Educators all acknowledge that building strong relationships is a vital part of the educational process. In fact, it may be the first and most important step in getting students to learn. Strong relationships increase student motivation and reduce behavioral issues, and they improve student achievement and classroom climate.
Most teachers would love to spend more time building relationships with their students, but obstacles like time, the curriculum, and planning all get in the way. But there are ways for teachers to overcome these obstacles and see strong relationship growth with their students.
Time is a precious commodity in education, and the scant class time teachers have is often lost to outside factors like assemblies, standardized testing, meetings, and other expected and unexpected circumstances.
So it’s important to purposefully schedule class time to get to know students. While students are in groups, sitting with them and sharing in the learning process is a great way to learn more about them and tell them more about you as a person. You may ask relevant questions in the moment, or just listen for things to explore later.
One-on-one conferences are also great opportunities to get to know students. I’ve found that students of all grade levels are more open to sharing individually and also better able to discover things about me. I schedule two 5-minute conferences per week, so it takes weeks to meet with every student. I learn details related to their academic and personal lives, and I share some of those details with the class when appropriate, so the students also come to know each other better.
Lastly, before and after class a short walk with a student doesn’t eat precious class time but can go a long way in the relationship-building process. Try asking one kid per day one question about a non-school-related topic. The time spent uncovering and discovering student interests is time well spent.
Teachers can get overwhelmed teaching the long list of skills that accompany any curriculum and making sure students learn what they need for their class or grade level.
One way I’ve found to both teach the skills necessary to master the curriculum and build strong relationships is to have two purposes for the content and skills. As a high school English teacher, I’m able to form strong connections with my students by getting to know them through their writing.
While English is certainly a content that lends itself to discussions, the content doesn’t matter as much as the venue and the purpose. Choosing content-related activities that involve small-group or individual responses can go a long way. Often, I’ll use a website like Poll Everywhere to gather individual responses from students all at once, so no student is left out. In this way I learn about them collectively. Poll Everywhere is anonymous, but students will often reveal things that they wouldn’t otherwise and then break the anonymity by talking about their responses.
All content areas leave room for the teacher to share relevant personal anecdotes that help students see their teachers as human, opening doors for future interpersonal interactions. In history, ask students how they got their names. In science, ask about a genetic trait they think they inherited from their parents. In math, ask them why they think math is important.
The point is to make the content and curriculum personal and relevant, and to learn about the students while they learn the content. It’s a win-win.
When planning, teachers make sure they’ll be teaching, assessing, and reassessing to measure learning and to form further instruction. They have the opportunity to also carefully plan assignments that bring their students’ interests to light. These interests may also be the catalyst for a strong connection between the teacher and the students.
To start the school year, I have my students do an All About Me presentation in which they share 10 facts about themselves and include pictures or video. I do the same presentation first, to model what I’m looking for—the added benefit is that students get to know me on a more personal level. An exercise like this can be modified for any age, and it can be done in any subject—teachers can modify it by asking a personal question about their discipline like, “How do you think physics plays a role in your everyday life?” or “Why do you think we need to learn geometry?”
I also create opportunities for my students to learn more about me and for me to learn more about them at the beginning of each unit throughout the year. I might share a personal story that revolves around a lesson activator, or we might discuss a big-picture question that lays the foundation for the unit. Because I make it a point to plan these opportunities, I can ensure that I don’t let all the other tasks get in the way.
Relationships are the foundation for everything else involved in teaching and learning. I want my students to know that I care about them, and I want them to care about me. Teaching them Shakespeare doesn’t always show them that, so I try to think creatively about how I can make sure I get to know every student in my room as well as I can, as quickly as I can, and as thoroughly as I can to make them as successful as I can.