Teaching

4 Steps for Building Strong Relationships With Students and Colleagues

By Arianna Prothero — February 07, 2023 3 min read
Smiling older white male teacher and back of white male student greeting with a hand shake in the school hallway.
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Strong, positive relationships with the adults in school underpin students’ ability to learn and cope. But building and sustaining those relationships is often harder to do than it seems.

So, what steps should educators take to foster positive relationships with students and co-workers?

Adam Saenz, a psychologist and author of The Power of a Teacher, has some pointers, which he shared recently at the Texas Computer Education Association convention in San Antonio.

Saenz breaks relationship building into four parts: reflecting, directing, connecting, and protecting.

1. Your state of mind matters, and that’s in your control

Teachers who are unhappy in their jobs cannot initiate and maintain healthy relationships. While there is a lot outside of an individual’s control, they can control their mindset. This is why taking time to reflect on one’s mission and purpose and to focus on how to “grow where they’re planted and live the life that they have well” is a crucial first step to building relationships, said Saenz.

2. Emotions are fuel. How you direct that energy determines the success of your relationships

Emotions are fuel that drive you to take action. Even “bad” emotions, such as fear or anger, can prompt people to take productive steps to protect themselves or make necessary changes in their lives. But emotion can also fuel destructive, unhelpful behavior. And expressing emotion inappropriately, or allowing it to fuel bad behavior, will sabotage a person’s ability to build healthy relationships.

Emotional intelligence, said Saenz, is making that fuel work in your life. Directing emotion positively requires identifying the negative feeling, linking that feeling with the behavior it’s causing, and then choosing a positive substitute for that behavior.

3. How to connect with someone who is unlike you

“It’s human nature to connect most easily with people who are most like us,” said Saenz. But while people naturally gravitate toward those who are like them, teachers don’t have that luxury. They must connect with students no matter how different they are from themselves in order to build those all-important relationships.

The key to connecting is what Saenz calls non-contingent communication. Contingent communication is focused on business or completing a task such as asking a student if they turned in their homework. Although an important form of communication, it doesn’t help establish or deepen a relationship. Non-contingent communication is the opposite: asking a student what they did this weekend, for example, or where they bought their new shoes.

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It’s especially important to use non-contingent communication with people who are different from you—be it because of their gender, generation, values, socio-economic status, or culture.

It’s the students who “drive you the most crazy,” said Saenz, that teachers must be especially aware of practicing non-contingent communication with.

“That’s a check engine light, that’s the kid you have to go ask: How was the game last weekend? How is your brother doing?” he said.

4. Setting boundaries is very important

Boundaries—protecting your feelings, thoughts, body, and possessions—is necessary for relationships to thrive. The boundaries you set will differ with each relationship, Saenz said, but whatever that boundary is you decide on, how you establish it requires the same steps: naming your limit, practicing clear and respectful communication, and seeking support.

Boundary setting can be an invitation to some people to test the limits you set, so anticipate some pushback. And in that case, seek support from a third party—a friend or an administrator.

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