George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

If You Can't Love Every Student, Try Finding Common Ground

Building meaningful relationships with students—even the difficult ones—is really hard, but research shows the benefits are worth the effort.

March 6, 2020
Teacher working with students in her classroom
By Ian Miles-Flashpoint Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Some kids can be a challenge to teach—disruptive, perhaps rude, disengaged—making it tough for teachers to build a positive relationship with them, writes Madeline Will for Education Week. “We go into [teaching] with the idea that we’re going to love our students,” says Vickie Crockett, a high school English language arts teacher in Atlanta. “I think we allow ourselves to get boxed into [the idea] that we’re just going to fall magically in love with all of these disparate personalities that come into our classroom.”

Perhaps loving every student is asking too much, or perhaps we aren’t meant to take the directive so literally. Still, if unconditional love is too ambitious, the research is clear that strong, meaningful connections between teachers and students boost student engagement, attendance, and grades. In addition, when teachers are connected to their students, troublesome classroom behaviors actually decrease, as do the number of suspensions and school drop-outs. In other words, working hard to close the gap with students who test your patience looks like it actually works.

Even if you can’t love a student, it’s important to make the effort to connect with every child in your classroom, “including the aloof, withdrawn, and even defiant ones,” Will writes. Building strong relationships with students, she adds, is not an intuitive skill and it doesn’t happen overnight—it takes training and experience.

Here are five strategies, from veteran teachers and other experts in the field, to help teachers start forging positive connections with students:

FIND COMMON GROUND

Start the school year by making the effort to learn about your students’ interests and hobbies—it will help you develop empathy, a key part of building a better connection. You can keep it low-key, relaxed, and conversational by approaching kids informally before or after class or during recess. “It’s easy to like the kid who is compliant,” high school English teacher Wendy Ramos tells Will. “It’s more of a challenge to like the kid who’s giving you trouble; but that doesn’t mean you can’t. I think you can find things in most students to like. I think that, sometimes, you can even just like the challenge that they’re giving you, to help you grow as an educator and as a compassionate person."

DON’T TAKE DEFIANCE PERSONALLY

When students misbehave, try to remember that the conflict is often not about you at all. “That’s why it’s important for teachers to learn how to regulate their own emotions, and take a step back in the heat of the moment to calm down,” says Allison Riddle, a former teacher and now elementary mentor supervisor for the Davis school district near Salt Lake City. “I felt so much better inside when I was able to just be calm, and have empathy for a student—as soon as I learned, ‘This isn’t directed at you, this person is in pain’.”

At the same time, recognize that both you and your student might need time to self-regulate before addressing a conflict. “It feels better to walk away and let a child de-escalate than it does to stand there and stay angry,” Riddle tells Will. “You have to give grace sometimes.”

It can help to see yourself as something of an “emotional detective” says Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA. This doesn’t mean you have to be a mind reader, but simply that you remain on the lookout for clues that your students are having a hard time—you can proactively address issues by asking questions like: “Is there anything I can do to assist, or maybe just lend an ear?” or “Is everything OK?,” says Howard. “I think students can tell if teachers really are truly interested in their wellbeing by demonstrating what I call authentic care.”

STEP OUT OF YOUR TEACHER SHOES SOMETIMES

Don’t be afraid to let your students see you trying, and failing, to master something new. That can cut through some of the power dynamics that hamper relationships. Audrey Green, an 8th grade teacher in Broward County, Fla., “allowed her students to use the game Minecraft for a class project,” Will writes about a teacher who felt out of touch with the technology. “It put her in the learner’s seat. Her students knew more about how to build virtual worlds in the game than she did.” As a result, Green’s students got to see their teacher struggle and feel out of her depth—a very human reaction students can relate to.

REMEMBER THE PARENTS

Parents can be a valuable ally and provide insight into student behavior that teachers might not otherwise know about. Crockett, the Atlanta-based high school English language arts teacher, says she reaches out to parents early in the school year so she has a “partner at home—someone I know is batting on my team.”

CONFRONT UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

Lots of research confirms the measurable impact of unconscious bias in schools and classrooms, including when it comes to the disproportionate rates of discipline of black students. In order to teach in a more culturally responsive way, teachers need to work at confronting their own bias. “For example, white teachers—who make up 80 percent of the profession—might see a black student as more aggressive or unruly than a white student,” writes Will. That teacher might therefore, “dole our harsher consequences for similar behavior.”

For educators, examining their own implicit bias is tough work. “I think many teachers will say, ‘I’m fair to everybody,’ so it really takes a lot of work, and probably work that they need to do on their own, but also in partnership with other people,” says Vicki Nishioka, a senior research advisor with the nonprofit group Education Northwest. But once teachers connect more deeply with students, and listen to their stories, “we begin to appreciate, and maybe begin to challenge, some of our own misconceptions or opinions that we made about the students,” Nishioka tells Will.

SOMETIMES YOU WON’T CONNECT—AND THAT’S OK

Sometimes, in spite of your most concerted efforts, a student might not be open to building a meaningful connection with you. That’s OK. “One of the things that kills teachers is that there are always going to be students who, for whatever reason, don’t engage or are not receptive,” says UCLA’s Howard. “You shouldn’t press it, if students are not wanting to receive it, because that can oftentimes go really bad.”

Instead, Howard tells Will, stay consistent with your efforts to engage with all your students, and make sure every child in your classroom knows you’re available to talk. 

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