Todd Nesloney
The most important thing you' 'll ever do for your students

Sometimes as teachers we get so caught up in the information we must teach our students that we forget to spend time connecting with them and building relationships.

I've always been the teacher who ate lunch with my students, played with them at recess and spent time getting to know them. But a recent classroom activity really solidified in my mind the importance of connecting with your students on a deeper level.

My fifth grade classroom is involved with a program called Classroom Champions, which connects classrooms around the United States and Canada with Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Students are able to interact with and learn from these inspiring individuals.

This year my students have learned about goal setting, community and fair play from athlete Joshua Sweeney, a member of the U.S. Paralympic men's sled hockey team. However, the most moving lesson so far has been on perseverance.

You see, Josh fought in the Afghanistan war, where he stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) and lost both of his legs. He spoke to my kids about how, at that point, he faced a choice: Give up or figure out a way to work within his new life. It was powerful, to say the least.

That night for homework I instructed my kids to interview an adult about something they had to persevere through. I didn't really think much would come of this assignment. Boy was I wrong.

The next day in class I had to fight from holding back tears. I heard stories of parents losing children, becoming homeless, working four jobs to make it through college, joining the army because they saw no other way out, and so much more. One student broke down while sharing his mother's story about giving up her career to raise him. That moment reminded me of the value of getting to know people deeply and discovering where they come from.

That day I connected with my students on such a deep level. Even more important, my students connected with their own family members in a new way. These connections we've built can't be taken away.

Did I lose a day of class time to focus on a lesson that had nothing to do with the subject I teach? Yes I did. But you know what? When you take the time to get to know your students, hear their stories and build those relationships, you create an environment in your classroom that is unlike any other — an environment where kids work even harder because they know they're trusted, respected and loved.

So I challenge you today: Get to know your students. Spend some extra time learning about them and listening to their stories. You'll be surprised at how much it changes everything about your classroom.