Building Relationships with Students

Updated: Jul 14

In my opinion, relationships are the most important part of a classroom environment. I always make relationship-building a priority. I don't think it is possible for students to learn, as effectively, without first building relationships.

I desire to know who my students are outside of the classroom. I ask them these exact questions from the very first day of school.

-Basics: age, birthday, favorite food, favorite candy, favorite movie, favorite TV show, a favorite song, favorite holiday, etc. I love to use these questions for lessons. For example, I might include a clip from a TV show, or movie, that I know a particular student likes.

-Goal related questions: What do you hope to learn in this class? What do you expect from me, as your teacher? What are some of your classroom goals? What areas might you struggle with in class (e.g. reading aloud, writing, vocabulary, etc.)? Are there any other areas of concern I should know about? -Personal questions: Who does your family consist of? Do you get along with your family? Who do you live with? These questions are particularly helpful when figuring out who to contact, and who they are close with at home. I also ask if they have allergies because sometimes I am unaware of food allergies. :)

Due to the small nature of our school (around 150 students grades 9-12), it is easy to know the entire population of students. One of the biggest lessons I have learned with teenagers is, they will almost always tell you what you want to know about them. They like to talk about themselves. They might be slow to open up, but that's because they are assessing whether or not they can trust you. Once you've gained trust, you will start to see the walls crack.

Last year, I had two students who do not like new people--at all. I'm talking screaming in your face just because you are new. It's been interesting to watch this school year because they are projecting the same habits toward their new teachers. They will start yelling at their teachers because they simply do not know them; it's a test.

Some kids may put you to a similar to test, to see how far they can push the boundaries. Will you still try after they've literally yelled in your face? Or will you shut down and write them off for their poor behavior? It's a difficult position to be in.

On the one hand, I felt so frustrated by the students like this lat year. I was doing absolutely nothing to them, but they were angry--just for the sake of being angry. On the other hand, I felt sad for them for whatever life had taught them about this being an appropriate way to respond. They had learned this behavior from someone, or someone had broken their trust, so they used anger as a coping method.

With students like the ones I described above, it might not end with you breaking down these walls. They might just be an angry person. Don't let their attitude make you feel like you haven't tried to build a relationship. I often hit a point, with students like this, where I stop trying as hard. I don't ever want to miss an opportunity to connect. But if they aren't putting forth any effort in return, I will do the same. That might sound harsh, especially beings I am the adult in the situation. However, when working with high school students I believe this is entirely acceptable. Don't beat yourself up when you feel tired of trying and need a break--that's perfectly normal.

Another misconception I think can be drilled into your head in courses/training, is that you cannot show any favoritism for the sake of hurting kids feelings. Now, I don't mean to be rude on hurtful to any student. But I do think it is ok to give "special" treatment to students who are working hard, participating, and are positive people in the classroom. I have used the approach to build relationships with students who lack some motivation. I will often use my strong relationships that initially happened at the beginning of the year, or happened in a previous class I had them in, to model my personality/expectations.

For example, this year is my second year at my current school. I have students who I invested in and built strong relationships with last year. When my students see how I interact with them, and how we have mutual respect for each other, I can showcase the "special" treatment those students receive. In the same way that I can earn their respect/trust, I believe they should do the same for me.

I had a fellow teacher who used to tell me, "When a student acts out, misbehaves, or is blatantly disrespectful the fellowship has been broken and needs to be regained." It is ok to be disappointed in how a student handles themself toward you, and it is ok to express that to them. I firmly believe in positive affirmations and praise, however, I good ole heart-to-heart is just as important. I think that we are sometimes too concerned about hurting feelings that we don't voice disappointment.

For example, I have a student this year who is acting completely different than last year. After talking to her for quite some time, there is no reason for her to behave the way she is (no outside factors--family, friends, sickness, etc.). She is simply not working because she lacks motivation and doesn't feel like doing her work. Now, I chose to first give her the benefit of the doubt and assumed something was going on outside of school. Since I realized that is not the case, I have not been very sympathetic. I have been on her case every single day. I voiced my disappointment in her actions and encouraged her to change her habits.

Building relationships isn't always about sunshine and rainbows. It's not about all the "icebreakers" you can find on Pinterest. It's not about the cute displays you hang in your room to showcase your vast personalities. It's about having real, honest, transparent, and genuine conversations with your students even when it is so dang hard to do.

Relationships with any person are never easy; they take time, commitment, and pursuit. And on top of that, sometimes you have 100+ new relationships to build each year. This job isn't easy people!

But I promise some of the relationships you are building will never be forgotten, by you or them, in the years to come. :)


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