We all know relationships are crucial to teaching. Kids behave better, work harder, and learn more when they like and respect their teacher—and when they know their teacher likes and respects them back.
That positive rapport with students can be a powerful amulet for warding off burnout. It doesn’t matter how frustrated I am by kids’ misbehavior or adults’ misguided policies. One unguarded grin from a 2nd grader—invariably missing a tooth or two—and the chunk of frustration lodged in my chest melts away like a block of ice in a beam of sunlight.
How can we cultivate these relationships and weave them into the daily fabric of our classrooms, not just during the first few weeks of school, but throughout the entire year?
1. Spend time with the “hard” kids and the quiet ones.
The best part of a recent week was having lunch in the classroom with a handful of my students. Alicia, who’s usually quiet as a painting, beamed her radiant smile while filling me in on her life, including the fact that her mom is about to have a baby. Christina, who is often teary and nervous in the mornings, was downright bubbly, clowning around and acting silly as a goose.
My new student, Gabriel, told me, “Sometimes I like to think about what humans’ lives will be like in the future.” A beat later, in one of those dizzying swoops between the profound and the lighthearted that characterize so many 7-year-olds, he kicked off a rich discussion about our favorite Marvel superhero movies.
The 20-minute lunch ended with us all singing along to “You’re Welcome” from the Disney movie “Moana,” while Gabriel, whose family is from the Marshall Islands, performed an impromptu version of a Polynesian dance.
It was hard to believe these funny, happy kids were part of the same class that drove me crazy all morning. How could these adorable children belong to that unruly little mob that talked about slime instead of reading their books, straggled across the hall rather than forming a single-file line, and stretched out on the rug like they were lounging in hammocks instead of sitting “crisscross applesauce”?
That’s often The Teacher’s Paradox, especially at this time of year: an ill-mannered class made up entirely of delightful individuals.
It’s common practice to do special things like lunch in the classroom only as a reward. The problem with that is you often end up spending all your time with the well-behaved students whose company you already enjoy, and who already enjoy yours.
Sometimes when a child has driven me crazy all week, that’s the perfect time to have him join me and another student or two for lunch in the classroom. That time together often provides insights into the source of his behavior—a rough home life, a need for attention so deep he’d rather get negative attention than none at all—but it also gives us both a much-needed break from our usual patterns.
For that little oasis of time, I’m not correcting his behavior, threatening him with consequences, or trying to make him do things he doesn’t want to do. Those 20 minutes can do a lot to mend a fractured relationship.
2. Build in lots of one-on-one and small-group time.
The great thing about teaching is the same thing that makes it so hard: Each child is complex and distinct, an individual galaxy of needs, gifts, interests, and experiences. We have to teach them in ways that honor that individuality.
To do that, we need to become experts in these particular children. Which vowel sounds does Carlos have trouble distinguishing? What understandings and misconceptions does Jahlissa have about place value?
The inconvenient truth is that whole-class direct instruction will never provide our students with the depth of understanding they need. Children develop their abilities the same way babies learn language: one-on-one, guided by an adult who cares deeply about them.
I use only 10 or 12 minutes of each hour in my class for whole-group instruction. The rest of the time, I’m doing one-on-one conferences or pulling small groups. I’m taking notes, on paper and in my head, about what each child understands and what she still needs to figure out.
Developing our expertise on individual students will take hundreds of hours. We have to build that time into our school day.
Photos by author
3. Write individual notes to your students.
Each child in my class has a tiny envelope with their name on it. Once or twice a month, I write the children notes. I tell them what I liked about a story they wrote that week, or a new reading strength I noticed they’re developing. I ask them questions about their families and what they like to do after school.
Kids need to know that they are seen and heard. They often treasure these little letters that only take me a few minutes to write.
4. Build relationships with families, too.
I used to leave parent-teacher conferences feeling like the only thing I had asked parents, after 10 minutes of me talking non-stop, was “Do you have any questions?”
In our district, children and parents attend teacher conferences together. So this year I prepared a few “icebreaker” questions for them on scraps of paper in Ziploc bags. One bag had questions for moms and dads to ask their children, like, “Who is your best friend in the class?” The other bag had questions for kids to ask their parents, such as, “What was I like when I was a baby?” or “Did you like school when you were a kid?”
The answers gave me a deeper sense of each parent as a human being, not just a source for signatures on forms or help with behavioral problems. The insights they shared were brief but personal, like when Luis’ mom smiled a radiant smile and told him she loved school in Mexico because they always sang songs.
We have to show moms, dads, and grandparents the same curiosity and respect we show their complicated, infuriating, fundamentally lovable children.
Most of us teach because we love getting to know young humans, in all their messy radiance and flawed glory. If we make time to cultivate the relationships that sustain us and nurture our students, we will witness that annual miracle: a roomful of strangers becoming a kind of family.
The children in our care will become kinder, better, and more deeply joyful. So will we.