You've heard it before: the way to reach your students, help them achieve, solve classroom management issues, and create a healthy classroom environment is to build relationships with them. And it's absolutely true. Building strong relationships with students can help them develop academically and socially, according to the American Psychological Association.
But how do you forge real relationships without seeming awkward or insincere? Here are six tips that can help.
Further Reading: 5 Keys to Establishing a Healthy Teacher-Student Relationship
1. Spend 1-On-1 Time with a Student
I'm a huge fan of spending one-on-one time with students, especially those who struggle with behavioral issues. In large classrooms, in particular, students often feel lost and that their voices aren't heard. During one-on-one time, a student has the teacher's full attention. Because they don't feel compelled to perform for other students, they'll usually speak honestly.
It's important to structure one-on-one meetings so that they're conversational and pleasant—not punitive. I'll ask a student about their family, what's going on in their life, how they're feeling about the work in my class. Because we've fostered a stronger connection, students are almost always less likely to act out in class after these meetings.
2. Look for Something to Comment On
Another strategy is the two-by-ten approach. This involves a teacher having a personal conversation with a student about something the student is interested in for just two minutes every day for 10 consecutive days. There's only one caveat: the conversation can't be about school or behavior. I've tried this with students and can attest to its remarkable effectiveness.
Something as simple as commenting on a student's T-shirt can open a door to a relationship. Students often wear clothing from their favorite sports teams or musicians; remarking on their interests can lead to an easy conversation. Talk to them about your favorite sports team, or ask questions about the artwork or stickers on their laptop. Even the smallest detail can help you build strong relationships with your students.
I recently struck up a conversation with a very shy student who was wearing the new Nike Blazer sneaker by showing him a photo of me in the original shoe back in 1981. We're now friends for life! Students are happy when a teacher shows a genuine interest in them. This is an easy and natural way to break the ice and form a connection.
3. Develop an Interest in Their Interests
Music has always been my go-to for connecting to my students, but understanding and learning about any student's interest or favorite activity can help you build relationships.
Breni and Marco were two very quiet young men in my class who did the bare minimum of work and often goofed off. I felt like I just couldn't reach them. Then one day I overheard the boys talking about airsoft, a game they described as "running around and shooting one another with plastic bullets from BB guns with less air pressure." Marco assured me that the game, which is played on indoor and outdoor fields, is heavily regulated to make sure no one gets seriously injured. The boys regaled me with their airsoft adventures—and, honestly, they did sound exciting. Throughout the term, I chatted with the boys about their airsoft military maneuvers. I had no further problems engaging them, and their work and behavior improved.
Today's students have many interests, such as Fortnite and Dungeons & Dragons. When you show students that you respect their extracurricular interests by learning and asking questions about them, you can build strong and meaningful connections with hard-to-reach kids.
4. Share Your Stories
Storytelling is one of the easiest ways to connect with students. My students find stories about former students particularly compelling. They love hearing about students who sat at the same desks where they sit now.
As an English teacher, I use personal stories to help my students understand difficult literary concepts, such as symbolism and allusion. My prom night horror stories make my students laugh—and they help to humanize their teacher.
I also often use stories about my own educational struggles to help my students see how important it is to persevere. My teacher friend Jacqui once took a test nine times before passing it. Sharing that story with her students helps them understand that challenges are just part of the journey to success.
5. Have a Sense of Humor
Do not believe the old adage that you shouldn't smile till December. Students need to laugh, and you can have fun while still maintaining strong classroom management. My friend Bill is a master at this. That he's able to laugh at himself, make jokes, and use light-hearted sarcasm in the classroom helps him build relationships with his high school students. His students adore him.
Humor can go a long way toward tearing down walls and building classroom solidarity. I love playfully pranking my students, telling jokes I know will have them howling, and even sharing a funny YouTube video to lighten the mood. Playing games can also be enjoyable. I do a literary term relay with my students that usually has them rolling on the floor with laughter. There's no reason for fun and learning to be mutually exclusive.
6. Attend Student Events
Over my 24-year teaching career, I've learned that one tried-and-true way of building relationships with students is to attend their events. Students love seeing their teacher at their sporting events, speech and debate competitions, and drama productions. This also gives you something to talk about. You can say, "Wow, that goal you scored in the third period was unbelievable!" or "Your performance on the drill team was outstanding." Trust me—you can create an instant bond by showing respect for your students' extracurricular activities.
Further Reading: 4 Communication Tools to Energize the Parent-Teacher Relationship
Keep this list handy this school year, because when you build relationships in the classroom, students work harder, behavioral issues disappear, and school becomes a much happier place—for student and teacher.