson if they feel you don’t care about their lives, or what they have to say outside of the lesson?

While connecting with students in a short time can be challenging, here’s a few tried and true tricks to help you get started:

connecting with studentsLearn their names. Taking the time to learn your students’ names tells them that they are important to you. They aren’t just another child you have to teach something to. Learning their names honors their individuality. Figure out how feasible this is in your timeframe, and do your best with it. This can be easier if you have your students for a few days, but even if it is for only a short field trip, try to make some effort. If you are addressing a child directly, ask their name and then use it when you address them. If you aren’t good at remembering names, try some memory games to help, or use name games that associate that name with something.

Eye contact is key. This one may seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate its importance. When talking with your students, make sure to look them in the eyes. Or, if it’s a student that seems uncomfortable with eye contact, mirror the amount of eye contact they use. This is another to way to show your students that they matter to you, because it shows that they have your full attention when you are talking with them.

Trail conversations are a great time to build rapport. Walking from point A to point B with your students is a great time to connect with them. Not every single moment needs to be filled up with activities and lessons, especially trail time. By giving them time to do what they want as you walk, this time can serve as a brain break and as a time for you to chat with your students. I love to place myself throughout the group and just listen to the conversations around me. I also find that students will often start talking with me about various things, both related and unrelated to our programming, or I can strike up conversations with nearby students. This is a great start to getting to know your students: what their family is like, what pets they have, favorite movies, books, TV shows, what that keychain on their backpack is from. There are endless topics to cover when walking the trails.

Remember what they told you. Once you’ve started to get to know your students, make it clear that you remember what they told you. Use recall to bring up previous things they’ve already told you. For example, a student mentions they have a dog and tells you about some silly antic their dog does sometimes. At a later time, ask for more details. What’s the dog’s name? What kind of dog is it? How long has the student had the dog? This shows your students that you listen when they talk to you, and that what they say is important enough to you for you to remember it.

Be open and authentic. This can be a little tricky, and ultimately depends on your comfort level. Oftentimes opening yourself up and sharing yourself with your students will help them open up to you. I like to start off my time with my students by making it clear that I will, within reason, answer questions about myself and share with them. I also make it clear that I am my own person, outside of being an educator. I do my best to be myself with them, which can also help me find things we have in common. For example, when teaching throughout the winter, I wore a hat with logos of my favorite NFL team. My favorite team was not a popular choice with my students, and many of them would vocalize that, and while we would agree to disagree as to whose team was better, football gave me common ground with some of my students. Sometimes just being yourself and being authentic with your students can help create a space where they feel comfortable enough to share a little bit and try to connect with you.

About the Author
Noelle Ames
Author: Noelle Ames

Noelle spent many summers as a child and teen at Girl Scout camps, both as a camper and staff, which inspired her love of outdoors and working with children. After getting her B.S. in Environmental Science, she moved to Washington, where she spent time doing environmental restoration work throughout King County, and then worked as a naturalist leading field trips for elementary students. Upon completing her Masters of Education, Noelle hopes to continue to work with students in outdoor education settings. When not spending time with children in the woods, Noelle loves to read, play ukulele, and work on her never-ending supply of cross-stitch projects.