We teachers are not mere content-delivery mechanisms. Instead, the most important part of my job as I understand it is to build a helpful relationship with the student.
Over the years, this actually has been news to me. Honestly, I’ve got some shame around this because I want to be emotionally intelligent and like to think of myself as understanding of what people do. It was my big shortcoming as a teacher for a few years. I cared about my students – and I know they knew I cared – but I did not think of what we were doing as explicitly building a relationship of caring trust.
Today, I work explicitly and vocally to build relationships with my students. It is not something I allow to develop naturally and without intention. The natural building of trust happens, too, but there are steps we can take to hustle that process along. Here are a few things I’ve been working on in the last two or three years:
(1) Build class time around explicitly relationship-building activities. Even a two-minute clapping game or a seven-minute face-to-face listening exercise can help to foster that relationship of caring. I’m so lesson-oriented at times that I just don’t stop to think, “Maybe this student is struggling with choices today because she hasn’t had breakfast.” When I get a more solid grounding with the students, they can learn to speak their needs, and I can learn to take the time meet with them where they are emotionally and physically before we turn to the history of the French Revolution.
(2) Tell the students that you care. Then show them – repeatedly. We must say these things. I work hard to be the most authentically caring person they’ve met. Genuineness is my mission. They should think at first meeting, “Is it really possible that he cares about me as much as he says?” and then the student should at some point in the first month or two be absolutely certain that it’s 100% real. Sometimes, I’ve been not-so-great at communicating that I care, assuming that the people around me just know, saying to myself, “Actions speak louder than words.” That’s true if someone reads actions precisely as I do – but it helps to use my words to give them a road map to understand what my actions mean.
(3) Tell the parents you care. Then show them – repeatedly. This is a public relations thing. It’s really a PR thing because it’s important that parents understand exactly how much we care. This is about communicating to them what is true – not creating a false impression. It is critical that I say aloud and say repeatedly that I care and to show with intentional and explicit actions that I care. Let my first interactions with parents be positive, include questions like “What do I need to know about your student?” and “Acknowledging that other teachers are excellent and care a lot, what has been something that others have missed about your student along the way?” Getting parental buy-in is a way of building relationships with students because the goal is to build a net of security around them and their learning as best we can. If we don’t have full support of parents and aren’t likely to get it – that’s one thing that we can’t control – but often we can get more parent buy-in by being expressive about our intentions and communicating what actions we’re taking to make good on those intentions.
These three things. They and other action items like them are more important than delivering content. If the student doesn’t trust me, or if I fail to read where a student is living in their heads, personally – I cannot teach them anything at all.