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5 Keys to Establishing a Healthy Teacher-Student Relationship

5 keys to establishing healthy student teacher relationships

Focus on building strong relationships with your students first.

It's not easy to establish a balanced teacher-student relationship. Teachers who are too concerned with being liked can compromise their authority, while those who come off as brusque or uncaring will never get the most out of their students.

Ms. C., a high school math teacher I work with, has achieved such a balance, in spite of the fact that she's only a few years older than many of her students. How can you replicate her success? Here are some ways to establish a healthy, respectful teacher-student relationship.

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1. Establish Respect First

A veteran teacher offered me one stern piece of advice when I was first starting out: "Don't smile until Christmas." This advice was misguided (you definitely should crack a smile long before December rolls around), but I now have a much better understanding of the message she was trying to communicate.

Further reading: How to Earn Respect in the Classroom 

Teachers who start off trying to appear too nice convey the message that they're not authority figures. Ms. C. smiles constantly (even pre-holidays) and exudes a genuine kindness, but she isn't afraid to drop the pleasantness and be stern when necessary. Her students know she means business and respect her for it. They listen and learn from her because she establishes her purpose and authority from the start.

2. Enforce Your Rules

Watching Ms. C. teach is like watching a basketball referee. During her lessons, she calls out infractions as they occur, barely breaking her teaching stride. Our principal once observed that Ms. C. writes more discipline referrals than many other teachers, yet students consistently report that she's their favorite teacher.

Ms. C. doesn't let students get away with breaking her rules; she knows that not enforcing the rules is like giving students permission to break them. Unruly classrooms can make students feel anxious and insecure, but Ms. C.'s students feel confident knowing their teacher is in control.

3. Manage Cell Phone Use

These days, it's common to see classrooms filled with students using their cell phones during lessons. I've seen students in Ms. C.'s room using cell phones, but almost never while she's teaching. Allowing students to ignore you while you're teaching does not make you a "cool" teacher. It conveys a message that your curriculum doesn't matter.

Ms. C. is not overly strict, but she has established a culture where students understand that it's rude to use their phones while their teacher is teaching. Her lessons are fast-paced, keeping students on their toes so they aren't thinking about their phones. Since they like and respect Ms. C., they put their phones away.

4. Get to Know Your Students

Ms. C.'s students know she cares about them. She devotes time at the end of her class for unstructured conversations, and is often seen with students during her lunch period. The key is that Ms. C. schedules this time; she doesn't let her students disrupt her lessons or pull her off track while she's teaching. Students know Ms. C. cares deeply for them because she devotes the time to get to know them, but they also understand that she cares about their learning. In a teacher-student relationship, bonds grow in unstructured, casual settings. Ms. C. allows this to happen on her terms.

5. Use Good Judgment

Knowing what topics are and aren't appropriate with students can be tricky. Some students will test teachers to see what they can get away with. Others truly need someone to talk to. Students often report that Ms. C. is a great listener. I think it's generally wise to listen more than you talk, but use good judgment if you think the conversation is moving in a direction that is inappropriate. It's OK to tell a student that you're not comfortable with the conversation if the topic is moving into a gray area. As a mandated reporter, all teachers must let students know there are topics—such as self-harm, neglect, or abuse—that they are required to report.

Further reading: Controlling Your Classroom 

A healthy, nurturing teacher-student relationship is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. Following the example of teachers who have achieved this balance will help you become both liked and respected.