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Dos & Don'ts for Positive Student Relationships

Rachel Levy

With the new school year rapidly approaching, educators headed back to the classroom are faced with a bevy of thoughts: Most teachers entertain thoughts about how to motivate students, how to invent fun classroom games, how to use technology in the classroom, and, of course, how to create a nurturing classroom that encourages positive relationships between the teacher and the pupil. Of course, effective learning and instructing is high on the list of questions they ask too. 

Teaching is a unique profession because its success is based heavily on knowledge, craft, and relationships. No matter how strong the craft, imparting knowledge will be nearly impossible if the relationship between you and your student is absent.

The teacher-student relationship should be one of trust; the student should not be afraid to show some vulnerability to their teachers. Students and their families should be able to turn to teachers for advice, and see them as authorities on education.

One real struggle in the teacher/student relationship is creating a positive, caring learning environment without getting overly involved with students. Now, I’m not talking about the media-magnetic stories of teachers becoming inappropriately involved with students. Such incidents, but those types of incidents triggered the need for teachers to be more cautious and clear about boundaries when dealing with students. 

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For a positive teacher/student dynamic to exist, teachers must be reliable, respectful, and empathetic to students and their families. Teachers should take into account each individual student’s background and family situation, considering the whole child.

Fostering Positive Student/Teacher Relationships

Help Students & Parents Get to Know You
To open the lines of communication and establish a relationship with students and their families was by starting the school year, try writing a letter to students and families. 

You can read it aloud to the class and send it home. When I use this in my class, I share where I am from, where I had previously lived, my education background, my professional history, why I had a passion for teaching and education, some of my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, and some information about what I liked to do and about my own family. I end the letter by encouraging students and families to communicate with me, providing my contact information.

Getting to Know Your Students
To learn more about my students and their families, you can try:

  • Have students write their own letters of introduction to you. This served the dual purpose of learning about the student’s life/background and providing me a writing sample to assess writing skills.
  • Request an (optional) letter from families to you.
  • Have students complete a questionnaire which included questions regarding:
  • contact information
  • education background
  • languages spoken at home (I was an ESOL teacher)
  • medical or health concerns
  • pet peeves
  • internet access at home
  • afterschool jobs

The Pitfalls of Getting Too Involved with Students

Respecting Students Privacy & Dignity

All the above being said, too much intimacy and involvement has its pitfalls. You should use your knowledge of students’ family situation and background in conjunction with your knowledge of their academic strengths and weaknesses to inform teaching. 

I was very careful to explain to students why I wanted to learn more about them (to help inform my teaching) and to assure students all information would be kept private. Teachers should never bring up information students have shared during class. Even in private conversations with students they should be very careful to respect students’ privacy and dignity.

Balancing Your Relationship with Students’ Families

While it is a teacher’s job to support a child’s positive developmental and educational growth, they should be involved in students’ educational lives, not in their family lives. 

It should be clear to students that their teachers care about them and are there to support their learning. It should also be clear that they are their teachers, not their friends or peers, nor are they friends of family members when wearing the “teacher hat.” For example, a teacher should not get involved with counseling families in their family matters.

DO: Counsel families on matters such as coming up with a homework plan or establishing positive learning environments at home. 

DON’T: Give advice to parents about navigating marital problems or when their children should be permitted to go on a first date. 

DO: Refer students and their families to the appropriate professionals, such as a school counselor or social worker, to help resolve or locate other professionals and resources to help them to resolve such matters.

Remaining Objective as a Teacher

Despite close relationships, teachers must treat all students fairly. While teachers should evaluate students individually based on progress and effort as well as performance, all students should follow the same rules and be held to high expectations. Teachers should consider what they know about what’s going on in individual students’ lives in deciding how best to teach them, but not change expectations. 

For example, if a student’s family is in the middle of a disruptive move:

DO: Consider extending due dates or facilitating the student completing more assignments at school. 

DON’T: Exempt the student from a project and allowing them to catch up on socializing in class.

Clear Communication & Responsibility

Communication and responsibility are also key elements in the student/teacher relationship. 

Students should be heard and know that their concerns and opinions are taken seriously, even in moments of disagreement, but they must not disrupt the learning of others or be disrespectful. Teachers cannot disregard behavior problems because they know a student has a troubled home life. It doesn’t serve the student, their classmates or the quality of education in your classroom. 

As students need to know that they are ultimately responsible for their actions, they should also understand that they, first and foremost, are in charge of their own learning, with the teacher engaged to help them get there. 

As you continually strive to teach the whole child, I hope these strategies for building positive, productive student/teacher relationships.

How do you build relationships with students? Share in the comments section!

Contributed by Rachel Levy of K-12 Schools Blog

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