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According to personal experience and considerable research, strong teacher-student relationships lead to greater student outcomes (Allen et al., 2013; Baker, 2006; Battistich, Schaps, & Wilson, 2004; Berry & O’Connor, 2009; Hughes, Cavell, & Wilson, 2001; Klem & Connell, 2004; Liew, Chen, & Hughes, 2010; O’Connor & McCartney, 2007; Reddy, Rhodes, & Mulhall, 2003; Wentzel, 1997). But how do we build, nurture, and sustain positive relationships within learning environments?

 

  • Let students get to know you: Pedagogies and strategies matter, but students work hard for teachers they like. And they like teachers they know. Share a little about yourself—nothing too personal, of course, but appropriate and interesting facts about your family, your pets, and your hobbies. Incorporate this information into lesson and unit openers. Make learning relevant by connecting new content to your life. Educators typically really like what they teach, and we all have interests and passions outside of school. Share your enthusiasms with students, making connections to learning to strengthen
  • Teach students how to respectfully and productively cooperate and collaborate: Students will always talk in class; the question is whether they will talk about what we want them to talk about or not. So, prepare students for meaningful collaboration by teaching them to have positive relationships. Give them sentence stems and starters for pairing with a partner and for working within teams, and practice these interactions. In my experiences, even students who want to talk with their group partners aren’t sure what to say. Stems may include providing students with language, such as:
    • What I am saying is …
    • I would like to say more about …
    • I would like to clarify my statement, what I mean is …
    • An example is …
    • What I said was … I would like to add …
    • What I hear you saying is .
    • Can you please repeat what name said, to help me better understand ?
    • I heard name say …, which connects to name thinking because ….
    • I agree/disagree about…my rationale is ….
    • I would like to explain why I think name came up with that answer, I think …
    • I support/oppose this idea. My reasoning is …

 

We cannot and should expect students to know how to work with others in academic situations, and devoting time to modeling and teaching the ins and outs of empathetic exchanges will pay off. Student-to-student relationships are as critical to classroom and student success as staff-to-student relationships (Jacobs, Power, & Loh, 2002; Johnson & Johnson, & Holubec, 2013; Kohn, 1992).

 

  • Get to know students: Show them that you are interested. Listen. Hold them accountable—it shows you If and when you administer interest and preference surveys (and I recommend that you do this), use this information to prime both your academic and social interactions with each student. Play to student interests when designing lessons, writing tasks, and constructing questions. When greeting or privately sharing a fifteen-second exchange with students (see the following), follow-up with a question about a club, sport, or hobby that the interest surveys mention. And, of course, use information from these surveys to differentiate teaching and learning.
  • Ensure that every student receives a verbal message from you every day, or very nearly every day (and keep track): There are students who can go weeks without adults at school noticing them—although many students like it that way. There is often one administrator for every five hundred students; one counselor (if there are counselors at all) for every three hundred students; and in secondary schools, a teacher can see well over one hundred students, perhaps closer to two hundred students, a day. Adopt techniques to interact with every student regularly: greeting students at the door with a handshake, high-five, or hello; interacting during fifteen-second quick-checks of last night’s homework while students complete a warm-up; or by facilitating small-group learning opportunities within class. And keep track of these interactions to make sure that no student falls through the cracks. Maintain a check-off sheet that simply records that all students have received a verbal
  • Initiate, re-dedicate, or revitalize advisory sessions, classrooms meetings, restorative justice circles, or some combination, to building relationships: Many schools have periods within their day when a primary focus of the time is as social as it is academic. This may be carpet or calendar time in early elementary grades, classroom meetings in the middle grades, or advisory periods within secondary schools. Make relationships an explicit goal of these
  • Respect students’ space and remember what it’s like to be a student: Active efforts on the part of adults matter, but sometimes students need space. And if we pay attention, we can tell when students are having a bad day. Nonverbal interactions matter, too. Eye contact, a nod, or a pat on the arm communicates to students that we understand and that we

 

What we say can enhance or compromise relationships. Our words to students sometimes unintentionally erode students’ self-image, sense of efficacy, and mindset (Curwin, 2015; Curwin & Mendler, 1999). Students exhibit behaviors of all kinds, and educators expect positive behaviors, all day long across schools. No matter where the student learns, with whom, or at which time of day, we expect students to display appropriate and productive behaviors. Let’s contribute to their success (and our success in serving students) by agreeing to nurture consistent expectations. The specific nature of a subject area or that the preferences of a staff member rarely outweigh the value of consistently defined and reinforced behaviors.

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