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Common Ground

When teachers and students connect over shared interests and hobbies, the possibilities are limitless

December 2, 2014
teacher with students

In the third grade, I had an exceptional teacher by the name of Ms. Fairbanks, a woman who convinced me that anything was possible. In the protected nook of her classroom — a space filled with books, student art projects, and two beloved gerbils housed in a glass aquarium — I was one of 25 kids showered with positive affirmations on a daily basis.

Ms. Fairbanks loved her books as much as I loved mine, and my eight-year-old self relished every minute spent in that classroom, where topics ranged from politics to women’s rights to Greek mythology. Sure, there was math, cursive, and all the rest, but that was never quite as intriguing as the other things Ms. Fairbanks taught us.

As I reported this week’s top story, Birds of a Feather — and learned about the corresponding research of Hunter Gehlbach on the importance of finding similarity between teachers and their students — I gained even greater insight into the magic of Ms. Fairbanks’ pedagogy. Despite our differences in age, experience, and even ethnicity, Ms. Fairbanks found a way to connect with each and every one of her students, whether it was through books, music, math, or — in my case — mythology.

It is clear to me now that her teaching plan included time to coach and to counsel, to tell students they held great value, and to convince us that we would all be the best at whatever we chose to do someday. On a more personal basis, she took the time to figure us out, to find what intrigued us, and to create a sense of community within our diverse group during a time of great strife in the city of Boston during the 1970s.

For me, the delivery of those affirmative messages and the discovery of mutual interests during that critical third-grade year remains a hallmark of my educational experience. What if it could be this way for every student? What outcomes could we expect in today’s classrooms if teachers and students were encouraged to make the kinds of connections that translate to higher achievement? With the prospect of additional research in this area, we may have those answers in the months and years ahead.

About the Author

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Mary Tamer
Mary Tamer was the senior editor of Usable Knowledge and the Director of Marketing and Communications at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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