By Teachers, For Teachers
We know that students are more likely to thrive when we develop healthy, positive relationships with them. Students feel more secure, confident, trusting, and inclined to work when they feel their teacher sincerely cares for them. As professors Rimm-Kaufman and Sandilos from the University of Virginia note, “Improving students' relationships with teachers has important, positive, and long-lasting implications for both students' academic and social development.” And what is among the best teaching strategies for building relationships? Talking. It’s that simple, and it’s not really one of the more popular “Teaching strategies” at all. I don’t have any mind-blowing tips about the role of talking in building relationships. The fact of the matter is that a simple conversation with our students can lead to real long-term benefits for their academic and socio-emotional strength.
Much of our time with our students is dedicated to our instructional activities – and appropriately so. But we must intentionally consider when our prime opportunities are to pause the strict academic focus and engage in sincere, personal conversations with our students. Rethink the way you approach some of these areas of school life so you can maximize their relationship-building potential.
Recess is a great time for everyone to get out of the classroom and enjoy some playtime. It’s also a prime opportunity for teachers to learn a little more about their students than when they’re together in class.
First, pay attention to the attributes that come out in your students during recess that you wouldn’t necessarily get to observe in class. What are they playing? Whom are they interacting with? What seems to interest them? How are they getting along with others?
Then, don’t view recess as strictly a time for socializing with teachers or strictly enforcing the rules of the playground. Instead, start thinking of it as a time to interact meaningfully with at least one student each day. Strike up a conversation, learn more about them, and show your sincere interest and attention (of course, don’t neglect your supervising duties).
You don’t only have to talk to students during recess. After observing their play, take time afterward to tell a few students you saw them do that amazing trick, conquer that new obstacle, or do something kind or interesting.
Lunch is handled differently depending on the school and the age group, but regardless, it’s a great chance to get away from the rigor and mandates of the classroom and share some quality conversation. Personally, I don’t know if there’s a better way to build a relationship than by enjoying a meal together.
Whatever your schedule or responsibilities happen to be during lunchtime, see if you can make room to join students for part of their meal from time to time. You don’t have to make it fancy or awkward – just sit down with them and share some time conversing over things unrelated to your classwork.
Of course, don’t overstay your welcome or make yourself an intruder. But do take advantage of the informal setting to share conversation – and maybe some food – with one another.
I used to teach “Bell to bell” in the high school level, and prided myself on the “Rigorous academic focus” I facilitated. What I ignored, however, was prioritizing relationships.
Since those early years, I’ve realized that I can easily take the first few minutes and the last few minutes of any class period to informally interact with students without letting it impede our academic objectives. This is the time I start conversations with students about what they’ve been up to, discover their interests, and see how they’re feeling about what we’re working on.
This time with students has proven essential, as I’ve taken student interests or feedback and used it to make my next instructional time that much more meaningful for them.
Just like how the beginning and end of class time are prime opportunities for conversations with students, so too are the moments right before and right after the school day. As students trickle into the building for the day, greet them by name and share a few moments of conversation with them. Put your other work and preparations aside so that you can comfortably prioritize your interactions with students.
After school, while students wait for busses or linger on their way out the door, talk to them about what the rest of their day entails or how their time at school was. You don’t have to spend loads of time talking to every student, but even spending just a few meaningful moments engaging students with your full attention and sincerity can make a big difference.
We know that schools are home not only to academics but to many clubs, activities, performances, sports, and other functions. If you can help lead one of these extracurricular events, definitely do it!
But just being present, available, and intentional with these out-of-class events can provide an easy pathway to building relationships with your students. This gives you a firsthand look at what students are interested in and involved with, plus you might have the chance to interact with students’ families as well!
When did we start becoming so “Uninterruptable”? When did our time, our plan, our task become more important than the students themselves? At some point, we have to admit that, really, we have to be ready at a moment’s notice to switch our attention away from whatever is that’s absorbing us to focus directly, undistractedly, on our students.
At times we might be in the middle of class and discover a prime opportunity to divert our plan into a relationship-building conversation. At other times, we might intend on getting some work done or even leaving to go home for the day only to find a student who wants to talk.
Let’s commit ourselves to prioritizing conversation with students and leveraging that time to learn about them, build a relationship, and show them we care. Only then can we truly establish the trust and sincerity we want to that will serve our students both in our class and in all kinds of ways in the years to come.
When do you find you have the best opportunities to share quality conversations with your students? Share your ideas with us all in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.