6 Best Practices for Building Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

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“It is teachers who have created positive teacher-student relationships that are more likely to have above average effects on student achievement.”John Hattie

Chances are you didn’t need Hattie or any researcher telling you about the importance of student-teacher relationships.

As a first year teacher, I somewhat smugly felt when it came to student-teacher relationships, “You either have it, or you don’t.” It seemed as if I had good relationships with my students.

But was I bonding with EVERY student?

I soon realized building relationships with ALL students requires specific and purposeful strategies and actions. This is especially true for students who enter our classrooms thinking and expecting the worst. They hate school; hate everything about it. For a student who doesn’t like school, a strong relationship with a teacher is a game changer.

1. Get to know your students and accept them for who they are. 

  • At the beginning of the year, students and their families complete a questionnaire in which I ask some basic questions, “What are your/your child’s strengths? What are your/your child’s areas that you would like to improve? What else would you like me to know?” While some information was superficial, many offer vital nuggets.
  • On the first day I also ask students to write on an index card several tidbits including, “What are 3 things most people don’t know about you?” The answers to this question vary from favorite ice cream flavors to phobias to amazingly personal information. Over the next couple of days, I study the cards and use the information to initiate conversations with students.
  • Do everything you can to get to know each student’s story. Not until you know their families, their goals, their interests, their cultures, etc. will you truly know who you’re teaching and how to help each student reach his/her potential.
  • Only look for the best in each student. Be that teacher that defends every student when other teachers or the parents are negative.

2. Set high expectations for all students.

  • As educators, we have a tremendous ability to shape how students see themselves. When we tell them they’re good at something, they believe us. Conversely, when a student earns a poor grade, most student internalize this as “I’m not smart,” or “I’m no good at…” None of us would want to go to a job where you’re told, “you stink,” everyday. We must support students by recognizing their efforts and their progress.
  • Instead of giving poor grades, give Not Yets–you haven’t mastered it yet, but together we’ll get you there.
  • Recognize each student’s potential and their differences. Don’t treat and expect the same from every student. We can’t rely on state standards. For some, the standard is achievable on day 1, but for others meeting the standard might not be attainable.
  • Teach in multiple ways to allow student differences and strengths to emerge. Narrowly defined lessons and activities limit opportunities for students to show their different abilities.
Engage all learners

3. Be empathetic and teach empathy.

  • Classrooms must be safe places for all students. Strive to create a class culture where everyone cares for and supports everyone else.
  • Give voice to each student and to recognize and celebrate differences. It’s equally important to emphasize shared values and common interests. I always adopted a “We’re all Falcons (insert name of your school mascot). We’re all in this together.”

4. Be positive and energetic.

  • Be passionate. Undoubtedly, we all have to teach lessons that we may not find very interesting. For me, it’s mythology. Fake the passion! I want every student to believe that mythology is my favorite thing to teach.
  • Set the tone early and often by greeting students at the door with a personalized, non-academic question (Building Rapport with Students: 10 Reasons to Greet Students at the Door).
  • Brag about your students. Perhaps nowhere is social media more powerful than in this regard. Even if students aren’t on social media, they’ll feel better about themselves and you if they see you tweeting or posting about their exploits and accomplishments.
  • Smile.
  • Make positive phone calls and send home positive post cards.

5. Build trust.

  • Show your own vulnerability. I’m a horrible artist and singer, but whenever the opportunity presented itself I would draw or sing. Not only was it good for a laugh or two (I actually give  students 1-minute after my performances to make fun of me and reward the best comment–as voted on by their peers).
  • Take risks and share with students. Rarely do I use the same lesson from year-to-year. Sometimes the tweaks are minor but sometimes it’s a total overhaul. For new lessons, I’d share with students that this is a new lesson. It may or may not be great. At the end of the lesson though, I’m going to ask you what you thought about it. As a teacher, I constantly sought out feedback from my students.

 6. Be you.  

  • One of the first activities for my students was to create a notebook cover, but before doing so, I share my own with them. It gives them a glimpse of who I am, what I like and what I don’t like.
  • Whenever possible, share appropriate personal stories with your students. As a high school educator with a pretty boring personal life, there’s really not too much that’s off-limits.
  • Students have an innate ability to detect “fakeness.” Be confident of who you are and don’t try to be something you’re not.

Building student-teachers relationships is an intentional act. It doesn’t just happen. Everything from your personality, to how you set up your classroom, to your lessons, and to your family communication shape your ability to build meaningful and everlasting relationships with your students.

Remember, you must reach their hearts and souls before you reach their minds. 

What are some strategies you use to build relationships with students?

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Reed Gillespie

Reed is a longtime educator and coach, who is passionate about progressive learning and 21st-century assessment practices. Read more of his work here. "I'm a co-moderator of #VAchat, a Twitter conversation for Virginia (and non-Virginian) educators that meets Monday's at 8 ET. Most importantly, I'm a father of four wonderful children and a couple grandchildren. In my free time, I enjoy cooking, reading, sports and, of course, spending time with family."

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