Published Online: August 7, 2012

Five Practices for Building Positive Relationships With Students

The objective is posted. The Do Now is ready to go. Your well-planned lesson is aligned with state standards, includes a variety of instructional methods, and offers opportunities for both summative and formative assessments.

What might still be missing? A strong positive relationship with your students, the kind of connection that makes them want to go above and beyond in your class.

Can you have a good lesson without having a positive relationship with your students? Yes. But can a strong relationship lead to an even higher level of academic success? Absolutely!

As education researcher Robert Marzano has pointed out, "Positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction … A weak or negative relationship will mute or even negate the benefits of even the most effective instructional strategies."

Most of us have a general sense of what "positive relationships" means in the classroom context. We learned in our teacher preparation classes that we need to encourage our students to achieve the high goals we've set, treat all students equally, and always show them respect.

But how this looks on a daily basis depends on us—our personalities, but also our strategic efforts to make sure we're building relationships.

Here are five practices that have helped me develop positive relationships with my students:

1) Leave yourself reminders on your laptop.

I only see my doctor once a year, but every time I go in, he asks about each of my children by name. Of course, I know he checks my file before he walks into the room, but it still shows me he cares and makes me want to treat him with respect.

We need to do the same for our students. That's why I often have post-it memos stuck to my laptop with reminders, such as "ask Ari about her sister" or "check on Kristi’s tennis match." I wish I could say that I am capable of remembering everything without writing it down, but those days are gone!

Recently, I casually asked Brandon, one of my sophomore students, if his father was feeling better after his accident. On his way out of class, in typical high school boy fashion, Brandon gave me a nod and quietly said, "Thanks for remembering about my dad." No matter how many times I had told the class that I cared, that one simple gesture proved it to Brandon. If I had not followed up with Brandon about his dad's accident, I would have indirectly told him that I didn't care.

2) Never let the other students see you react inappropriately to a student's comment.

I'll never forget the moment when I realized that this was a critical part of forming a positive relationship with the students in my class.

Andrew, a junior who definitely marched to the beat of his own drum and had trouble fitting in, raised his hand to answer a question. His response was not only incorrect—it was something he should have known. The room became silent. Students began glancing around and grinning awkwardly. Every eye in that classroom was on me.

In that moment, I knew that I could not let my eyes veer even slightly from Andrew's, nor could I allow the merest hint of a smile to show. Yes, by looking at the other students with a smirk, a pitiful face, or a confused look, I could have "bonded" with the class. I could have been part of the group that "got it" and knew Andrew's answer was off. Instead, I looked only at Andrew, thanked him for answering, responded quickly, and moved on.

In a single moment, all 26 kids in that class learned three important things: 1) No matter how foolish your answer is, you will not be ridiculed in this class; 2) All of my students are equally important to me; and 3) While I want to have a close relationship with you, it will never be at the expense of another student.

3) Actually use the information you receive from a first-day student survey.

While this seems obvious, I must admit that I didn't always do it. I spent years developing what I think is a pretty great first day information sheet for my high school students. Certainly I would read and reread the surveys throughout the semester—but it was only last year that I found some concrete ways to use that information.

I now make a list of the hobbies, interests, and extra-curricular activities that they write about on their surveys. I also write down their responses to such questions as, "Do you prefer to work alone or with a partner?" and "Do you like doing math?"

As a reminder to myself (I've already established that I need reminders and post-it notes!), I keep all of this information on my desk throughout the semester so I remember to use it as I group students, plan lessons, or arrange seats.

Almost every semester, some brave student asks if I'm really going to read their responses. It's a fair question.

Think about it: What does it say to a student if she writes that she doesn't like sitting in the back or working with a partner, but I seat her in the back and assign partner work without so much as a comment?

4) Schedule "bonding" time.

Before you dismiss this one, hear me out. I must admit, I'm not a fan of using icebreakers or getting-to-know-you activities at the high school level. Students work hard in my class, and I need to make sure they are learning during every available minute. In addition, with 25 to 30 students in a class, it can be a challenge to find time to bond with each one who walks through my door.

I've realized that I can get to know students effectively while they are doing problem-solving activities or small-group work. There's really no need for extra activities.

For example, while small groups of students did practice work on functions last semester, I remember walking around the class very purposefully and connecting with certain students. I used that time as an opportunity to ask about their activities or lives outside of school.

If I notice that the dynamics are off in a particular class, I will schedule an activity that does not require much guidance from me just so that I can use the time to reconnect.

5) Finally, and most simply, learn your students' names immediately.

This has been, by far, the best first-day-of-school advice I've ever received. I know it may seem like a tired old saw, but this strategy is effective. I always know my kids' names by the time they leave my classroom on the first day. In their eyes, it's a very impressive feat to learn so many names in 90 minutes. I just have to make sure they never find out that I have access to their photos and names before they ever enter the room!

If you're like me, you may sometimes get so caught up in the act of teaching that you forget the heart of teaching. Many teacher-preparation programs for secondary teachers tend to focus on content knowledge, which is obviously critical. But, in the process of mastering what I'm teaching, I don't ever want to forget whom I'm teaching.

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