When I first stepped into a classroom 10 years ago (as a teacher), I tried to put as much distance between myself and my students as possible. I was told this was the only way they would respect me. Baby-faced and nearly fresh out of college, I looked more like a student than a teacher. Many of the kids in my fifth grade class were barely a decade younger (and already a couple of inches taller) than me.
“Don’t smile until Christmas,” veteran teachers advised.
“Wear dress suits…with shoulder pads!”
“Be a disciplinarian!”
In other words, be everything, except for myself. I was totally fake, and the kids saw right through me.
Dr. Will recently launched the #BeYouEDU hashtag, after a discussion a few of us had regarding the need for educators to recognize what they do well, and share that expertise with the educational community. The same can also be said for our interactions with students.
In Teach Like a Pirate, Dave Burgess expressed that passion is contagious. When we share our passion with students, this gives us the opportunity to connect and build relationships. This is clutch, because as the late, great Rita Pierson said in her 2013 TED Talk, these relationships help to create a climate conducive to learning.
The teacher-student dynamic is very different than any other professional relationship. It’s much more personal, and often takes on even familial elements. For example, in a small K-8 school, some teachers see the same students year after year. I’ve had students refer to me as “godmommy,” “auntie,” “big sis,” and even “granddaughter” (inside joke). This is all in good fun. However, in other situations, in schools all around the world, educators must sometimes step in to meet the basic and/or emotional needs of students, much like a parent.
Building positive relationships with students isn’t a given. As educators, we must respect our students enough to get to know them as people. On the flipside, it also helps if we build upon commonalities.
First and foremost, your students need to know that you care about them and have their best interests at heart. Take the time to listen to them, and ask them about their day. Give them a safe space to share their successes, challenges, and concerns. Show them how much you care about and believe in them. Be open to teaching them what they want to learn, and if you don’t know all of the answers, that’s ok. Help them find out. Teach them how to learn for themselves. This paragraph is the most important in this entire post.
Once you have done the above, here are some further ideas to connect with students.
- Laugh with students. Life (and learning) doesn’t always have to be so serious. Give yourself permission to cut loose and crack a joke or two. My fantastic colleague shared yesterday that she gives her class comedian time to share his jokes and stories with the class, during warm-up. There’s a time for work, and there’s a time for play, and there are plenty of times when they can overlap. Speaking of playing:
- Play with students. Athletically inclined? Get your fitness fix in by shooting some hoops, playing football, or kicking a soccer ball around with your students at recess. Or maybe organize a students vs. teachers sporting event. For the super-adventurous, you can even sign up to coach a sport…maybe lol. Any gamers out there? Bring in your video game console and invite kids to an after-school Rock Band or Dance Central tournament.
- Create with students. Whatever hobby you may have, chances are some of your students will also be interested. Maybe it’s music production, or public speaking, making, or reading. Sponsor a club, and learn along with your students.
- Get jiggy with students. If you’re into music, volunteer to DJ school dances, or a karaoke event. If that doesn’t appeal to you, chaperone. Brave souls may want to even jump in on a line dance, or even challenge your students to a battle. Many students love a battle of any kind, be it dance, rap, or even a poetry slam.
- Support students. Figure out what makes your kids tick. They probably talk about it nonstop in class. Maybe they are part of the Quiz Bowl team, play rec league sports, dance, or play piano. If they extend an invitation to an event, attend and show your support. They will appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.
These five ideas are very simple and very surface. Much more goes into establishing positive relationships. We must operate from a place of care, understanding, and respect to help students reach their potential. Additionally, one of our strongest hooks is connecting with them as people. When they know that you care, they will often go that extra mile.
Be yourselves, and shine together!