Building Strong Teacher-Student Relationships

Post #2 in a written conversation series between husband (PhD and first year high school English teacher) and wife (NBCT English teacher w/11 years in HS classroom and currently trying to impact the profession from outside the classroom)

In our last conversation, Chris, you referenced the stress of always having “to be on” as you maintain classroom order and you even acknowledged classroom management being a non-issue in your college classrooms. Since classroom management tends to be a big concern for first year teachers, I’d say you are not alone in your pursuit to determine the best way to maintain an environment conducive to learning. In fact, I remember my early classroom days well at Cherokee when I entered my first high school teaching assignment to teach a class that had been taught by a substitute for several weeks before I was hired. I had been warned of potential chaos and was told to be prepared. Well, I was prepared as I could be, and I also knew that my approach to classroom management would be based on building relationships with the students. Equipped with my student teaching experience in a Foxfire program, I knew I needed to learn as much as I could about my students and their lives because that would be the best means for ensuring an environment where we could all learn. Five years later, my reputation as a teacher who cared and held high expectations was well established, just in time for us to move to Kentucky and for me to begin at a new high school. Again, I was warned that the students could be unruly, and again, I planned for learning about my students and for building relationships. From reading their personal narratives, to attending the football games and school plays, I made it my job to know my students so that we could all learn together.

It’s exciting for me to see you taking this same approach. Instead of ruling with an iron fist/Dr. Boss knows everything approach,  I see you spending time getting to know your students and building relationships with them, and I’m encouraged because all the best teachers I have ever known use this positive approach. Clearly, it’s much more complex than just building relationships, but this is an important first start.

So, yes, I think that I don’t know as much about Dewey as I should, but I totally buy into the pragmatic philosophy of life and teaching. That is, to be very pedestrian about the whole thing, I do what I see will be the most practical way to get my students engaged. In the climate that I teach, that involves showing them that I care about what is most important to them. So, my students are super involved in school sports. To show them my interest, I had them sign my shirt on the Friday of a game with the cross town rival. I’ve worn the shirt since then, and the students made comments suggesting that they really liked being able to do that. They got the sense that I cared and that I was willing to get over myself for the sake of their self-expression. I mean, who really wants to walk around with a shirt filled with student signatures. You get funny looks in public. But, it was totally worth it because I believe it helped me build relationships with them.

I’ve also found that being able to reference rap lyrics has been effective in building street cred with my students. I quoted Notorious B.I.G. the other day and I heard side comments like--”man, he even quotes the lyrics.” So, it’s just a way to connect. And students at this age need to know that you can and WILL connect with them.

In addition to your willingness to go to great lengths to build relationships, even when it means doing fun and silly things sometimes, I also enjoy hearing you tell me stories each evening of times you tell your students they have to read texts carefully and write essays because you care about their education. I believe your high expectations are also earning you a deeper respect from your students.

They often enter class and sigh when I tell them we have work to do. Work I assign isn’t a set of worksheets; rather, it’s work that causes them make connections and think for a while. One day last week, they said, “C’mon Boss! You’re killing us. It’s Free Friday.”  I said, “Oh, my bad. I’m really sorry that I really care about your education and that you develop your mind.” I said that and I saw a couple look at each other and say something like “man, this guy’s funny.” I think the students want to know that we aren’t assigning work just because it’s “school.” They are really interested in knowing that what we are assigning is meaningful. And, so, if we are truly engaged in the work, and if we only assign work that is meaningful, I think they ultimately get that and on some level appreciate it--even if they come across as uninterested and “too cool for school.”

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