George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Student-Teacher Relationships Can Be Built Five Minutes at a Time

A former educator shares his experience with connecting to kids in a busy inner-city classroom.
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Dan Ouellette

Credit: Courtesy of Dan Ouellette

This article accompanies the feature "How to Develop Positive Classroom Management."

My first year of teaching was a near disaster. I found myself in an inner-city middle school classroom without a clue as to how to discipline students beyond the escalating volume of my come-to-order voice (I often went home hoarse) or the clacking of a wooden stick that I whacked on my desk for attention. (Much to the delight of my class, the stick broke halfway through the school year.)

My students' unruly ways made it seem like all I did each day was put out one brush fire after another. I was toast, and those kids ate me alive.

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After that initial year, I nearly got my walking papers. Instead, the principal took mercy on me and shared some salient wisdom about disciplining students that would sustain me throughout my teaching career. The most important: establish a personal relationship with each student.

With this advice in mind, I began my second year of teaching. On the first day of school, I informed my classes -- double the size of the previous year -- that they'd spend the first 15 minutes of every class quietly reading a book of their choice. Then, we discussed and agreed on what type of classroom conduct would make this quiet time successful and posted those rules on the wall. Finally, I told them that during reading time, I planned to have an informal one-on-one conference with each of them about what they were reading.

Although I spent only about five minutes with each student every two weeks, I made those interactions meaningful and constructive through various strategies, from asking the student to read his or her favorite short passage out loud to me (helping me assess reading level) to asking the student what the text meant (again, giving me insights into his or her abilities).

The entire class bought into the concept -- from the remedial reader embarrassed that he was behind his classmates to the most voracious bookworm, who consumed a book a week. Don't get me wrong -- my new approach wasn't a panacea for all discipline issues. Problems I experienced in my first year still occasionally cropped up. However, I no longer needed to resort to raising my voice or cracking a whip. Now, I could bank on the rapport and trust I'd developed with students to resolve conflicts more effectively and quickly.

Dan Ouellette is a former middle school teacher and curriculum consultant for the San Francisco Unified School District who lives and writes in New York City.