The power in finding common ground with students

Teacher-student relationships are key. When students feel they share common ground with teachers, everything improves. (Wikipedia / Mosborne01)

Teacher-student relationships are key. When students feel they share common ground with teachers, everything improves. (Wikipedia / Mosborne01)

I met “Cole”, a student in my Spanish classes, a little over two years ago. He was a rambunctious ninth grader when he first stepped in my class, and I could tell something was different about him.

He was focused, determined and motivated. Just not about school.

Cole owned a gecko and bought a few more over the next two years in school. He learned how the distinct features of the different kinds of geckos. He learned how to breed them and care for them.

He also raced four-wheelers and was well-versed in the equipment, strategies and races that went along with them. He even acquired sponsors to help defray the costs of his entry fees to competitions.

Talk about his math, English or social studies classes with him and he was less than enthusiastic. He was ambitious, though, and gave me suggestions on how he thought his teachers could improve their classes.

He excelled in Spanish and was one of the most fluent students in his grade. Why? Cole and I had a great relationship.

We found we had common ground. I talked about the business side of my website. He equated it to finding sponsorships and the buying and selling of geckos. Even if racing four-wheelers wasn’t my thing, I found it interesting and regularly asked him questions about it.

We constantly hear about the importance of the student-teacher relationship. Recently, I found an interesting study that backs up its importance … specifically, the importance of finding common ground. I heard it on a new podcast — quickly one of my favorites — called “The Hidden Brain” from NPR.

Former Harvard professor Hunter Gehlbach conducted a survey of ninth graders. It identified traits or interests that the students might have in common with their teachers. By taking the survey, some students realized some of their teachers weren’t as unlike them as they realized.

What happened next is worth noting. The students were divided in a control group (no survey) and a treatment group (identifying similarities with teachers). The students who identified commonalities with their teachers had stronger relationships with their teachers and performed better in class.

The effects were stronger on minority students, especially black and Latino students. When placed in the treatment group, their grades were almost a half letter grade higher. Plus, it closed those students’ achievement gap by 60 percent.

Did it cost the school district money? Did it require time-intensive training?

No. It was essentially free and didn’t take an inordinate amount of time.

The take-away message here: Finding common ground — helping students feel like their teachers are actually like them in some ways — can help students succeed in school and enjoy it more.

When that happens, everyone benefits.

One more interesting aspect of this study: Don’t expect students to bubble over about the impact of those relationships. When students were asked if their relationships with teachers improved, they largely shrugged and said, “Meh.”

The bottom line: finding common ground may not look like it’s that important to students, but it is.

Cognitive science can guide us in the classroom in many ways. In that same podcast episode of “The Hidden Brain” (you really have to check it out!), they outlined these gems for educators:

  • Having a teacher who helps students achieve higher test scores pays off later in life — literally. A study from Harvard University and Columbia University shows that having one — just one! — teacher with a track record of improving test scores is valuable. Students who have just one such teacher for one year are more likely to attend college and live in better neighborhoods. Their lifetime earnings are also higher by $39,000! (Based on a study of more than 1 million students in a large urban school district.)
  • Text messages to parents can be another low-cost, low-time investment practices to improve learning. A study from Brown and Harvard showed that students whose families received text messages from teachers were 41 percent less likely to fail. Plus, messages encouraging improvement were “far more effective” than messages with positive information.

I know that Cole, my student from before, has such potential. He’s the kind of person that we need in the workforce — willing to work, passionate and driven.

Hopefully, if implemented, studies like these will help us reach students like Cole and help them to harness their talents.

[reminder]How can we find common ground with our students? What else can we do to help close the achievement gap?[/reminder]

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