Professional development can happen in your free time while scrolling through social media. That is where I found this fantastic idea for building stronger relationships with students during the holiday season. A high school colleague of mine posted about her newest classroom holiday tradition in a Facebook group I follow and I wanted to share that idea with all of my readers here. 

“Wow, you really do love me!” was a sentiment shared by one of my most challenging English 9 students last year after I handed him a holiday card adorned with a candy cane. At the beginning of the year, I had identified this student as my ‘project’. He had come into my classroom on the first day of school and proudly professed himself to be a bad kid. As we were going over the course syllabus the next day, he proceeded to curl his into a makeshift horn in the middle of the period and put on an impromptu scat-singing session for the class. To clarify, he had just broken three of my four class rules with that little display.

While you may not know this particular student, I am confident that you know a few who are just like him; you work with them every day. They make you want to scream, cry, curse, and, on the really bad days, quit. Then you want to turn around and hug them, as you suspect there are other issues at play beyond what you can see in the classroom. I’ve had several kids like this throughout my teaching career and it was one of those students who inspired my annual wintertime practice of giving all of my classes holiday cards.

Difficult students can be hard to reach sometimes. Here is an idea that any teacher in any subject or grade level could try with their students during the holiday season. Use the holiday to build stronger relationships with your students.

Four years ago, I had accepted a position at a new school and was struggling to find my footing. Despite having a few years of teaching experience under my belt, I was having a hard time managing my increased responsibilities and forging relationships with my students. I had come from a small rural school where the students were sometimes too eager to get to know their teachers, asking questions that occasionally crossed the line of appropriateness. In that school, I had developed numerous relationships with students, some of whom literally cried on my last day. This new position offered a contrasting dynamic, where students were suspicious of my every move and rarely engaged in any conversation with me outside of the content we were covering in class.

In early December, I felt as though I was crashing and burning. I wanted to connect with my students but couldn’t find a way to do it. Then, an idea came to me: what if I gave my students holiday cards before Christmas break? I’d handed out cheesy Valentine’s Day cards the year before and received nothing but positive feedback, so maybe holiday cards could help this year. After school, I stopped by Walmart and picked up a few packs of cheap cards, plopped in front of the television with some peppermint hot chocolate, and wrote messages to each of my students. I fell into a groove as Rudolf and Buddy the Elf cheered me on, but it did take an entire afternoon and evening to complete.

On the day before Christmas break, I made my way to school with a tote full of cards, though a snarky voice whispered how ridiculous of an idea this was. They’re no longer in Elementary School, it said, so why would they want to receive a card from a teacher? Though once first period rolled around and I started handing the cards to my students, the most unexpected thing happened: they were genuinely moved by this simple gesture. I heard many students utter “aw” and “thanks,” but there were a few whose reactions genuinely surprised me. I saw tears glistening in the corners of one student’s eyes before she ducked her head and inconspicuously swiped at her eyes.

After that day, I noticed a legitimate shift in my students’ reactions to me. Several students began engaging with me both in and out of the classroom. In fact, a few of them continued stopping to talk to me after the class ended in January. One student who had previously scoffed at my existence earlier in the year started waving to me and stopping to talk with me when he saw me doing my grocery shopping. To this day, he still stops whatever he’s doing and takes a few minutes to talk with me whenever he sees me at the grocery store where he works.

The following year I continued the practice of writing holiday cards and experienced a repeat of the previous year’s outcomes: all students accepted their cards with wide smiles and grateful words, though a few students tried to hide their damp eyes from the rest of the class. Last year I had the amazed student I referenced at the start of this post, who gawked at his card before shooting me a huge smile once he read the enclosed message; in fact, as I sit here typing this post, I can practically see him smiling at me from across the room. He turned to me with pride and love dancing in his eyes. I will never forget his reaction or his later admission that he was shocked that a teacher actually cared for him. As I reflect back on the students who have walked through my classroom door, one thing I know for sure is that taking the time to write simple holiday cards for them has literally changed my teaching experience.

As a full-time teacher, publications adviser, and wife, I know that this is the time of year when I never feel like I have enough hours in the day. I have papers to grade, and a house to clean, and Christmas shopping to finish, and dinner to make, and preparations for family Christmases to finalize, and… the list never seems to end. But even though my time is incredibly precious, I’ve learned that some things are worthwhile. Despite the commitment required, I’ve seen the impact that these cards make. It may seem like one more thing to add to an ever-increasing to-do list, but I would highly encourage you to take the time to write holiday cards for your students. This simple gesture may be one of the only positive interactions that some of your students have during the entire holiday season and being in the position to provide that is a privilege that exceeds any inconvenience.

Kelly Swearingen teaches English and journalism and advises the newspaper and yearbook at her alma mater in Ashland, OH. She and her husband Dale live in Wooster. In her spare time, she enjoys reading or listening to a good book, writing short stories, working on house projects, and snuggling with her cats—Little One, Cappy, and Sylvester—and rescue Beabull—Jax.

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