Kids Learn More When We Invite Them In

By Kelly Owens

Lost teeth tallies, wonderings about weather, and exchanged greetings were crowd favorites in my first graders’ morning meetings. My recent sixth grade routine looked different – especially remotely – yet I still got things going with a greeting.

Rather than rush to check names off an attendance list, I mentally marked that I’d started with hello. Leveraging those first moments to emotionally engage students sets the tone for the rest of class, in person or at a social distance.

We all feel the need to belong. Even babies respond to hearing their names spoken in the warm tones of our voices. When we meet and greet children, we send clear messages of knowing and belonging. Some depend on others to break the ice and welcome them into the learning community. I didn’t realize the power of hello until one student said goodbye.

An Unintentional Lesson

Each morning during hall duty, a tide of students flooded my intermediate school halls. I greeted passing students, many of whom I’d never taught. Responses varied from rare blank stares to nods to smiles. Sometimes I wondered whether it mattered to them.

After almost two years, I got my answer. One of those hallway hello-ers I’d never taught came by to visit during my last period class and announced she was moving. I didn’t even know her name…until I looked at the card she handed me.

I was shocked she even thought of me. Wasn’t she barraged with last minute things like emptying her locker, returning books, and saying goodbye to friends and teachers who actually knew her? All we shared were polite hallway hellos. Or so I had thought.

Small Talk Makes a Difference

Students (young and old) have a social-emotional need to belong and connect with the group. It’s been true for me as a student in tennis, cooking, and grad classes. When instructors connected first with greetings, I was more motivated to try backhand slices or dare homemade dough. Those teachers established class cultures that encouraged me to own my learning with the confidence that they’d be there to support me. I’d bet you can remember just such times yourself.

When a greeting precedes instructional time, it conveys:

  • “My teacher knows I’m here.”
  • “My teacher cares that I’m here.”
  • “I belong to this classroom community.”

“Good morning” can lead to good effort, good behavior, and good attitude. Hearing hello is a great first step toward encouraging students to feel some drive to succeed.  It’s a small investment that can yield big rewards – and worth squeezing into our lesson plans.

Reinventing Hello in the Virtual World

Many of us are more digitally connected than ever before, resulting in the need for even stronger human connections. Realize the power of hello!

Greet Yourself First

Start your own day with positive energy. Acknowledge you are present and focused on your goal at hand. Lead with that example!

Model and Teach Hello as a Classroom Management Strategy

With virtual learning, there is a new awkwardness for some students. They worry what to say or do in a new format where they don’t know the norms – unless you model and teach them.

Use their Names

Do you remember substitute teaching? As soon as you learned names and used them, students acted differently. Why? Because you established personal connections. My administrator has taken positive name-calling to heart. When I join my faculty on a Google Meet grid, he makes a point to acknowledge each new “box” that pops on the screen. Do the same with students.

Connect around the Campfire

Singing goofy songs with fellow summer campers ensures lots of laughs and bonding as buds. Project a campfire image during a virtual class meeting to strengthen social relationships.

Welcoming Visitors Protocol

Greet an administrator’s surprise pop in with a pre-rehearsed choral class greeting. Everyone will feel more comfortable and relaxed . . . especially when the guest sings along!

Vary Greetings

Students may be eager to share greetings in other languages they know, including sign language and gestures. Try showing hello using greetings from around the world.

Trade Off One-for-One

(Offset every “missing work” email with a “missing you” message.) For each missed assignment email I sent during remote learning, I tried to balance it with a Good Day Gram.  A quick email to say “Good morning. Have a great day!” works wonders for the recipient and sender.

Start and End with Greetings

Bookend your lessons by leading and ending with encouragement and optimism. Teachers already use this “peanut butter and jelly sandwich” approach to broach sensitive subjects: say something positive, approach the weighty issue, end on a positive note. Why do yogis start practice with positive intentions and close with the greeting namaste? They know it opens hearts and minds.

Don’t Assume

I used to think clever lessons would inherently show students how much I cared. Didn’t my time-consuming planning efforts convey I valued my students? My anonymous hallway hello-er proved blockbuster projects don’t replace greetings.

Just as readers grow more emotionally invested in books when authors craft relatable characters, teachers must intentionally carve out connections. If you want to fully engage and motivate students to delve into your innovative instruction, get going first with a greeting!

Kelly Owens is a teacher who helps sixth grade readers and writers overcome past literacy struggles by building stamina, confidence, and a greater love of reading. She has proudly represented Hillsborough Township Public Schools as a NJ Governor’s Teacher of the Year. Additional writing credits include published work with The King School Series (Townsend Press).


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1 Response

  1. Sibyl A Jacobus says:

    Kelly, your approach is awesome. I had chills reading your thoughts. You are a true teacher. I wish I could go back to school and you would be my teacher. You are gifted and your students know that.

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