Building Relationships with Students
With a smile and a greeting, Kristy Lynch welcomes every one of her 2nd graders to homeroom. Her students, at Bakerfield Elementary in Aberdeen, Maryland, know what to expect when they get to the class.
Students unpack their book bags, place homework on her round table, and gather their materials for class. Their high-pitched laughter fills the room. Yet, when the announcements sound on the loud-speaker, they know it's time to sit down and listen. And if they're not in their seats? Rather than yell to get their attention, Lynch calls out a familiar tune.
"Bump, buda bump bump…"
"Bum, bum," students respond as they sit in their seats.
Lynch, a second-year teacher, attributes the orderly behavior of her class to the culture she creates through the positive relationships she's built in the classroom. She's done this by being clear about her expectations of all students (she treats them equally) and by enforcing classroom rules in positive ways (in this case, by playfully calling out a familiar tune).
Teachers can build relationships with students in many ways. Here are four:
"It is our responsibility to get to know our students at different levels, not only academically, but personally and socially as well," says retired New Mexico teacher Eloy Gonzales. "You may have the content knowledge, but if you don't build the rapport with students, you won't get anywhere."
Simply asking children about their weekends can be the first step to connecting with them. When teachers take advantage of opportunities to speak with their students about life outside school, it's an indication to students that their teacher actually cares about them as a person.
Paula Denton, author of The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn, believes building relationships creates a more learning-friendly environment. Understanding how the child operates allows the teacher to further individualize their curriculum and find creative ways to help the student successfully grasp the material.
"The more we know about the child the more we can build learning environments and curriculums that are going to work for them," Denton says.
Gonzales took time to work with one of his students who had difficulty with spelling. Rather than continuing to mark failing scores on her spelling tests, Gonzales spoke with her mother and devised a plan. He gave the girl a smaller list of words, set weekly goals, and she eventually exceeded those goals.
"It was about building that self-worth that they need as students," Gonzales said.
One mistake some teachers make is using harsh language with students. They use sarcasm when joking or unkind words when disciplining them. Then, everyone is uncomfortable. Educators can create an environment where students feel comfortable learning and the teacher maintains order without using such language, simply by being mindful of the choice of words used.
"Bottom line, I don't think [the use of sarcasm] is appropriate," said high school counselor T'wana Warrick-Bell. "Teachers need to remember 'this is a student I'm talking to and I need to respond to the student on a professional level.'" Warrick-Bell is the department chair at DuVal High School in Lanham, Maryland.
"It's very common to hear teachers using sarcasm," Denton said. "Yet, it is always shaming to a child and should not be used, even if we feel like it's being used in a sense of playfulness…we need to be careful and not careless."
But everyone has bad days-even educators. A situation that easily could have been diffused escalates to voice-raising or students are offended by a teacher's reaction to a comment in class. What do you do if you make this slip-up?
"I was always taught that an apology goes a long way," says Warrick-Bell.
Gonzales asked his students to tell him respectfully when they noticed a change in his usual disposition. Giving them this responsibility showed them he was human. "Kids understand when you tell them 'I was wrong,'" Gonzales said. "It goes down to having open communication [with your students]… Just because you're a teacher doesn't mean you're always right."
Once you dust yourself off and own up to your mistake, continue to reach out to your students.
Lynch knows at the end of the day, even if it wasn't so great for either her or the kids, she still has relationships to maintain.
"I let them know that things are ok and everyone makes mistakes," she said. "[I tell them] 'Let's just have a good day tomorrow.'"
Although teachers may feel a crunch to get things done, with all the material they are expected to cover, Denton suggests taking the time to develop this connection, even incorporating it into the curriculum.
"In schools, relationships are treated as luxuries," she said. "Relationship is a necessity for learning. We can't afford not to do it."
These tips are just a few ways you can build bonds with your students. Setting expectations, enforcing classroom rules positively, consistently making an effort to learn who they are outside of school, individualizing instruction, and using appropriate language in class will show how much you care. Relationships make a difference in the way students perform in school. They can also make the process of giving students what they need in the classroom a little easier.