We all know that having a positive relationship with your students is a cornerstone to a great educational paradigm for everyone involved. But it’s easier said than done.
Having a positive relationship with your students is beneficial on so many levels that I’m not even going to list them all here. It’s one of those things that everyone tells you to develop, particularly during your teacher training and beginning teacher years. Exactly how you go about building and maintaining your teacher-student relationships will largely depend on your personality, but there are a few key things that will help you along the way. Just remember that they are your students, not your friends and not your family – that professional line must always be present!
Know Their Name
Obvious, but so hard to do sometimes. We’re all human, and we all forget names – especially when you’re a secondary teacher with over 100 individual students to get to know. Allow yourself to take time to get to know everyone’s names, and don’t be afraid to look up their name and picture in your school system, or simply ask them outright if you forget. Be open and honest with your ability to remember names (I personally suck at it, and tell my students so).
You can try some tricks to remembering names, a quick Google search will give you lots of guidance there, but for me nothing really seems to work except repetition and time.
It’s important to know your students first and last name, but also to know what name they would prefer to be called by. They might be Edward on their birth certificate, but actually go by Eddie. I’ve even seen a Jonathon go by Rob for some unknown reason – everyone had always just called him that.
Your students might not like their name, they might have a cultural name, or they might be gender non-conforming, so it’s very important to ask them outright if they have a name they want you to use that is different to the one listed on the paperwork. If you are unsure about this, particularly in relation to cultural and gender-based naming, speak with the appropriate person at your school about it (year coordinator, guidance officer, deputy, etc).
On that note, also be sure to ask about preferred pronouns – students are becoming more comfortable with being open about their gender identities, and it is vitally important to respect their choices in this regard. The way you treat such students in your classroom sets the tone for the rest of the class to follow.
Know Something About Them As A Person
Again, easier said than done, especially if you have a large number of students to know. It doesn’t have to be their life story and everything about them – in fact, that might be a little bit creepy. Rather, try and have one piece of random knowledge about each student. It will help you with making them more comfortable with you as their teacher, and give you real-life links for your curriculum delivery.
Think things like their favourite music genre, if they have siblings or pets, who lives with them at home, outside of school sporting/acting/music commitments, general interests or hobbies.
I also like to give my students similar information about me – I tell them the names of my husband and child, the type of music I like to listen to, what games I’m currently playing or shows I’m currently watching. It’s nothing over-the-top personal, but allows them to see me as a human being as well as their teacher. I’ve had many great conversations with students about shared interests and hobbies, particularly the more difficultly behaved students – they are often looking for a genuine human connection with someone they feel they can trust, and allowing them a glimpse of your human side helps build that.
Greet Them As They Enter The Room
This doesn’t mean you have to go all Insta-worthy with a personalised handshake for every single student. If you have the time and energy for this, go for it – I personally would rather not make that much physical contact with my students!
The schools I’ve worked at all have the same room-entry requirement – students line up outside the room with their equipment ready to go, and enter the room when invited to do so by the teacher. I will always stand outside the room to do this, checking the students have the right equipment and uniform so that any issues can be resolved before we start the lesson.
As they come into your room, greet them individually or in small groups. It doesn’t have to be by name, but simply making eye contact, smiling, nodding, saying good morning/afternoon or hello – they’re all small but personal words and actions that show the students you are present and ready to go for the lesson. If you have time, you could ask one or two students a quick question about their latest interest/hobby, or a small friendship group about their weekend etc.
Doing this is also the perfect opportunity for you to gauge your students before the lesson begins. If you are eyeballing each student as they enter the room, you’ll quickly pick up if someone seems a bit off (see next point), and how the class dynamic seems overall.
Notice When They Are Off
Everyone has off days – I don’t mean physically absent, but emotionally or mentally not-my-usual-self days.
If a student is usually happy, and one lesson they aren’t, you could take a moment to check in on them. It doesn’t mean prying, or trying to be their friend, just checking to make sure they are ok.
Sometimes they will want to talk to you about what’s going on, and this is a great opportunity to build up that relationship if time permits and it is appropriate to do so. Be careful with this though, as it may be more appropriate to refer the student to the guidance officer or year coordinator, for example. Also try not to let it overtake your lesson – perhaps it would be best to get the rest of the class started on an activity, and come back for a chat, or defer the chat until after class. If it’s something that is appropriate for you to help with, by all means go ahead, but if you’re ever unsure or it even remotely feels a bit wrong, get assistance from higher up – this is essential to keep both you and the student safe, protected, and not crossing any professional boundaries.
More often then not they won’t want to tell you what’s going on, and that’s also perfectly ok. Judge the situation and offer a water/toilet break if appropriate, or a chance to visit the guidance officer etc. Sometimes the best option is to acknowledge their mood, then leave them be for the rest of the lesson. Recognise that they might not engage as fully as you’d like, and perhaps don’t call on them to answer questions. If this behaviour is very out of character, or continues on for a few lessons, make sure you report it appropriately so the right people can perform the right checks.
Practice Positive Reinforcement
It’s so easy to notice and respond to poor behaviour and at the same time all but ignore good behaviour. Good behaviour is essentially following the rules and expectations, so we don’t give it a lot of conscious thought when it’s going right, simply because that’s exactly what the students should be doing. But we should be noticing, and we should be praising. Everyone likes to be praised for doing something good or right, so make sure you take time to notice and acknowledge when your students are doing good.
We tend to notice and reward/praise good behaviour in challenging students more often than we do in less-challenging students. It’s far easier to notice that Little Johnny was on time to class with all his equipment for the first time this year than it is to consciously notice the 25 other students who have been on time with all their equipment every single lesson. We also tend to praise those who excel far more than those who don’t, even when they may be achieving higher than they have before (this applies to academic outcomes as well as behaviour).
We need to move towards fair and even praise, especially among those students who tend to get overlooked because they aren’t the top of the class and they also aren’t the trouble-makers. One school I worked at called them the ‘invisible children’ – the ones who fly under the radar because of their ability to follow the rules and also not be exceptional at their work. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, I mean not everyone can be gifted/talented academically, so take time to notice and praise these students as well when they are doing the right thing.
Positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be limited to behaviour or academic outcome either – you can praise a good mood, a good attitude, learning a new skill, using equipment correctly, drawing a stellar graph – pretty much anything that you like!
If this is something you know you struggle with (it was for me!), try setting yourself a little goal of praising one thing each lesson, and a different student each time. Eventually when you can remember to do that consistently, you’ll find it easy to up the number slowly to 5 or 10 per lesson, or as many as you like. Eventually it will become second nature to notice and comment or act on the good that your students are doing, and they will appreciate it far more than you might realise.
Be Firm But Fair
Something I’ve noticed in my teaching time is that the most respected teachers are those who are firm, fair, and consistent. Students appreciate boundaries (even if they don’t ‘like’ them) and are very quick at picking up on teachers and situations where they can get away with poor behaviours and lowered expectations. And for the majority of students, if they can get away with something, you can bet they will do it.
Make sure you are following your school behaviour management policy closely. This is especially pertinent if you are a beginning teacher or new to the school. The older students will know the expectations and procedures inside out, and if they see that you disregard them, they will too. Even if it’s a rule you don’t personally agree with, it’s not up to you to change it. Follow the processes and procedures, even in the most relaxed lessons – that’s the ‘firm’ part of this equation.
The ‘fair’ part comes into play pretty logically. If two students are talking when they shouldn’t be, your reprimand/discipline should be the same for both students, not just one (unless it is clearly a one-sided engagement). You might notice a challenging student and a not-challenging student off task – respond to both in the same way. Try not to focus all your negative attention on the same individuals all the time. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in one or two students who are always misbehaving that you ignore the misbehaviour of other students. You need to be have the same expectations of all your students, regardless of how challenging or not they are.
‘Fair’ also means following the behaviour policy carefully, and getting advice and help when you need it. This helps ensure you aren’t overreacting to any particular student or any particular behaviour in an unfair manner. Don’t be afraid to discuss issues with your colleagues – no one will think less of you for seeking support and guidance.
The last part of this one is ‘consistent’ – if you’re constantly changing your expectations, your students will never know whether they are doing the right thing or not. If you let them get away with a behaviour one lesson, then give them detention for the exact same thing the next lesson, you can consider your trust all but gone. Children and teenagers (well, all people really) appreciate knowing exactly where they stand with you, so if you’re always doing things a bit differently they will never be very comfortable with you.
Interact Outside The Classroom
If you are on playground duty, so see some of your students as you walk through the school at other times, make sure to acknowledge them. Similar to the section above about greeting them at the door, this doesn’t have to be a full on conversation – a smile or a quick hello is still a great positive interaction.
If you have a little more time and are so inclined, you can definitely initiate some small-talk. Ask them how they’re going today, or about the game their playing – whatever might be appropriate at the time. Once I had playground duty on the basketball courts, so I asked some of my boys to teach me how to shoot. It was a great few minutes out of my usual duty routine, and they talked about it for weeks after and even asked me again next time if I wanted to shoot hoops with them some more.
If your students spot you first and greet you, make sure you respond, and positively. If they want to stop and have a chat, make the time for them, even if you’re busy. Never brush them off – if you really don’t have time or don’t feel like that interaction right now, suggest they walk with you to your destination and talk on the way, or apologise as you would to a colleague and offer to chat later. This shows your students that you value their time and conversation, which in turn is valuing them as a person.
Treat Them As People
This flows on nicely from the last point. Your students are real, live, actual human beings, with all the emotions and complexities that come with it. Sometimes it’s easy to forget this in amongst the administrative tasks, endless to-do-lists, and disciplinary actions that our day-to-day needs.
You really have no idea what’s going on in their lives (unless it’s been disclosed to you). There’s a nice motivational going around at the moment about ‘be kind, you don’t know what they’re facing behind closed doors’. It rings particularly true for teenagers – something that might be no big deal to you could be a world-altering deal for them.
Be aware of cultural differences, privilege, marginalisation, and every form of -ism there is. You can guarantee at least one of those things is affecting each and every single student you teach. You don’t need to find out what they all are, or how they are affecting your students, just be aware that there will be something there.
Your students will make mistakes. Let them. It’s part of being human, and an even bigger part of growing into an adult. Correct the mistake, model how they could correct it themselves, then move on. Don’t linger on any particular mistake, don’t refer to it again unless pertinent or necessary, and don’t let it overshadow the student as a whole.
Don’t expect absolute silence and obedience at all times. Again, and I can’t reiterate this enough, your students are human. We all need chances to talk, to move about, to let our attention wander briefly. If they are working effectively, why not let them have side-chats at the same time? If it’s an activity they can do anywhere, why not try doing it outside, or sitting wherever in the room they like? Variety is the spice of life after all. Of course this depends on the dynamics of your class, but do try to vary things up every now and then – your students will appreciate the variety and your trust in them.
Don’t Take Poor Behaviour Personally
Most teenagers (and almost all children) don’t have the emotional maturity for politeness when they are in a bad mood. Don’t be surprised if they snap at you, push boundaries, or otherwise behave poorly from time to time. Even the best students will have bad days. And like the good old cliche – it’s not you, it’s me. Unless you have done something to piss them off, you are likely seeing the outcome of some previous issues from earlier in the day.
The best thing you can do for yourself and your students is to respond, and not react, when poor behaviour does occur. It’s unlikely that the behaviour is purely to spite you, so try to remember that. Follow your behaviour management policy, and move on. Don’t harp on about the behaviour, don’t be on the lookout for it to happen again, just respond appropriately and move on.
If it turns out that it is purely to spite you (perhaps the student even ‘hates’ you for whatever reason) then you need to tread carefully. I would recommend getting advice and guidance from higher up – either the year coordinator, counsellor, deputy etc. The ideal situation would be to rebuild (or build from scratch) a positive relationship with the student, so that instances of such behaviour lessen. This might mean learning some of their back story, seeing how they interact with other teachers and students, seeing if there are any support provisions in place, even sitting down and having a (probably mediated) chat with the student and/or their parents about the situation. The worst thing you can do is sink to their level and respond in kind when they are acting out.
Above All Else, Use Kindness In All Interactions
This is something I’ve written about on numerous occasions. Kindness needs to be at the core of your interactions with your students.
In fact, it’s the key thing students want from their teachers. You don’t know what your students are dealing with outside your classroom – it could be an abusive home life, illness in the family, friendship dramas, poverty, identity changes… the list in endless. If you can keep kindness at the forefront of your interactions, your students will notice.