Get to Know Your High School Students

5 Ways to Get to Know Your Middle and High School Students Better

Katie Martin recalls receiving a “book of policies and procedures to cover each day for the first week of school” when she was first starting out in the teaching profession, as she explains in a post on her blog. She decided that rather than devoting valuable instructional time to reviewing school and classroom rules, she would focus her energy on developing connections and relationships with her students rather than going over the rules of the school and the classroom.

“I have never regretted making the decision to minimise the policies and maximise the time I spend building relationships,” writes Martin, who is the vice president of leadership and learning at Altitude Learning and teaches in the graduate school of education at High Tech High. “I have never regretted making the decision to minimise the policies and maximise the time I spend building relationships.” “Learning names, seeing students as individuals, co-creating community guidelines, establishing jobs, and greeting students on a daily basis were foundational to developing relationships and creating the culture of the classroom,”

In order for students to have a profound connection with what they are learning, the establishment and maintenance of healthy relationships needs to be a top priority in the classroom. According to Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of The Learning Policy Institute, “What the science of learning and development tells us is that we need to create learning environments which allow for strong, long-term relationships for children to become attached to school and to the adults and other children in it.” “We need to create learning environments which allow for strong, long-term relationships for children to become attached to school and to the adults and other children in it.” “If you’re in a positive emotional space and feeling good about yourself, your teacher will be able to help you.” That in and of itself creates a window of opportunity for additional education.

Here are a few ideas for connecting with and getting to know your middle school and high school students, some of which come from Martin and some of which come from our Edutopia archives.


An introductory survey is a wonderful way to get started learning about your students; however, the manner in which survey questions are constructed can make a significant impact on the quality of responses that students provide. Questions like, “How many siblings do you have?” are examples of standard questions. According to Martin, if you ask students, “What are your favourite subjects?” they will respond with generic answers such as “2 brothers and art.” Instead, you should think about asking open-ended questions such as, “What are the top five things that I need to know about you?”

According to what Martin writes, one educator discovered that by asking students these types of open-ended questions, they were more likely to reveal information that was unexpected, such as, “It takes me an hour and a half to get to school each day.” My parents just got divorced. I am a quiet student because it takes me longer to figure things out, but I do care very much about my academic performance.

Martin states in his article that “there are multiple ways to connect and get to know learners in order to better support them,” and that “often, it begins with asking the questions and being willing to listen and connect.” “When we know our strengths and others do as well, we are able to be more open about how we can work together to accomplish our goals, and we are also able to be more transparent about our needs.”


Henry Seton, an English instructor at a high school, schedules a few minutes at the beginning of each class for students to tell the class about someone close to them. This practise, which he refers to as daily dedications, is intended to serve as an exercise to encourage students to open up.

Seton demonstrates how to do the exercise at the beginning of the school year by showing a picture of his father and talking about the reasons why his father is such an important person in Seton’s life. “I then explain how the dedications work and the rationale for them, that they can choose anyone living or dead, real or fictional, who provides inspiration,” he writes. “They can choose anyone living or dead, real or fictional, who has influenced them in some way.” “There are typically a few students who, at the very least, feign reluctance; however, my students are so courageous that their dedications quickly become more vulnerable and powerful than mine.”

To get things started, Ms. Seton asks each day’s students to volunteer, and then they present in alphabetical order. The amount of time spent on each dedication is between 30 and 60 seconds. According to what he has said, “these fleeting moments become the seeds for deeper relationship building.” We are now aware that it is appropriate to inquire about the older sibling’s academic progress, the cousin’s recovery from the auto accident, and the favourite athlete’s most recent playoff game.


Scheduling time for a meaningful conversation with each student—either remotely or in person—can provide powerful insight into the lives of the students, help build empathy, and deepen connections. Although it may be difficult to set aside the time, scheduling the time is something that should be done. “Empathy interviews are a great way to just listen and understand your students and their families,” writes Martin, who also recommends following up, if possible, with quick check-ins throughout the school year via phone, video call, or text message. “Empathy interviews are a great way to just listen and understand your students and their families,” writes Martin. “Empathy interviews are a great way to just listen and understand your students During these initial conversations that last for thirty minutes, Martin recommends asking the student questions such as “what are you curious about?” and “what do you like and not like about school?”


Ashley Ingle, an English teacher at a middle school, makes time in her class schedule for her students to have casual conversations with one another about topics that are not related to schoolwork. According to what Ingle writes, “While it is essential for teachers to develop a rapport with their students, it can be just as valuable for students to become comfortable with one another.” “When students are comfortable with one another, it can lead to increased engagement in the classroom, which can lead to increased academic success.”

She plans for these student-led discussions to take place twice a week for a total of two minutes. She recommends that you “hand out a few slips of paper to each student” and then “ask them to write down questions they’d like the group to discuss.” Questions like “Which restaurant in town serves the best pizza?” and “Would you rather ____ or _____?” are just two examples of the diverse range of topics that can be used as prompts. When it is a student’s turn to be the facilitator, she gives them their prompt, then takes a seat in the back of the room and listens. Students who are nervous about leading a discussion are given the option to have two other classmates co-facilitate the discussion using the Ingle platform.


In order to keep track of her students’ mental health and to convey to them that she is concerned about how they are doing, she teaches her classes online.
Cathleen Beachboard, who teaches English to students in the eighth grade, requires them to answer questions regarding their mental and social well-being on a regular basis using a Google form that they are required to fill out and submit to her. Even if they are learning in person, students can still benefit from this practise because it makes sense. They have several options from which to choose when asked how they are doing, including “I’m great,” “I’m OK,” “I’m struggling,” and “I’m having a hard time and would like a check-in.” She verifies the attendance of students who do not have access to digital technology through a school-approved messaging platform or through the mail using a postage-paid return envelope. It is important to create spaces and regular opportunities for students to check in with a trusted adult, share their concerns and questions, and get the sense that someone cares about how they are doing, according to an article that was published on Beachboard.

Martin recommends the use of a mood metre, which is essentially a color-coded grid that offers students a visual way to engage with and communicate how they are feeling. This is intended to assist students in “naming and identifying emotions.” The mood metre has sections that are represented by the colours red, blue, green, and yellow respectively. Each colour is meant to represent a distinct range of feelings that are associated with a specific combination of high or low levels of energy and high or low levels of pleasantness. For instance, if a student is feeling red feelings, they may be experiencing feelings of anger, fear, or anxiety. Additionally, they would have high levels of energy but low levels of pleasantness. According to what Martin has written, “having a shared language or images to talk about feelings can help build community, shared understanding, and support to appropriately process the emotions.”