Almost all of my teaching successes and failures can be attributed to relationships with students. Relationships are the heart of teaching. Accordingly, as we head into summer and begin to recharge and think about the start of the next school year, and for my first ever blog post, I wanted to share Five Ways to Supercharge Student-Teacher Relationships.
- Take Risks & Be Vulnerable
Too often teachers believe they have to be the experts in the classroom when in fact this creates a power dynamic that distances teachers from students. It can also lead to teacher burn out as no human being can ever be the expert on everything. If you want your students to take risks in class, then you have to model this behaviour and join in the learning. Every time I try a new lesson, assessment or technology I tell my students that it might fail, BUT that I am excited to TRY it. This could be creating a murder mystery scene, using Screencast or introducing Genius Hour.
The point is I tell them why I want to try it, that I don’t know if it is going to work, but that I want to do it anyways because I want to become a better teacher so that I can support their learning. This means that I regularly fail in front of my students. It also means that my students know that I am willing to fail if I believe there’s a chance it could benefit them. If students know that you are willing to open up and put yourself out there, then they will be more likely to do the same in your class.
- Be Kind – Always, no exceptions
I only give my students one rule. I tell them that this is the most important rule for the entire semester, more important than deadlines, their final mark or the content that they will learn in this course. Be kind. In my classroom, be kind to each other. We will applaud each other’s successes, support each other through challenges and contribute respectfully to class discussions and activities. Students cannot learn and will not feel welcomed in a classroom where they are not valued and protected. Teachers have to model this and enforce this. Be kind- always, no exceptions.
- Admit when you’re wrong and apologize
I have two young children, my oldest is turning 4 in September. Sometimes, I have lost my temper or failed at parenting in a myriad of other ways. I cannot be a perfect Mom, but I can apologize and try to learn from my mistakes. So I do. I apologize to my son, I tell him that I am wrong and that I will try to do better. Just as I am not a perfect parent, I am not a perfect teacher. This past year, I lost my temper at a student. I didn’t yell – I am not a yeller, but I broke my cardinal rule – BE KIND – and told him in front of his peers how disappointed I was in the quality of his presentation. At first, I felt justified in my criticism (he clearly wasn’t prepared), but then I saw the crushed look on his face. It wasn’t what I had said, it was how I said it. So, what did I do? I apologized. I apologized to the student. I apologized to the class. I told all of them that my behaviour was inappropriate and that I was sorry for breaking our only class rule. I spoke with the student privately and worked at rebuilding the trust I had broken. In the end, he told me that no teacher had ever apologized to him before and he appreciated it. This moment didn’t take away the guilt I felt/still feel, but if you want to build relationships with your students, you need to be willing to admit when you are wrong.
- Get to know your students & make sure they get to know each other.
If you read Teach Like a Pirate, you know that Dave Burgess discusses his first three days. One of the first things that he does is come up with a creative way for students to introduce themselves to the class and each other (play-doh anyone?). He also rewards them by challenging them to remember each others names.
Reading this section of the book was an ‘aha’ moment for me. How much time did I actually spend in my high school classes making sure that my students knew each other? How could I possibly create a risk-taking inclusive learning environment for my students if they didn’t even know each other?!?! The simple answer was, I couldn’t. I am now fully committed to making sure that my students know each other, before any course content is taught.
As a History teacher, I love having students research and share their family history with the class in any medium they choose. There are also a ton of Name Games & Get To Know Each Other Activities out there that can easily be adapted for any classroom. The point is it doesn’t really matter how you achieve this goal. It just matters that your students get to know you, you get to know them and they get to know each other.
- As Rita Pierson so aptly stated, “Be Their Champion.”
I like to create a class calendar that I either draw out on a whiteboard or post in our Google Classroom. It is accessible to all students and everyone can edit it. I tell them that they can put any dates that are important to them. Some put religious holidays, some put their birthdays (or their dog’s birthdays), some post sporting events and some don’t want to post (also completely okay). The point is anything that is posted on the calendar is acknowledged/celebrated. Two years ago, my Grade 12s and I sang happy birthday to a beautiful dog named Billy, and I brought in a party hat and dog treats that the student could take home to celebrate with Billy later. That student cried, which might have made me tear up as well and all because I remembered to stop at the dollar store to pick up a party hat and some dog food. Sometimes our students have major achievements, one of my students wrote, filmed and produced a film that was being shown at the Toronto Short Film Festival. It was over March break, and she invited me, so my husband and I booked a babysitter and attended her show. I left that night so impressed by her and what she had achieved and honoured to have been a part of it. When we become champions of our students, we remember why we chose this profession and it fuels our passion.
As Rita Pierson stated “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” When we create positive relationships in our classes, our students learn better and we enjoy our jobs more.
If you haven’t already done so, please check out: Rita Pierson’s TED talk and Dave Burgess’s book Teach Like a Pirate for more great ideas on supercharging student teacher relationships.
Thank you for checking out my first ever blog post!
Also published on Medium.