Most of us have a story about a life-changing teacher. In fact, even decades later many of us can still recall the assignment, perhaps even the exact wording of what the teacher said or did to leave his or her imprint on our lives. No doubt, extraordinary teachers are masters of their subject matter; they know how to engage, challenge, and inspire us. But equally—perhaps even more—important, master teachers are connoisseurs of the heart: They care about students and know how to nurture relationships with them.
Few of us doubt the impact positive teacher-student relationships have on students, but we may have underestimated it. Research suggests that when we nurture relationships with students, we actually:
Contribute to the academic achievement and motivation of our students (Elias, 1997)
Decrease the likelihood of a student dropping out (Thurlow, Christenson, Sinclair, Evelo, & Thornton, 1995)
Help prevent and reduce bullying (Olweus, 1999)
Help prevent substance abuse (Resnick et al., 1997), and violence (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998)
Now that we’ve made a case for strengthening relationships with our students, we’d like to offer five ways to do it. The following have been adapted from Allen Mendler’s book, Connecting with Students.
5 Ways to Build a Relationship-Driven Classroom
Believe that your challenging students have something to teach you
Most of us encounter students who somehow manage to turn off nearly every adult they meet. Indeed, the most challenging and disconnected students test the limits of our patience, our compassion and tolerance. But as Mendler suggests, “It is hard for students to stay disconnected when caring, persistent adults reach out to them in ways that convey an eagerness to learn.” Truly investing in these students means accepting them for who they are, not trying to make them into something they are not.
In addition to this, it means evaluating—and being willing to change—our own behavior. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does it help or hurt when I lose my temper with this student?
- Does lecturing this student about missing work or lack of engagement help or hurt him/her?
- What message do I implicitly convey through my body language when I interact with this student?
Above all, though, we must ask ourselves, what does this student have to teach me about him/herself? About myself? About patience, compassion and tolerance?
Reject the Zero-Tolerance Approach
Nothing is more important than our school’s safety; therefore, we need to have “strong and effective policies” in place to protect our students. Nonetheless, Mendler cautions us against taking a blanket approach to discipline and suggests that we “evaluate each situation based on its own special circumstances.”
When we fail to examine behavior on a case-by-case basis, we run the risk of further “alienat[ing] already disenfranchised youth.” Mendler explains that connecting with students means using “knowledge and intuition to penetrate to the deeper issues affecting student behavior” and rejecting formulaic disciplinary actions that homogenize them.
Build on Strengths Instead of Trying to Fix Deficits
Using negative language to describe challenging behavior often distorts the way we see it. Here’s what Mendler has to say:
“If we label a student who gives us a hard time as ‘stubborn’ or ‘disobedient,’ then our reaction will invariably be negative, and we are likely to regularly butt heads with this student. However, if we view that same student as ‘determined’ or ‘persistent,’ we are more apt to convey respect; most adults admire children who project these qualities.”
Using positive language “enables us to avoid a likely power struggle or a battle of wills while allowing us to acknowledge the student’s assertiveness as a strength that might even be redirected.”
Physical Danger and Embarrassment
Generally speaking, Americans are a sarcastic bunch of folks. Pop culture is rife with sarcastic banter and for good reason: it’s funny. But sarcasm in the classroom can be harmful, especially when it’s at a student’s expense. The classroom must be safe, both physically and verbally. As Mendler aptly suggests, “Fear of harm or embarrassment creates a threat which shuts down learning and increases defensiveness, anxiety, and posturing.”
Does sarcasm have a place in the classroom? Most definitely—but it is best to use it at our own expense, not the students’.
Greeting Students and Saying Hello
Saying “Good morning” to every student you pass in the hall is a simple gesture that takes no time, little effort, and can yield big results. Make eye contact, smile and offer a warm greeting. If a student ignores you, don’t take it personally. Instead, say something like,
I said hello and I didn’t know if you heard me or not. Either way, I hope that you have a great day.
We included this in a previous blog, but we thought it was worth mentioning again:
Make a big deal out of greeting students on the first day—and every day thereafter
Call us vain, but whenever we fly, we always appreciate the fact that the pilot and flight attendants stand in a row at the entrance, smile and say hello in a tone that suggests we are all long-lost friends. When we exit, we also appreciate the fact that they thank us for flying with them and wait to exit until the passengers have made their exit first. Sure, it’s their job to do this, but we appreciate the gesture: it shows class and makes us feel like we’re in good hands and appreciated.
Think of yourselves as pilots. It’s your job to help students reach their destination and keep them safe through the turbulence. But it’s also your job to make them feel appreciated. Greet your students every day—show them that you’re ready to and eager to explore a day of learning with them. Help them to feel that they are in a safe, fun environment.
For example, say “hello, how are you?” to every student. If someone was absent the day before, say, “Hi, Johnny. I’m glad to have you back. We missed having you yesterday. I like that tie, I like that new haircut…” It won’t take long for you to notice how this simple gesture impacts your relationship with students.