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What every educator (and student) needs

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Campus Desk :
Connections. It's a word that conjures up different meanings depending on the context. In a school setting, connections - and, specifically, the right connections - are critical to both the student and teacher. That's the consensus among educators attending the Emerging Educators Academy at Simpson College.
The academy, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Education, Iowa State Education Association and Simpson College, relies heavily on the experience of educators. And experience at the conference is tenfold - from several state and national Teachers of the Year to prominent Iowa educators in fields including social science, science and math.
The goal of the academy is to bring their experience to the inexperienced and those who coach them.
The so-called inexperienced educators are those who are completing their degrees or who have just entered their profession.
Both teacher-teacher and teacher-student connections are key to maximizing the learning environment. Shelly Vroegh, Iowa's 2017 Teacher of the Year, told the nearly 170 attendees that she remembers her first stint as a teacher was a lonely and fearful experience.
"Today I realize that I was nervous because I was walking into that school with absolutely no connection to anyone," Vroegh said.
"No friendly faces welcoming me with a hearty 'Good Morning!' No mentor waiting to give me advice and encourage me. No teaching partner ready to share an idea for a lesson or a strategy for diffusing a difficult situation. I wasn't connected to one person in that school….and it made that first year really difficult."
And it's those connections that will lead to great experiences - or something falling short.
"Connection is a powerful thing, so when we were thinking about what we could do to support and encourage our emerging educators we immediately landed on the idea of building and fostering strong connections," Vroegh said.
"As educators we often talk about what kids need.
Things like teachers who believe in them and tell them they matter. Relationships with trusted adults who will take the time to listen and care. A champion who pushes them beyond what they believe they can achieve.
A connection - whether it be with other students or with a teacher who makes them feel as if they belong.
"Quite honestly, these are the same things we as educators need, too. We're faced with challenges every day that leave us feeling discouraged and disconnected. This is why it is more important than ever to create connections with people in our schools."
If teachers are better connected with each other, it stands to reason they will be better prepared to connect to their students.
Sarah Brown Wessling, Iowa's and the nation's Teacher of the Year in 2010, said all the lesson plans, worksheets and standards don't amount to anything without a strong teacher-student connection.
"What makes a real impact?" Brown Wessling said. "It is always the relationship between a teacher and a student.
That's where the real work resides. When we think about the importance of making connections, we need to make connections with learners so their minds are open to learning.
I can't be the same teacher to every kid, every kid needs to have a different me. So it's important that I get to know them individually."
Connections is not about making friends, Brown Wessling stressed.
"It's about understanding their story," she said.
 "Kids have two stories, who they are as a person and who they are as a student. I need to learn how they learn, so that's why connections become some critical."
Brown Wessling cited a student in her classroom who didn't speak. She learned that his study hall coincided with her planning period, so she started inviting him to join her. Still, even one-on-one he would rarely speak. But it was a start.
"But this move to silence wasn't on the radar of the system at large," she said.
"One day we were doing this panel discussion where students are either journalists or characters from a story that they read.
Out of the blue, he takes over the conversations - he became a journalist from CNN. What I learned is that anytime I could get him to be in character, he would participate. But anytime he had to be himself, he would refuse."
So, the strategy turned to getting him to assume a character - and it worked. His teacher - and even his classmates - were thrilled.
"Another time he delivered an amazing speech in character," Brown Wessling said.
The experience taught Brown Wessling that with each student, an educator needs to approach developing connections with patience, time and attention.
"A lot of times when we think we're making connections with kids, we have in our mindset 'where do I need him academically in two weeks,'" she said. "Instead, we need to readjust that thinking so we don't miss important hints about making effective connections.
Now I think, 'What's my wish for this student this semester? What is my hope?' That's what empowered me with more patience and enabled me to feel I had more time and space to reach that child.
"Learning, after all, doesn't happen on demand very often.

(From Iowa Department of Education.)

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