George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.
By Dan Ouellette
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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.

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.

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Mrs. M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great idea! Whatever you call the get-right-to-work time in your classroom (it's a DO NOW in mine) can be the perfect spot for connecting with students in the middle school classroom. I have traditionally used that time to sign readmits or take roll, but a little tweaking would allow at least 3-5 minutes to develop relationships with students starting the first week. Thank you for the idea.

Ida Oberman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a powerful piece of advice. In my 'other life' as community organizer I am working with a national organization called PICO, in their Oakland chapter, Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) They ahve scored powerful results in improving schools and communities. And...the key to all is the one on one. We get trained in conducting one on ones.

Dan Ouellette's comments made me realize the obvious: that what holds true for adults in community organizign holds true with students in the walls of school.

Thank you!

Walden University Student's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my graduate class we are currently discussing the importance of establishing relationships with students. I generally take the first few minutes of class to check the assignment books of students, which helps me make sure I touch base every morning with each student. It is encouraging to read about the five minutes of interaction during silent reading. I, along with a few new teachers at my school, just started to fully implement Reader's Workshop. We have also observed the students' excitement to conference with us each week, the joy we have in talking with each student, and the increased desire our students have to read. It will be neat to see the relationships that can build from this next year, as we start the year off making personal connections, and the difference it makes in correcting problematic behaviors.

Theresa Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Good on you Dan. That is the way to success with any group you are trying to work with.
I think the Hollywood version was 'to Sir with Love'!

KARRIEM's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dan, Right on! Sometimes we forget that students are people too. They need to be validated. I have had similar experiences working with Juveile Detainees. When your are successful they become self-guided learners and, in effect, co-teachers by bringing their personal perspectives to the discussion that are often quite insightful.

Keep facilitating learning!

miguelina Garcia's picture

In my experience we need to listen more to our students and stop the talking to them. Let them express their feelings to.YOU will be surprised of what you can learn. M.G.

Nancy Poulis's picture

Dan-I feel that teachers do not support character education enough. Every week, I choose one student from each class to be "The Student Of The Week". That student gets to sit in a comfy chair all week and gets a certificate. They get this reward for simply being NICE!
Nancy Poulis, Oregon Middle School, NY

Mr.cecil's picture
Seventh grade science teacher from Tamilnadu,India.

Nice to listen from experienced teachers. Observing "STUDENT OF THE WEEK " may help to maintain discipline and teaching learning atmosphere in the class room.

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