July 4th is a significant day in the life of our nation, but is has also become a significant day for me as an educator. It marks the mid-point of the summer vacation. On July 5th, I find myself thinking about the school year ahead—gearing up for back-to-school shopping, preplanning, and preparing for a new year with new students.
A new year means strategic arrangement of classroom furniture and spaces, as well as lesson plans that are, hopefully, redesigned to improve upon the year before. Yet, research would say that no amount of lesson planning or arranging the classroom can take the place of another critically important part of starting the year with a new group of students: building positive relationships. Positive teacher-student relationships have been linked to improved engagement and motivation, as well as increased academic outcomes (Gallagher, 2017). When students develop positive relationships with their teachers, as well as their peers in the classroom, that motivation leads to increased willingness to engage in classroom activities—and feel more competent while doing so. (Gallagher, 2017).
What are the benefits of improving teacher student relationships?
Positive teacher-student rapport not only affects academic outcomes, but social outcomes as well. Students who feel supported and valued by their teachers demonstrate increased self-esteem and self-efficacy (Gallagher, 2017). These positive social outcomes not only impact students while in high school, but have lasting effects as they pursue higher education and careers. In fact, positive teacher-student relationships have been linked to many characteristics that we would hope students develop: resiliency, self-direction, and engagement (Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2016). As we plan for the coming school year, it’s essential that we consider how we will work to develop positive, supportive relationships with each student who comes through our doors.
Developing rapport with your students may come naturally to you, or you may struggle to connect to each as an individual. It may be especially difficult to develop rapport at the middle and high school level where students change classes and more than 100 students walk through your door each day. Employing a few key strategies will help you to connect with your students on a personal level.
1. Get to know your students as people
This may seem like a given, but it does not always come naturally to us, especially when we teach many classes of students and are focused on using every minute to teach content and ensure mastery of standards. However, it’s essential that you find a way to connect to each student on a personal level. Make an effort to learn students’ names quickly at the beginning of the year. It helps if you use a seating chart and work to learn names based on the chart (you can always allow students to move around once you get to know them). Another way to get to know students as individuals is to assign a personalized task at the beginning of the year. As a high school English teacher, I had students write a letter to me about themselves at the beginning of the year. Not only did this help me to get a sense of their writing abilities, but I was able to find out at least one personal like, dislike, or habit from each student. I responded by writing a letter back to my students (just one letter—photocopied for each).
2. Show respect for your students’ diverse backgrounds, cultures, likes, and dislikes
Showing respect for students is especially important for adolescents at the middle and high school level (Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2016), as they are beginning to develop their own opinions and sense of self. Whether you always agree with your students’ voices or choices, know that how you react to them will have a lasting impact. Respecting students can mean that you allow them space to voice their thoughts and opinions. It can also mean that you show interest in their backgrounds and cultures and that you incorporate course materials that honor their backgrounds and cultures.
3. Remember that you teach students, not subjects
While it’s easy to say, “I teach English,” or “I teach history,” flipping your language to say, “I teach students,” will change your focus in the classroom. Some of us fell in love with our content first—we became teachers because we loved history or literature or mathematics. But, at the end of the day, teaching is about the students, and they will only engage with our content to the extent that we engage them as people. So, strive to ensure that there is space in your classroom for your students—not just physical space, but mental and emotional space. We all know that planning good lessons means that we plan more than enough so that there are no wasted moments. But, sometimes, our students need a “wasted” moment. It is in those moments that we connect as people. We may have five minutes on Monday to “check in” about how everyone’s weekend went. We may have five minutes on Friday to talk about the big game or the dance. When you, as their teacher, show your students that you are interested in their lives—their lives as people, not as students—they are more likely to show you that they are interested in you—as a person, but also as someone who has something to tell them about history or literature or mathematics.
Enjoy the remaining few weeks of your summer, but as you start to gear up for the new school year, think about how you can connect with your students. Building positive relationships with them from day one will lead to increased academic and social outcomes throughout the coming year, and the years to come.
Gallagher, E. (2017). The effects of teacher-student relationships: Social and academic outcomes of low-income middle and high school students. Applied Psychology OPUS. New York University Steinhardt. Available: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/appsych/opus/issues/2013/fall/gallagher
Rimm-Kaufman, S. & Sandilos, L. (2016). Improving students’ relationships with teachers to provide essential supports for learning. American Psychological Association. Available: http://www.apa.org/education/k12/relationships.aspx