Without a firm foundation, the walls come crumbling down: Building positive teacher-student relationships

Without a firm foundation, the walls come crumbling down: Building positive teacher-student relationships

In this high-stakes culture in which we operate, why should teachers strive to build solid relationships with their students?

I have taught in segregated special education schools. My students had been removed from their feeder schools, usually due to behavioral issues. The urban high school students I taught as the English teacher, were often more concerned with survival than they were with dangling participles. Many of them were in gang-related relationships outside of schools and these rival gang issues sometimes clashed within school walls.

My students came to me with HUGE chips on their shoulders. One menacingly stated upon meeting me, “I threw books at my last English teacher.” I replied, “Thank you for telling me.” What else could I say?

By the end of the year, the students were warning me about bad areas in the city and were sharing stories of their lives with me. I was not their friend, but I had become a mentor. We had gained a mutual respect. I cared about these students and the interesting part was that they had learned to care about paying attention in class, answering my questions, and completing reading assignments.

Teachers feel pressured every day to teach material that will/may be taught on high-stakes assessments in order to ensure successful AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) reporting that affects not just their classroom but their entire school and even their district ratings. There is pressure to coldly look at data to make determinations about placements and programs for students. Unfortunately, the tendency is that our students become numbers (i.e. their test scores) likewise the teachers also become numbers (i.e. their passing student percentage).

Although data is an important contributing factor to the instructional decisions made and although the state standards (and national common core standards) are essential to designing an instructional program for a student, I argue that remembering the individual who stands before a teacher is paramount in all of these decisions.

Published in Educational Leadership, Marzano states in “Relating to Students: It’s What You Do That Counts” that “positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variable associated with effective instruction.” Interestingly enough these positive relationships are based upon student perceptions of teachers’ behaviors. According to Marzano, this is a good sign for teachers. Teachers do not have to love every student, but they must interact positively with every student.

In the book Educator’s Guide to Preventing and Solving Discipline Problems by Mark Boynton and Christine Boynton, Kerman is cited saying “Demonstrating caring is one of the most powerful ways to build positive relationships with your students (Kerman et al., 1980). I have combined strategies for demonstrating caring with suggestions from Marzano for developing positive perceptions in students.

  1. Show an interest in your students’ personal lives. Know student names. Elementary teachers say, “Of course!” but secondary teachers interact with more than 100 students a day. Ask students about a recent sports game, a movie, what do they like. I also taught elementary school students and I know more about Pokémon than I ever thought possible.
    Teachers can also gain information about students through journal entries that ask what students did during the summer, what pets they have, what sports they enjoy, etc.
  2. Greet students at the front door of the classroom.Begin the day or the class period with personal contact. Wong and Wong (1998).
  3. Advocate for students.One way to advocate is for a teacher to express the desire that all students to well in class. Teachers can also set aside time to speak to students individually, offer struggling students assistance, and helping students develop goals.
  4. Never give up on students.Provide suggestions for students to catch-up when they have fallen behind. Enlist help from peer tutors. Tell students to keep trying. Teachers can share personal stories of times when they struggled in class.
  5. Act friendly. This seems like a given, but it can be established simply through a smile and eye contact.

Demonstrating caring and developing perceptions, especially with disenfranchised students, can go a long way to building teacher-student relationships and therefore developing learners’ abilities to function in the classroom.

What does this mean for policy makers and administrators?

Students come to school with individual sets of struggles and backgrounds. Some no longer come to school with an inherent respect for the educational system. Teachers need to seek to understand every student and to develop, enhance, and nurture relationships with them. As they do so, research has shown they will see an increase in their students’ learning.

With Race to the Top we are seeing a revision of teacher evaluation systems. These systems include a strong focus on student growth measurements. I would suggest that while we are revising the current evaluation systems, we ensure that classroom climate is included as a part of determining a teacher’s effectiveness. Measures to assess teacher-student relationships could be included in teacher observations. This would allow teachers to be provided with feedback for how to improve their relationships with students. Then teachers could reflect on their practice and better develop their skills in this crucial area.

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