Student Engagement

Working to Grow Students’ Trust and Respect

A five-step framework for cultivating the strong relationships with students that are critical for their learning.

October 10, 2018
A teacher working with two students at the whiteboard
©iStock/SolStock

When you reflect back, why were students quiet those first days, or even weeks, of school? Could it be that they were asking themselves, “Can I trust this teacher? Will I be respected in this class? Does this teacher want to get to know me?”

Respect and trust are foundational for learning. This is nothing new—we know it to be true. We also know that building trust is not a “one and done” kind of thing to be checked off at the beginning of the year. We need to work at it every day and maintain what we do gain.

I’d like to offer five tips for continuing to gain and develop students’ trust and respect. The first letter from each tip creates the acrostic HEART—perhaps a helpful way to keep these tips on your mind:

Honor Students’ Time, Talents, and Interests

Engage Students on Their Level

Accept Student Differences

Radiate Eagerness to Teach Students

Telegraph That Learning Is Fun

Teaching With HEART

Honor students’ time, talents, and interests: Some of our students make tremendous efforts just to get to school each day. I had a student that had to ride three buses every day, and another who had to get her three siblings dressed, fed, and off to school before she could get herself ready for her school day.

Acknowledging and thanking our students for being there, being ready to learn, and bringing along all their talents is an important part of our daily classroom routine as teachers. We also want to continue to make sure we give students ample opportunities to share their interests and talents— and connect those to the learning as often as we can.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

Engage students on their level: One thing I like to do while I prepare learning activities is to recall what it was like to be my students’ age (high schoolers) and try to anticipate some potential responses. I then incorporate those into the design of the learning activities.

I also like to find ways to let students know who you I am: “I love to read, eat pizza, and watch old kung fu movies.” Have the students choose the superhero they identify with the most, or their favorite cereal, flavor of ice cream, sports team, or musician, and jot down the answers next to their name in your grading book or teacher notebook. Throughout the year, I find ways to weave this tidbit of information about students into learning opportunities.

Accept student differences: Students are always watching us, deciding what kind of teacher we are, and taking in just how we respond to various situations and to students. When we warmly greet every student at the door with the same smile, we send a clear message that no matter what happened the day before, we’re glad each child is there.

It’s important also that we always randomize asking students questions, so they’re all able to share their ideas and opinions—not just the ones that raise their hands. When we do this, students know not only that they need to be listening and prepared but that all voices in the room matter.  

Radiate eagerness to teach students: Students pick up on nonverbal cues, and without even thinking they respond in like manner. Body language is powerful. Show your excitement and enthusiasm by rarely sitting down, by leaning forward, and by being expressive with your hands and face. I consciously walk energetically around the classroom.

Our voice also carries a strong message. When I introduce the daily lesson or a new unit, I use the same tone as when I’m talking about a wonderful experience to a friend. Tone is everything. New teachers, practice in a mirror or video yourself talking to make sure you’re conveying that level of enthusiasm for an upcoming learning activity or lesson.  

Telegraph that learning is fun: Students need to feel that they are making progress, doing important learning, and also enjoying themselves. They always need solid reasons behind what they are learning or about to learn. I strive to provide them each day with something they can take home and say, “I like this class because we learned ___!”

One example: In my Spanish classes, instead of talking about the alphabet or learning single words, right away we work on simple phrases that students can take home to share with their family, starting with “How are you?”—“¿Cómo estás?”—and three simple verbal responses with hand motions. This all takes just a few minutes to model, choral repeat, and practice. Students see learning as more enjoyable when they can walk out the classroom door and put to use what they just learned right away.

By striving to provide these five tactics, or HEART, in the classroom, I find learning (and teaching) to be more pleasurable and students to be more productive. When we bring HEART to the classroom, it’s evident to students that they are valued, that their time with us matters, that we see them as individuals, incorporating their uniqueness into the learning activities. HEART demonstrates that we engage with them from our personal love of learning in a quest to inspire them to find their own meaning and purpose in the learning.