Five Ways to Strengthen Classroom Connections That Lead to Student Success
On April 25, 2015, Texas high school teacher, Shanna Peeples won the National Teacher of the Year Award. The next day, she was interviewed on CBS This Morning where she spoke eloquently about vital issues in teaching. But one of her responses stood out more than all the rest: “It’s important to make a relationship with every kid you have,” she said. “That’s the first and best lesson you can learn as a teacher.”
Good teaching and learning experiences are grounded in good relationships. Building those relationships in the classroom day after day is hard work. Building relationships remotely is even harder. But given the isolation you and your students are enduring right now, it’s probably more important than ever.
Here are five suggestions about things you can do to enhance your relationships with your students and help them enhance their relationships with each other as well.
1. Define “Good”
We all have a natural, intuitive sense of what good relationships are and how they feel to us. But because these feelings are natural and intuitive, we don’t often think about them explicitly. As a result, it’s possible over the course of a school year to lose our sense from time to time about exactly what we mean by “good” when we talk about good relationships. The first step in connecting with our implicit feelings is to make those feelings explicit by defining in concrete language those aspects of relationships that mean the most to us.
This is a simple and valuable activity that involves a whole class discussion about the traits of good relationships defined in language you and your students understand. Words like “trusting”, “encouraging”, “supportive”, “kind”, “helpful”, and “compassionate” will likely top your list. But other words will come up too. Words that come from your students may surprise you and give you insight into the emotional experiences they need most during difficult times.
In addition to naming these traits of good relationships, providing definitions and examples for added clarity will help you and your students turn language into action that will, over time, improve the way everyone treats everyone else. Your list will also provide a way to refocus your students, as well as yourself, on the qualities of good relationships you may lose touch with from time to time.
2. Move from Monolog to Dialog
It isn’t hard by mid-year to know how individual students are feeling, especially those students who may be hurting more than others. And, of course, our hearts go out to them. At the same time, other kids who may appear to be doing fine, often struggle in subtler ways that we would easily notice if we saw them in class, but that are harder to figure out in remote environments and even hybrid approaches.
Having kids journal, especially based on your classroom definition of good relationships, is a great way to encourage them to share experiences and express feelings. But the real value in journaling is when you chime in, too, forming a dialog with your kids that draws them out by expressing your curiosity and caring in what they have to say. This is where dialog journals can be a powerful tool for understanding more accurately what each student in your classroom needs.
Responding to many journals may seem like an overwhelming task, but it needn’t be. Most kids need only the simplest comments to know you’re there, listening to them, responding with curiosity in a single question or simple sentence. And you don’t have to respond to every student every day or even to every concern they may express. A single question or compassionate comment is often all that is needed to show kids that you are there for them, that you care about their individual concerns, that you know how they feel, and that you have a personal understanding of what they are going through. After several back-and-forths, patterns will emerge. This will lead you to know exactly what each student needs.
3. “We Miss You”
It doesn’t take a trained psychologist to tell us that by this time in the year, we are all reaching our limits when it comes to remote learning. Tragically, this has contributed to many kids, especially in the high school grades, “dropping out”, not in the sense of leaving school, but in the sense of leaving the classroom by not showing up. This is understandable, but also alarming; it is also perhaps the biggest warning sign that some kids are missing out on even the most basic connections to you and to the school community.
There’s a tendency we all have to reach out, again and again, often through brief text messages, to try and contact these kids and bring them back into their learning lives. But the messages we send them, however well-intended, aren’t always the most effective. To us, they are expressions of caring, but kids may interpret them critically as unwelcome reminders, criticisms, or statements of obligation.
Each kid who drops out is a mystery. We can’t possibly know what drives them to make this decision. But there is one message we can send that is highly unlikely to be misinterpreted and that probably comes as close as any other to expressing the truth of how we feel: “We miss you.” When you can attach specific behaviors or other contributions to the student’s role in the classroom community, the message is even more powerful. What’s more, because the message is about you and how you feel, it cannot be easily dismissed by the student.
4. Share What We Share
To our students, we are models: models of authority, models of inspiration, models of conduct. We are also models of emotional self-mastery. But this doesn’t mean we are immune from the same negative feelings our students struggle with, especially when it comes to relationships during this difficult time.
Perhaps the most powerful relationship-strengthening skill is that of exhibiting empathy, that feeling of being in someone else’s shoes, of understanding their emotions because we feel them, too. We empathize well with our students, but we don’t always think to let them empathize with us.
Because we truly are all in this together, it’s likely that the challenges you are experiencing with relationships in your life are similar to the challenges your students are facing. For the most part, these may have to do with feelings of isolation, of restrictions from your favorite social activities, and of simple loneliness as we so rarely get to spend time in the presence of our dearest friends and family members.
Within the bounds of appropriateness for the school setting, share the relationship challenges you are having. Communicate to kids that you know exactly how they feel because you are experiencing the same things. Then go one step further. As adults, we have more strategies at our disposal for dealing constructively with these feelings, some of which could be useful to our students. Sharing the challenges you share with your kids builds bonds based on the shared sacrifices we are all making right now. Sharing solutions to these demands builds bonds of collective, communal support for our mutual challenges.
5. Accentuate the Positive
Despite the dangers and difficulties we have all been facing for nearly a year now, life isn’t entirely bleak, especially when it comes to some of the most important relationships in our lives. Many people report a greater appreciation of family relationships, in particular. We also encounter a kinder, more compassionate, more generous world as we interact with people in our communities who provide us with the essential services we need to live our lives.
Let’s not forget that it is precisely times like these, times of great communal hardship, that bring out the best in us. Our history is full of such examples, as the positive elements of our present-day experiences. Focus your students on these positive elements. In terms of stronger relationships, what good has come of this massive change in societal patterns? Much has. You see the big patterns. But those big patterns show up in the lives of your students in little ways that they may not be noticing.
Using your influence as a model for your students, share with them your appreciation for the relationships in your life that have grown stronger in these past months. Share with them, too, why you think those relationships have strengthened. Encourage your students to do the same. What you’ll all likely find is that the reasons these relationships have improved can be described in the very language you’ve used in your classroom to define good relationships. Focus on support, in particular. Support is the essence of what you provide your students every day and what they can provide to each other. Bringing the idea of mutual support together in recognition of the good that can emerge will increase the capacity of your classroom community to strengthen and sustain the relationships we all depend on.
Our Most Important Relationships
There is one relationship in your classroom that is more important than any other: your relationship with yourself. When you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s hard to bring good feelings to school each day to nurture good relationships with your students. The same is true of you students.
This year, the notion of how we’re all doing in school has a different meaning, a meaning that goes far beyond grades and other typical achievements. The big win for all of us this year is in how we feel—about ourselves first and others second. It’s doubtful that any of us—teachers or students—are performing at our best this year. But many of us are participating well, bringing positive attitudes to school each day, helping others, being supportive, courageous, and steadfast.
The essence of a strong relationship is how well we participate within it. Look at your kids in terms of their participation. How are they contributing to the well-being of others and to the classrooms as a whole? You may not be able to record this in your grade book. But you can certainly record it in words of praise you offer to your students. And to yourself as well.