A Crash Course in Building Effective Learning Relationships With Students

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It was December 18, three days before the end of the semester. I had just been hired as a last-minute replacement at a comprehensive high school with more than 60 percent of students on free or reduced lunch. I was scheduled to start teaching after students returned from winter break—which left me only three days of classroom observation to learn everything I could about my 90 new students.

None of the comments I heard about my students were positive. Every person I met smiled knowingly and said, "Oh, wait until you meet your 6th period class." When I asked about homework expectations, I was told: Homework is for honor students. For on-grade students: "Don't bother. They won't do it anyway."

Many of my students had been told that they were failures with behavior problems. Teachers had given up on them. Most of them had given up on themselves.

This situation led to the most intense process of getting to know students I have ever experienced. When I started teaching, more than 70 percent of my students were failing, with the exception of one honors class. I had to use every strategy I knew to build relationships with my students and engage them in learning.

Getting to Know You

Here are some strategies I developed based on this experience.

  • Observe your students in advance, if possible. I took advantage of those first three days to watch my students working with the substitute. I took notes and highlighted the students who were outliers. This gave me the opportunity to create protocols that reinforced positive behaviors and redirected negative ones. More specifically, it inspired me to create activities that allowed every student to be successful in class.
  • Determine students' learning styles and interests. During the first week of class, I administered a grit assessment, a multiple intelligences assessment, a Sternberg intelligences assessment, a reading interest survey, and a student interest survey. I also acquired students' Lexile levels. Using this data, I created a class portrait that I displayed on a board labeled "Who are you?" This portrait exhibited a complete picture of the class and made some general comparisons. For example, in my 6th period class, 18 out of 20 students were pragmatic, while 16 out of 20 were tactile learners. The same day I posted the portrait, students started asking what "pragmatic" meant and giving examples of how true it was of their individual personalities. I then compiled this data into a spreadsheet that showed individual learner portraits. Throughout the rest of the year, I checked my units of study against students' strengths and weaknesses so I could offer a balance of learning opportunities. I also used it to create flexible groupings, make personalized book recommendations, and create conversation starters.
  • Find activities that allow every student to be successful. I implemented a beginning of class routine that would allow all students to experience success—regardless of their learning level. Every day I asked students to write the date, objective, and agenda in their spiral notebook. I also had them answer a warm-up question, such as: How prepared do you feel to take the quiz today? What did you find most interesting from our class discussion about Of Mice and Men? Each day was an opportunity for them to earn 20 points for copying the agenda on the board and 20 points for answering the warm-up.
  • Create activities for all types of learners. I created a variety of group and individual activities that appealed to different learners. For my spatial and logical learners, we did a vocabulary unit every other day for 10 minutes, and for my musical learners, I used a rap vocabulary program. I also let students interact with texts in a variety of formats: Novels, digital readers, and (after completing the book) videos. Students were then evaluated with a paper or performance assessment. To help students focus on improving their overall academic performance, I implemented the Brainology program, which encourages a growth mindset.
  • Give prompt feedback. I graded all my students' work within two weeks of their turning it in. If they were passing, I gave them a positive behavior referral, which goes through the office and results in a ticket for a free ice cream treat at lunch. If they were failing, I gave them an academic detention designed to give them extra time after school to complete work.
  • Acknowledge students' successes outside of the classroom. During the first few weeks, I identified sports and extracurricular events my students were involved in and attended those as often as possible. After each event, I took time to acknowledge each student and their success during class.
  • Link activities to students' extracurricular interests. For my most challenging class—students with the lowest Lexile levels and least engagement in school activities—I identified their interests in outdoor activities like hunting, fishing, and BMX bike riding. I then got permission from the principal to deviate from the curriculum and have a "magazine day" each week where students read articles of interest and completed a nonfiction text activity.
  • Address individual learning needs and follow up. After two weeks, I identified the students who continued to struggle academically or behaviorally. I scheduled meetings with the guidance counselor, assistant principal, special education chair, and reading specialist. Through these meetings, we created and implemented an individual learning plan for each student.

The Results

After 10 weeks, all of my 10th grade students were passing and much more engaged with the curriculum. Of my 9th graders who consistently attended class, only four students were still failing—but of those four, two had improved their grade by 40 percentage points and were only seven points away from passing.

Surprisingly, it was my 6th period class—the one everyone warned me about—which grew the most. For example, out of three classes that conducted a trial simulation, this group was the most engaged, knowledgeable of case facts, and excited to learn. They far exceeded my honors class. I like to think this was possible because someone finally took the time and effort to get to know them—and let them know they mattered.

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