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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Building Student Relationships by Applying ‘the Golden Rule’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 15, 2018 22 min read
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(This is the fifth post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; Part Three here and Part Four here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to build relationships with students?

This series was kicked-off with responses from Adeyemi Stembridge, Candace Hines, Jacki Glasper, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Valentina Gonzalez, and Julie Jee. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Adeyemi, Candace, Jacki and Mary Beth on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s guests were Timothy Hilton, Valerie Ruckes, David Bosso, Jenny Edwards, Pamela Broussard, Kara Pranikoff, Patty McGee, and Jonathan Eckert.

In Part Three, Debbie Silver, Nedra Robinson, Tamera Musiowsky, John Seborowski, Bryan Christopher, Becca Leech, Kelly Wickham Hurst, and Diane Mora contributed their ideas.

In Part Four, Lisa Westman, Kevin Parr, Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, Ryan Huels, Catherine Beck, Dr. Sheila M. Wilson, Ed.D., and Steve Constantino provided commentaries on the topic.

Today, it’s time for Jana Echevarria, Dr. Beth Gotcher, Joe Mullikin, Denise Fawcett Facey, Rachelle Dene Poth, Chris Hull, Douglas Reeves, and Melissa Jackson to share their thoughts.

Response From Jana Echevarria

Jana Echevarria, Ph.D., is Professor Emerita at California State University, Long Beach and is a founding researcher and creator of the SIOP Model for English learners. She has published widely on effective instruction for English learners, including those with learning disabilities. She has presented her research throughout the U.S. and internationally and was inducted into the California Reading Hall of Fame in 2016. Currently, she serves as an expert on English learners for the U.S. Department of Justice:

Positive relationships are critical for students to feel connected to school, to do well, and for the overall well-being of the school environment. Building relationships with students begins first and foremost with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This means to treat students respectfully, ask politely, and correct kindly. From my experience in observing classrooms, when teachers are encouraging toward students, are respectful, and convey genuine caring, students engage more academically, often because they want to please their teacher. Aggressive or disruptive behaviors are rare. It always amazes me when teachers don’t see how their own behavior -- sarcasm and criticism, for example -- results in behavior problems. Some students withdraw and disengage in an attempt to stay out of the teacher’s crosshairs while others respond in kind, which often results in punishment for the very behavior exhibited by the teacher. The power differential favors the teacher. In this dynamic, positive relationships are nearly impossible to build -- and everyone loses. Often, student behavior mirrors teacher behavior. So, use the Golden Rule as a general guide for making connections with students.

There are also loads of specific ways that teachers can build positive relationships with students but the ones I’ll discuss here are those that I’ve seen work well.

Call students by name. Sounds simple but it isn’t always practiced by teachers and is an easy way to make a connection. At the beginning of the year, learn each student’s name and how to pronounce it correctly. While mispronunciation may seem insignificant, it shows students that you don’t care enough to say their names correctly. And, it can be embarrassing. A name is one’s identity. In hallways, on the playground, at school activities, take time to greet students by name.

Know your students. Each one comes to school with interests, likes and dislikes, talents, and strengths. Find out about your students and make it a habit to ask about each one: “How was your soccer game?” “Is your brother feeling better?” “Did you play any video games yesterday?” “I see that you braided your hair. It looks nice.” These interactions don’t need to gobble up a lot of time but can be asked as students enter the class at the beginning of the period, as they leave, in hallways or during transitions. The point isn’t to get extensive information but to make a connection by showing you genuinely care. But, when students do need someone to talk to, they’ll likely seek out someone with whom they have a connection.

Communicate high expectations. Most of us are drawn to a person who believes in us. Letting each student know that you believe she or he can be successful will enhance the relationship: “I see you finished that assignment. I knew you could do it.” “Thank you for being on time again today. I know it’s tough for you sometimes.” Display college banners on walls and talk with students about which colleges they want to attend. Have middle school students research programs offered at high schools and encourage them to participate. Sincere comments of affirmation signal your confidence in students.

Make home visits. It is one of the most time-consuming yet rewarding ways to building relationships, bar none. Visiting families at home builds goodwill and provides the opportunity to learn about students’ lives and their families’ cultural practices and values. In my experience, it is a worthwhile investment of time because not only does it provide a greater understanding of your students, but a partnership is developed with families which can be invaluable, especially with students who are challenging. If one-to-one visits with each family isn’t realistic, the next best thing is attending community events and introducing yourself to families. These activities aren’t mutually exclusive. Visit the homes of students who need that extra effort made to connect with them and attend an event to meet other families.

Regardless of which of these ideas resonates with you, the point is to build relationships with your students, connect with them every day, and enjoy the benefits

Response From Dr. Beth Gotcher

Dr. Beth Gotcher has taught in Maryville City Schools for 11 years. She is currently a Kindergarten teacher at John Sevier Elementary. Beth is in her second year as a Tennesssee Teacher Fellow:

Building relationships with students is the foundation of all that we do as educators. School must first be a place where students feel safe and valued before any true learning can occur. Students need to know from the moment they enter your classroom that there is someone who truly cares about them. Following are easy to implement strategies to build relationships with your students.

*Greet students every morning: This sounds so simple but it is so important! Make a point each morning to speak to each student individually as they enter the classroom. It is also an easy way to begin each day on a positive note. If a student was absent the previous day let them know they were missed to ensure they know they are an important part of the class community.

*Build a culture of us: A classroom is more than a group of students. It is a community, a family. Build the culture in your classroom as an us mentality in that we are all in this together. Spend time at the beginning of the year as a class discussing what students want their classroom to look like and what they want the expectations to be. This involvement allow students to have buy-in and feel they are a part of their classroom community. For students who do not have a nurturing home life, this sense of belonging goes a long way to creating positive relationships.

*Begin each day with a fresh start: Students may have bad days, but make a point with students that each day is a new day. Students knowing that you continue to believe in them day in and day out will contribute to a positive relationship between you and them. Often there is a strong emphasis on building relationships in the first couple weeks of the school year. However, relationships must continue to be developed daily throughout the entire school year.

*Connect with students: Get to know your students and find out what they are interested in or passionate about. Spend time talking to your students beyond just “how are you?” Not only that but share with students your interests. Students enjoy learning commonalities between themselves and their teachers. Find ways to incorporate student interests into teaching and activities to not only promote student engagement but also show students their interests are important.

*Find the good: Strive to find something positive about each student in your classroom and acknowledge the good. If only a few students are highlighted or praised, the rest of the students in the classroom will quickly recognize it and feel unvalued or even become apathetic about their learning. Not all students have someone in their lives rooting for them but you can be the person that makes a positive difference for these students.

Response From Joe Mullikin

Mr. Joe Mullikin is an award winning educator, consultant and speaker. He currently serves as the Principal at Highland Elementary School in Northwest Illinois. You can find Joe on twitter as @joemullikin86:

Every teacher I have ever worked with or interviewed has said in some way or another that they want to build relationships with students. Though this tends to be a universal philosophy throughout education and educators alike, there are stark differences between those who do it well and those who do not.

I believe that a strong classroom is built on strong relationships. When I look at any of the evaluation frameworks for educators, a common running theme is building relationships with students and creating an environment for learning. The bottom line is that students don’t learn as well from teachers they don’t like. While it isn’t just about getting students to “like” you, it is important to build trusting and personal relationships with students.

Building relationships with students doesn’t need to be prescriptive, but must be foundational to your philosophy of education if you truly want to make a transformative impact. I believe that there are a few basic keys to building strong relationships with students that can impact the trajectory of your classroom.

  1. Bring YOU into the classroom

    * Students can sniff out a fake teacher. You have a personality, preferences, and a unique style. Bring that with passion and confidence into your classroom. Humor was always something that I tended to move toward. This isn’t everyone’s thing, but it was one thing that helped make me who I was in the classroom.

  2. Demonstrate (appropriate) transparency

    * Depending on your grade level and your classroom this will vary, but I believe it is important to be honest and transparent with your students. This doesn’t mean divulging your marital problems or having mini-counseling sessions with your students, but when you make a mistake be honest with them. When you are going to try something new and aren’t sure how it will do, be honest with them.

  3. Ask questions you actually want answers to

    * I have seen a ton of “get to know you” surveys. There are some good questions on there, but do you actually care about the answer? Will you incorporate those answers into discussion, into lessons, into what the classroom? If the answer is no, skip the survey or make a new one. Students don’t want to be asked their preferences if you’re never going to acknowledge them.

  4. Remember students CHANGE!

    * Getting to know students should NOT be a single activity. You categorically cannot get to know students through a single survey. We change. They change. Our students are changing so fast that sometimes it’s hard to keep up, but remember that if you want to truly build relationships, it takes time and should never be finished.

Hands down one of my favorite parts of education is the relationships I’ve been able to build. At the end of the day culture is built upon the relationships that are developed. If you want a classroom culture that is truly exceptional, the first place that you have to start is by building truly exceptional relationships with your students. Be yourself and spend time engaging with them. Remember, every assessment we give provides us with data about our students. Building relationships is like an ongoing informal assessment of your students’ social-emotional and personal well-being. I would argue that there aren’t a whole lot of other data points more important in developing a student than those.

Response From Denise Fawcett Facey

Denise Fawcett Facey was a classroom teacher for more than two decades and now writes on education issues. Among her books, Can I Be in Your Class?, offers tips and techniques like those in this response, helping teachers reach and teach the whole child:

Since it’s the small details that often have the greatest impact in building strong positive relationships with students -- details that demonstrate that we genuinely care about them -- consider the following five suggestions:

Learning Students’ Names

A seemingly simplistic suggestion, learning students’ names -- and saying them correctly and often -- demonstrates our respect for our students. It’s a detail intrinsic to who they are. By learning their names, we acknowledge students’ individuality and validate their worth. Moreover, using their names to greet them at the door, to acknowledge a raised hand, to offer accolades, indicates that we see them. It’s the beginning of fostering positive relationships with students.

Giving the Same Respect We Expect

Sure, they are kids and we are the adults. However, kids deserve respect and need to see it modeled as well. From allowing students to speak without interruption during discussions and permitting them to express opinions, sans rancorous responses, to seeking their assistance in their areas of expertise (think technology, for example) and soliciting their input occasionally on decisions, there are myriad ways to show students respect. If we expect to be accorded even a modicum of respect, mustering up the same for our students is essential. The dividends this pays in terms of building relationships is huge.

Getting to Know Students Individually

Being students is only one facet of who they are. We need to discover the other aspects of the multifaceted people who fill our classrooms. Through casual conversations with them, we can uncover an array of talents and interests, discovering artists, mechanics, ballerinas, athletes and more. And it’s not their level of accomplishment that counts but rather that they have shared this part of who they are with us. By following up from time to time with queries about their latest endeavor or even by attending an event here and there, we reveal our appreciation for them as individuals. After all, we build relationships individually, one person at a time.

Looking for the Best in Students

As teachers, we easily fall into the habit of calling out inappropriate behaviors in our students. However, students need to know we notice the best in them as well. While this often requires actively looking for the good, and then complimenting the student on it, this simultaneously cultivates those behaviors right along with the positive relationships we’re attempting to build.

Daring to Be Vulnerable

More than anything, our willingness to show ourselves as human forges bonds with our students. Whereas many teachers, especially newer ones, fear a loss of credibility by admitting mistakes, laughing at their own flaws or sharing bits of their non-teacher lives, students find these tidbits humanizing. Although there’s no need to go overboard in self-revelation, daring to be vulnerable enough to reveal that we learn from our mistakes and grow from our pursuits encourages students to do the same and to trust relationships with us.

In the end, it’s our ability to empathize with our students -to view school and ourselves through their eyes - that enables us to develop strong, healthy relationships with them. And those relationships create an environment, even a classroom culture, that inspires students to thrive.

Response From Rachelle Dene Poth

Rachelle Dene Poth is a French, Spanish and STEAM Teacher and Attorney from Pittsburgh, PA. She is the President of the ISTE Teacher Education Network and Communications Chair for the Mobile Learning Network. She was named one of “20 to watch” by the NSBA, the PAECT Outstanding Teacher of the Year for 2017 and is a Future Ready Instructional Coach Thought Leader:

Dr. James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” Building relationships must be a part of every day. Being a teacher requires that we balance a wide variety of tasks: planning instruction, grading assignments, contacting families, writing curriculum, to name just a few. More important than each of these tasks, is getting to know our students. In order to provide the best possible learning experience and create the most supportive learning environment, we need to spend time getting to know who they are and what they bring to our classroom. Students need to connect with one another and with the teacher.

How do we do this? We have to make it a part of each day to check in with each student. Start by greeting students at the door, being present in the hallways between classes, or being available after school. Take time to attend student activities such as sporting events and concerts, for example. These daily interactions are critical for building relationships and showing students that we are invested in them.

One of the ways that I have helped to build relationships and to foster more meaningful connections is with small group activities or using ice breakers at the beginning of the year, or any time during the year. For example, I sometimes create small groups and design fun activities to give students time to build comfort when working with their peers. Depending on grade level taught, some other ideas are to have students group themselves based on similarities whether they be a shared birthday month, favorite band, favorite animal, or other category that will foster some new relationships in the classroom.

It is mutually beneficial for teachers and students to engage in these types of activities and take the time to really get to know one another. The best way is to create opportunities where the students can interact with one another and you have time to move around the classroom, spending time with each group and connecting with each student.

When we make time to learn about the students and their interests, it shows students that we care about more than just teaching content. We care about who they are. In “Learner Centered Innovation” by Katie Martin, she referred to a phrase by Brandon Wiley, the Chief Innovation Officer of the Buck Institute, " See Me, Know Me, Grow me.” I think this phrase is a perfect reminder of the importance of building relationships by getting to know our students. We have to do more than just teach them the content. We have to see who they are, understand their background and interests, in order to be able to help them to grow as a learner.

Through the building of relationships, as educators, we create better possibilities for learning, we promote a positive classroom culture and an environment for student driven learning.

Response From Chris Hull

Chris Hull has been teaching social studies at North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park since 2007. In 2012, he helped co-found the Otus Student Performance Platform and is driven to maximize student learning:

Developing relationships with students often is noted as the most important step to becoming a strong teacher. Unfortunately, there is no prescription or step by step formula to achieve this connection with your students.

Relationships are two ways, and as a teacher you can only control one aspect of this situation.

So what can you do?

Attentively listen and be authentic.

Some teachers are able to tell jokes or keep up with the latest music trends. Other teachers may know students’ favorite games, movies, or sports trends.

I have discovered listening to what inspires a student can help unlock their ways to connect.

So how do you find ways to listen?

Some students desire to connect daily with their teachers by volunteering to help or sharing their latest adventures such as their dance performance or basketball game. Other students are more reserved and cautious.

Conferencing is one of my go to strategies. I conference with every student in my class every few weeks. Yes, this is time consuming.

The first conference is a “get to know you” opportunity, then these conferences turn into writing check ins, reflection opportunities, or agile stand up framework answering the questions of what did you do yesterday, what are you planning on doing today, and what obstacles are you facing. These conferences are also a chance for students to ask questions or provide feedback of what would make the class better for them.

Another way I connect with students is showing a few enjoyable videos every Friday. If students follow our classroom expectations for the week (to be honest, respectful, and strive for their best) we will watch a few minutes of enjoyable videos on Friday. Many of these videos are student submitted. They submit the videos to me throughout the year and, each one provides insight to what students find enjoyable or interesting.

While we conference or talk, being authentic is a key, when you are authentic students will realize you want the same from them.

Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership, teaching, and student achievement. His videos and articles are all free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net. Doug Tweets @DouglasReeves and can be reached at DReeves@ChangeLeaders.com:

The most important way to build positive relationships is to make the classroom a place of safety, curiosity, creativity, and learning. Why do some students eagerly anticipate playing a video game, going to a music class, or participating in a sports team? Because they know that every single time they start those activities, they will, within 45-90 minutes, be better than when they started. They will, along the way, lose some games, play some wrong notes, and receive very direct feedback from their coaches and teammates, but they will develop a sense of competence and confidence that never happens in a lecture. A very simple exit ticket that asks, “What did you learn today that you didn’t know when the class started?” is a good way for a quick reality check.

Even with very large student-teacher ratios, it’s possible to build relationships with students. Start with a commitment to know the name of every student within the first two weeks of class. This may require a seating chart and taking time to connect a face with a name every single day until you can greet every student by name. Next, learn at least one thing about the student’s interest outside of your class - a sibling, pet, game, favorite book or sports team - just something that starts a conversation with something other than, “Missed your homework again?”

These ideas apply also to administrators, counselors, and anyone else who comes into contact with students. This requires some time in the first few weeks of class, but it pays enormous dividends for the rest of the school year.

Response From Melissa Jackson

Melissa Jackson is an ESL teacher at Southeast Middle School in Kernersville, NC, grades 6-8. Her husband is a high school asst. principal and they have two high school teenagers:

Building relationships with students is paramount to teaching. I learned early on how important this is. Sure, the content and strategies are important. However, relationships go a long way to care about the content and grasp the strategies.

Our principal requires us to reach out to families at the beginning of the school year. It helps to build bridges so there is a connection of support on both ends during the school year. Another way to build relationships is to get to know families during Open House. This is a wonderful time to get to see our students in a relaxed setting and talk to the experts- the parents or guardians-about their children. This is valuable time because we get to shake hands and really listen and build trust and rapport with families and students prior to starting school. Teachers can share information about expectations, share the syllabus, get contact information directly from parents.

Another thing I like to do during Open House is have a short “About Me” sheet for students to complete. Not only does it help me get to know them a little more but it helps me gauge how students read and write. Once school starts you can easily make or continue conversation that started before the first day. During the school year there are other ways to continue building relationships like through journals, having one-on-one conversations or having lunch with a student. When time permits, I’ve attended games. Students love to see teachers cheering them on and it makes for great conversations in the halls with other students who you don’t teach.

Thanks to Jana, Beth, Joe, Denise, Rachelle, Chris, Douglas, and Melissa for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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