You’ve seen them all: the cool young teacher who relates to students as a friend, the stern veteran teacher who won’t put up with any nonsense, and the professor who values students’ input as much as the knowledge being shared from the podium.
No matter what your teaching style or experience level, relating better to your students can open the door to new learning opportunities for everyone involved.
What do the experts say about building great teacher–student relationships? Sara Rimm-Kaufman and Lia Sandilos of the American Psychological Association discuss the social and academic benefits, concluding that fostering positive relationships with students at different age levels improves student motivation and peer relationships, helps to address behavioral problems, and can even complement other important relationships in students’ lives.
The good news is that there are many ways to develop and maintain meaningful teacher–student relationships in the classroom. Whether it’s your first time at the head of the classroom or you’ve been teaching for 20 years, there’s always something new to learn—starting with your students.
Build a foundation for great teacher–student relationships.
1. Get to know (and like) your students.
The first essential ingredient in any relationship is an introduction. Get to know not only your students’ names but also their strengths and weaknesses, their interests, and their personalities. To know your students better, share something meaningful about yourself, such as your own educational background, interests, or quirks; you could do this by writing a letter to your students or by introducing yourself on the first day.
Building trust involves sharing who you are and learning whom your students are. Furthermore, getting to know students who are difficult or shy is essential to building trust in the teacher–student relationship.
2. Work with your students, not against them.
Instead of reacting to behavioral problems with anger, treat them as an opportunity for engaging the student in the classroom. Respect your students’ opinions, and channel their energies into productive outlets, such as group discussions or creative projects. Rather than pestering or complaining about students, get to know them, and show that you can be trusted. A study examining adolescent behavior in high school classrooms showed that teachers can use relationship building to prevent discipline problems, as students act out less when they perceive their teacher to be trustworthy. Trust is one of the values that facilitates positive relations in any classroom.
3. Practice respectful classroom interaction.
One of the best ways to lay a foundation for good teacher–student relationships is to create a code of conduct: agree on how things will be done before the class starts. Not only will these rules help create an ethical classroom but they will also create a culture of respect. This involves stressing the importance of respect among your students as well as between learner and teacher. But remember, behavior starts with your own actions, which leads to our next step.
Model appropriate behavior.
4. Be aware of your tone, expression, and body language.
A respectful, friendly, cooperative classroom is all well and good, but what if you can’t conceal your frustration at Pam’s texting, Cam’s interruptions, and Sam’s constant chatter? Rimm-Kaufman and Sandilos urge professors and teachers to be aware of the explicit and implicit messages they send to students through words, actions, and manner. They recommend making a video of one of your lessons to ascertain whether you are demonstrating interest in your students as individuals or whether you are too bored, angry, or sarcastic to provide real attention. Modifying your own behavior will set the tone for positive teacher–student relationships.
5. Stay calm and emotionally balanced.
Keeping your cool goes hand in hand with cultivating a respectful classroom climate, as showing undue or prolonged irritability or annoyance toward your students can seriously undermine your relationships with them. While learning to accept constructive criticism is an important part of the learning process, nobody wants to be publicly lambasted by an authority figure. Remember to see the good as well as the bad in your students.
6. Be helpful and fair.
From simply answering questions to going the extra mile to meet your students’ academic needs, you must offer consistent, reliable support. You must also treat all students fairly, maintaining high standards for educational outcomes and acceptable behaviors. The rules apply to each student equally, so you should avoid favoritism and promote respect. All these approaches to teaching will secure your students’ trust in you as an educator, which will encourage them to seek help when the need arises.
Provide quality, one-on-one feedback.
7. Conduct personal interviews or student–teacher consultations.
Ideally, your students will see you as approachable and come to you with questions, concerns, and feedback. Sometimes students experience personal problems that may interfere with their studies. Though you are not trained to be a counselor or a social worker, you can still point your students in the direction of relevant services on campus, at your school, or in the community. Building great teacher–student relationships means caring for your students and respecting their emotional, social, physical, and mental well-being—not just their performance in the classroom.
8. Be available for office hours.
Part of a quality teacher–student relationship is being available and responsive to students’ needs. Even if you plead with students to talk with you in your office or after class, there are sometimes barriers that often prevent students from seeking help. One such barrier is scheduling. Make sure you hold regular office hours, but remain flexible enough to meet a student by appointment at a time that works for him or her. If you can’t arrange to meet at a different time, arrange to meet right after class or correspond via email. Another barrier is lack of information. Make sure students know where your office is and how they can reach you. Include this information on the syllabus, clearly marked. Though these steps might not guarantee more one-on-one interactions, they will allow students access to your individual guidance, should they need it.
9. Use comments to provide feedback.
You might be thinking that there’s no way you have the time to provide one-on-one feedback to your students. But even if you can’t arrange for face-to-face interaction on an individual basis, you can still provide tailored feedback through comments on students’ work. This could be in the form of written comments on reports, essays, and presentations, or it could be provided online—a medium that offers convenience and accessibility to teachers and students alike.
Build an open-communication, multi-modal learning environment.
10. Encourage open participation.
We often hear of the benefits of classroom participation, but how does this pedagogical tool affect student-teacher relationships? For one thing, it’s hard to relate to a lecturer who never allows feedback, challenging questions, or new ideas from his or her students.
Once you establish that no question is a stupid question and that true learning doesn’t arise from passivity, you can create a positive learning climate in which students aren’t afraid to contribute their ideas. Building group activities into a lesson or adding an online participation component can help your students engage with the material and discuss ideas with each other.
11. Use online learning environments.
Maybe the constant war over students’ attention—away from their smartphones and onto the curriculum—isn’t best served by confiscating said technology and using it to make long-distance calls to Europe (as one of my previous professors threatened). A better solution to redirecting students’ technology obsession is online learning platforms.
Use online forums to open new avenues of course-related dialogue for students who are too shy to speak in class. Create questions that invite students to relate the material to their own lives and spheres of knowledge. Keep an eye on these threads to make sure the conversation stays on track, and use students’ questions and salient points as teachable moments. Your responses in these online forums can show students that you value their ideas and care about their learning outcomes.
12. Provide additional resources.
In addition to online forums, using online courses or other materials can invest in students’ knowledge and show your interest in their transferrable skills. For instance, Inklyo’s GrammarCamp for Classrooms helps teach English grammar in a way that is engaging, using interactive activities and quizzes to drive points home. Giving your students access to such online resources is a great way to supplement your curriculum and help you meet your students’ needs effectively.
13. Make teaching and learning fun!
How you teach is, perhaps, just as important as what you teach. You don’t have to be a stand-up comedian, but incorporating a bit of humor, storytelling, positivity, and enthusiasm in your subject can make all the difference in establishing a positive learning environment.
Following these guidelines will help you connect with your students to create the best environment for learning. You might have all the resources available in the world, but failing to show interest in your students or behaving in an inconsistent manner may damage your chances of building positive teacher–student relationships. Enrich students’ learning by respecting their social and emotional needs, which are just as important as their intellectual ones.
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