It’s All About the Relationship

I’ve been asked several times in the last few weeks about the value of building relationships with students. For some people, the words “relationships with students” bring to mind other words like Letourneau, but what I’m talking about are the appropriate relationships that must be built in order to instill trust, respect, and safety in the classroom.

Teaching isn’t just about delivering instruction. It is about providing students with an opportunity to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Developing an atmosphere conducive to this type of exploration requires that the teacher establish relationships with his/her students. We cannot simply be dictators or king/queen of our little 15-40 seat kingdom. We must be facilitators of learning. We must give students a reason to WANT to succeed and that is where the relationships come in.

As I’m wrapping up my first year teaching online, I”m reflecting on the differences between my online and face-to-face classrooms. I’m asking myself – are my online students ending their school year knowing that I truly cared about their successes and failures? Did they feel respected? Did they respect me? These are things that are a little tough to gauge in an online setting, although it can be done. However, in the face-to-face classroom, it should be easy to see whether you’ve effectively built relationships with your students.

If you constantly struggle with classroom chatter, disrespectful behavior, and downright rebellion against class rules, then you probably haven’t established the right kind of relationships. If you realize that you never really sat down and talked about anything besides the content of your course with your students, then you probably didn’t establish good relationships. If the first thing you did at the start of the year is have the students complete form after form and sit through long lectures telling them the procedures and expectations for the year, then you probably started off on the wrong foot.

Don’t get me wrong – there is definitely a need for procedures, guidelines (I dislike calling them rules), and perhaps even forms if your district or school requires them, but there are better ways to get all of the above working in your classroom than packing it all in on the first day of school. What if, on the first day of school, you sat down on your desk and just had a chat with your students? Waste of a class period? No. What you’ve accomplished after that class period is not only the start of an appropriate relationship with your students, but you’ve also begun to get  a feel for the interests, learning styles, and personalities in your class. Now you can meaningfully assign groups for that first project of the year. From the students’ perspectives, you’ve begun to show them that you aren’t just about the teaching, you have a genuine interest in them. Sadly, you may be one of the only adults in their lives not related to them who has shown that interest.

One of the 40 developmental assets for children is having adults in their lives who are not related to them, but still care about them. Is it appropriate for a teacher to be the “other adult”? I think so. As you reflect on this year, think about the relationships. Did you have students who excitedly told you about things they noticed on television that was relevant to something they learned in your classroom? Did they proudly tell you about their successes in sports, band, or other extracurricular activities? Do you have students who return to your classroom or contact you in other ways after they’ve grown up to let you know how they are doing? All of these are indicators that you did what you probably became a teacher for – you made a difference in someone’s life.

To borrow and mangle a line from an old movie — If they get the message that you care about them, they will learn. Caring about them doesn’t mean that you are a pushover and will let them get away with anything and do nothing. Caring about them means a relationship of trust, responsibility, and meaningful, realistic expectations.

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