As teachers, we know that creating strong relationships with our students is key to a successful school year, and yet this is not the only relationship in the classroom that we must consider and strive to grow. Consider the following four classroom relationships:
- Teacher to individual student: Does each student feel seen and known by their teacher as an individual?
- Teacher to whole class: How does the class as a whole relate to and know their teacher, and what is that teacher’s identity in front of the class?
- Student to student: Do students have bonds with each other and know each other as individuals?
- Student to whole class: What sense of belonging does a student have to the class as a unit?
Our classroom is a forest—a living and breathing entity with many individual parts that must work together—and thus all of these relationships must be considered in order to thrive.
Relationship 1: Teacher to Individual Student
Getting-to-know-you surveys are incredibly important, but not meaningfully engaging with students’ answers is actually more harmful than not doing a survey at all. Older students especially will see this as perfunctory and will figure out that you are unlikely to ever use their survey results. Do not ask for what you will not use.
Strategies to leverage: Write individual letters and notes to students, and respond to their replies to questions that you post on Google Classroom. Each week, designate specific students to connect with. End the week by making good calls home and bringing up specifics of how students excelled that week.
Relationship 2: Teacher to Whole Class
A student may have a tenuous or fantastic relationship with their teacher personally, and the relationship of the whole class to the teacher might be very different. I had one class that as a whole I did not relate to well, but at the same time I had a handful of students within that class that I had terrific relationships with who ended up taking the next class in the series with me the following year. Those students might say that I was extremely nice and caring but might also note that I was more easily frustrated with the class as a whole (despite my best efforts).
Both the teacher’s relationship with individual students and their relationship with the class as a whole are crucial to having a class that flows and grooves throughout the year.
Strategies to leverage: Create class norms together, regularly ask the class for feedback, and then summarize and share global trends in their feedback while narrating the changes you’re making as a teacher. Develop a system for class points, which encourages camaraderie and friendly competition between classes, and generously give points to the whole class while complimenting them on specific behaviors.
Own up and apologize for mistakes publicly, and narrate your thinking and reflections aloud. During weekly community circles, genuinely offer your gratitude and appreciation for the class while being specific wherever possible.
Relationship 3: Student to Student
While I begin every year by collectively creating classroom norms that include treating each other with respect, this is not enough. Students need to feel known by one another and need to experience joy together that sometimes includes the teacher and sometimes does not. I want every student to feel comfortable talking to anyone in the classroom. When students experience joy and laughter together, they are much more likely to see each other as teammates who should support each other, and risk-taking becomes less scary.
Strategies to leverage: Try student-to-student shout-outs and weekly community circles. Carefully assign table partners (after asking for student input), and have students engage in both silly and serious getting-to-know-you conversations with questions like “What is your worst bug-related story?” and “Who do you admire the most and why?”
Have students physically build things together in small teams, engage in daily check-ins with table partners, and do weekly self-reflections that they share parts of. Set up routine games that require them to be silly, so that they must do it but can pretend they don’t want to. Games where mistakes are expected and the rules stay the same but the content changes are key to lowering student anxiety.
Relationship 4: Student to Whole Class
I want my students to feel part of something bigger than themselves and to feel a desire to belong to the group. This means that we have to do things as a group that make them want to belong and that we need to develop an identity as a group. I ask: What does it mean to be in Ms. Lalagos’s Spanish 2 sixth period? Who are we together? What do we do together that makes us want to show up and be a part of this every day?
Strategies to leverage: Create a system for, and liberally give class points for, global classroom behaviors (it helps if each class period is competing against other classes). Engage in class check-ins where we talk about class strengths and areas for growth, and set up moments for collective joy and moments when students can appreciate the entire class, such as during community circles.
Play games that require cooperation, such as counting to 20, and have them compete against other classes. As the teacher, express appreciation for the collective whole and how they make your day better.
Finding the Time
I know many of us feel the axe of time + curriculum + state testing hanging over our heads, and so we may say to ourselves, “That sounds great, but where is the time to do all of these things?” I feel that pressure myself, but by prioritizing the space to build a sense of joy and “known-ness” (being seen, known, and valued by everyone) in the classroom, we will gain so much back. We will get more time, we will be able to take risks and go deeper, and we will also have a lot of fun along the way.