Building Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

I teach middle school. Guys and gals, let me tell you, middle school is hard. It’s super fun some days, but in so many ways, it is so difficult. Kids are in such a weird place during that age, and to be very honest, I really struggle. I struggle with how I want my classroom to look and feel. I struggle with figuring out what my teaching and management style is. Most of all, I struggle with forming meaningful relationships with my students. I’ve been teaching middle school-aged children for five years now (I know that all of you veteran teachers are sitting there, rolling your eyes and telling me, “Patience, young grasshopper”). Most days, it is very obvious I still have a lot to learn, but here are some mistakes I have made so that hopefully you can heed my advice and steer clear of them.

I think it is important to point out that what works for me probably won’t work for every teacher out there. Remember when I said I struggle with my teaching style? It’s true, and you might find that your style is vastly different than mine. If these tips don’t work for you, please please please do not assume that you aren’t a good teacher. We all have different things that work for us, and you might have a way to approach students that is way out of my comfort zone. Every teacher has to find his or her own identity.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When I first started teaching, I was 23 years old. Throughout college, I was warned not to get too friendly with students in order to ensure they would still respect me as an authority figure, and rightfully so; however, this advice led to me closing myself off a little too much, making it hard to show students that I cared.

If a student was struggling with something at home, I usually knew about it because I have a very strong network of colleagues and we all keep each other in the loop (not to mention our town population is less than 1,000, so when a student is at home faking strep throat while simultaneously texting their girlfriend, “I’m not really sick LOL,” the whole school knows about it by lunchtime). Not much gets past the gossip mill that is our campus. Therefore, if naïve, beginner-teacher me knew that a student didn’t get much sleep the night before because something awful happened in their family, I wouldn’t say anything to that kid because it would be none of my business until she made it my business.

However, herein lies the problem. When that student would get sleepy and flop on the desk, uninterested in her work, I would tell her, “You need to get to work. This needs to be done by the end of the class period.” She would yawn and say, “I’m sorry. I’m just really tired. I didn’t sleep last night.” This is where I would make my mistake. “I’m sorry,” I would say, and I would just keep walking. I would give a polite response that was never too intrusive. I never wanted to seem like I was prying into a student’s business. I know better now. Had I simply answered that student with, “You didn’t sleep at all? Why not?” it would have made a huge difference.

Would that student have unloaded all of the previous night’s events on me right there in the middle of class? Probably not. But maybe. Would asking about her life have made it seem like I cared a lot more than if I had just absent-mindedly apologized? Absolutely. It’s not always about getting information out of students. I have students tell me all the time, “I’m going through stuff, but I don’t want to talk about it.” There is nothing wrong with that. They will talk whenever they are ready with someone they trust, but at least, for the moment, they know that I can be that person if they need me to be. I care enough to ask about their lives. I’m not pushy. I don’t demand or beg for details. I simply ask, and that makes all the difference.

It isn’t always about discipline.

When I started struggling with classroom management last year, a supervisor brought to my attention that I needed to be more consistent. Feeling like a failure, I resolved to get tougher, give more detentions, and hand out fewer verbal warnings. If you’re in this spot right now, let me just save you some time and heartbreak. It didn’t work. Giving more detentions was not the answer.

See, when I started giving more detentions, I started giving out more anger. I was sending a signal to my students to bottle up whatever it was that made them lash out because I didn’t want to deal with it. I was treating my students as if they were a conglomerate, not individual kids.

Detention and other disciplinary measures definitely have their place in a school, but I was using them for the wrong reasons. I was creating a classroom full of kids that didn’t respect me because I was taking the easy way out. Instead of digging into the messiness that was their lives, I was simply glazing over the surface, handing out detentions left and right to students who had much more to worry about than spending an hour after school on Tuesday afternoons.

Lean on the teachers who do have a relationship with a student.

When my students come to me to complain about another teacher or one of their peers, I always tell them, “You will not have a connection with every single person you meet.” It’s true.

I had a parent sit down with me once and thank me for being the only teacher that her daughter could go to when things were rough. She said that I was the only teacher that cared and recognized her situation. This is hardly true—I know this student, and I know my coworkers. I stressed to this parent that we all were looking out for her as she struggled through something no child should have to go through. She and I just happened to foster a connection. I think it was because I saw her outside of school a few times, at church functions to be specific, and she felt that due to our shared faith, I was someone that she could trust.

On the other hand, I have plenty of students who don’t have that trust in me. We haven’t found any common ground to connect on, and that’s okay. When I am having trouble getting through to these students, I go talk with teachers who I know do have a relationship with them. I ask them things like,

  • How can I change the way I talk with this student to bring about some positive change in my class?
  • Are there seating arrangements that work particularly well with this student?
  • Is there anything I should be aware of as I try to help this student succeed?

Teachers have come to me to ask about students that they are unsure of how to approach. I go to other teachers all the time about students. Your coworkers are some of your best resources, and I hope you can lean on them like I lean on mine.

Don’t ever give up on a kid.

I have had some tough kids that I was sure I would never be able to forge a relationship with. I have also been proved wrong almost every time.

Don’t ever give up on a kid. Back off if you feel like you have to. Some kids won’t be ready to have a relationship with you when you try to build one with them, but they will come around. You have to do it on their time. These kids are our future, and if we give up on them, we are giving up on ourselves. They need us to stay the course even if it seems like they will never change because that is the only way they know they can depend on us when life gets hard.

Building relationships requires, at least for me, a level of vulnerability. Having one-on-one tough conversations with students is not something that is inside my comfort zone; however, when I resolved to embrace that vulnerability and jump in with both feet, I saw a huge change in the relationships I had with individual students. Brene Brown has done a TedTalk on The Power of Vulnerability. If you haven’t watched it, you really need to. I used to wonder how some of my coworkers got so good at having these conversations with students, but now I know that it isn’t something you have to be “good” at. You just have to do it.

I think it’s also important to note that relationship building happens through conversations, not lectures. One reason I felt that I was so bad at it was that I never knew the right words to say. I would pray, “God, please give me the words to deal with insert tricky student/situation here.” But it isn’t about my words. It’s about listening to my students’ words.

Trust yourself. Try new strategies. Approach students from different angles. Most of all, don’t beat yourself up. Teaching is hard sometimes, but the reward of seeing students succeed is so sweet. If you ever need any advice, send me an e-mail. I won’t be able to solve all of your teacher-student relationship problems, but sometimes just getting an outside opinion makes a world of difference.

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