I will never forget the first five minutes of my teaching career; I felt like I was little kitten staring down a den of ferocious lions. It was a grade ten math class and I was sure they could all tell that this was my first day teaching. All the lessons I had learned in my teacher’s pre-service training suddenly left me. What am I doing? I can’t teach. I’m too shy for this. They are going to eat me alive.
It took some getting used to, but eventually, I felt more comfortable. I’m not going to say everything went smoothly for the rest of the year, because it didn’t. I had some hard lessons to learn and a lot of professional development to undertake in order to make it through alive. My mentor was amazing but we had very different outlooks on life and that carried over to the classroom. It wasn’t until I started looking at the research in the area of student-teacher relationships and talking to some of my colleagues that the pieces started falling into place.
Eventually I implemented five techniques that allowed me to make some inroads with my students. I tried them in all my classrooms, but it was the grade ten math class that taught me the most. They were tough students and they wouldn’t let me get away with just doing the minimum. If I was going to gain their trust, I was going to have to work for it. These techniques helped me a lot and I still use them. They all come from research and although they sound like common sense, it is worth re-examining them because the most fundamental element of every classroom setting is the relationship between the students and the teacher.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT STUDENT-TEACHER RELATIONSHIPS?
That is a valid question. There is a tremendous amount of research that suggests a positive student-teacher relationship can impact students’ achievement in many areas including their academic achievement. Researchers for years have been touting the benefits of fostering positive student-teacher relationships, but often we forget to teach this concept to our new teachers. I did not hear one lecture given on this subject during my year at pre-service training. It wasn’t until a few weeks into my first semester that the concept was introduced to me by a more experienced teacher at my school. He told me that all the classroom management techniques in the world wouldn’t work if you haven’t made a connection with your students. He said when you shut your classroom door, it really boils down to just you and the students and how you interact.
From there, I delved headfirst into the research trying to find some techniques that I could try in my classrooms. It was really interesting for me to see what the researchers had to say about the importance of these relationships. One paper I read asserted that students who felt they had good relationships with their teachers were more likely to perform tasks asked of them (i.e., assignments) and were more motivated to learn. I was definitely having trouble in that area; it seemed as though my students would say they weren’t going to do the work before the assignments or tests were even handed out. I felt as if I had been misplacing my efforts in that I had spent the majority of my time planning my lessons instead of concentrating on interacting with the students.
One of the most interesting papers I read had to do with student-identified exemplary teachers. Just by reading the title I was excited, because that was how I wanted my students to consider me. In it, the authors asked these teachers what it was that made their students perceive them as exceptional. A recurring theme in their answers was that they cared about their students and they put a lot of time and effort into getting to know each one. It was hard for me to understand at first how this was possible when you can have up to ninety students in each semester, but I was starting to understand that once you make headway with a few students, there is a ripple effect; it suddenly becomes easier with the rest.
A third paper I read told the story of another first-year teacher. The new teacher describes a moment in which he looks out over the class and realizes that there are individuals looking back at him instead of his class being one singular entity. This idea of the class being composed of individuals rather than being a thing-unto- itself was an important concept for me to learn. Until then, I think I had been treating my class as one being instead of a group of individuals. It became a lot easier to deal with the class once I understood this idea.
MY FIVE-POINT ACTION PLAN
After reading through the research and talking with my colleagues, I settled on trying the five following techniques. It is by no means a comprehensive list of all the techniques that you could possibly use to foster positive student-teacher relationships, but rather a small smattering of techniques that worked for me. They may seem like old news when you first read them, but there might be something here that you can use in your own classroom, whether or not you are a new teacher.
Become involved with students outside classroom hours.
It can either be directly with the students in your classroom or less formally with other students in the school community. It could be as formal as coaching or heading up a student club or it could be less formal like watching them play sports. Personally, I like the atmosphere that comes with coaching a student team but I recognize that not all teachers feel comfortable taking on that role. Just spending time with the students in your classroom after class hours or during lunch can have the same effect. For instance, in my school we have a lunchtime math tutoring session which is hosted by a different math teacher each day of the week. This way, you get to know other students, not just the ones in your class.
Spend time learning personal information about each student.
Students appreciate and feel more comfortable and close to those teachers who get to know them as individuals. It can be hard to find the time to get to know every student you teach in a semester but the benefits far outweigh the effort it takes. Some examples of ways in which you can gather information about your students are communication journals, student interest questionnaires, or having personal conversations with them. I found the communication journals effective because sometimes it was hard to find time during the class to connect with each student, but I could always take a look at their journals outside classroom hours and respond in a meaningful way on my own time. At one point, my students would get annoyed with me if I hadn’t handed out their journals for a day or so. They were genuinely interested in seeing my responses to their comments.
Spend time telling the students about yourself.
This was the hardest part for me. I am naturally a very private person, so it took some effort to share information about my life outside of school. I found, however, that once I let them into my life a little, they started seeing me as a person as well as a teacher. Giving them information about yourself also makes it easier for the students to give you information about themselves. It minimizes the typical student-teacher hierarchy that can seem mountainous to many students. I also discovered that once students see you as a person, it becomes harder for them to act up in your classroom.
Become a warm demander.
I loved how one of the papers described a warm demander as a teacher who expects a lot from his or her students, both socially and academically. Such teachers insist that their students succeed, rather than merely believing they are capable of succeeding. Like most new teachers, I was teaching in the same way that I was taught, and the majority of my teachers had been fairly strict. The first week I tried hard to lay down some rules and heard the voices of my old teachers chanting the old slogan of “don’t show your teeth until Christmas” over and over again in my head. I was very serious those first weeks and I’m sure that the students in my class thought I was tough. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this method wasn’t going to work for me because I am not a naturally strict person and I was just coming off as mean and demanding. Once I read about the concept of the warm demander, it highlighted the idea that there is a balance between insisting that the students succeed and having a warm relationship with them.
Be flexible and change the lesson when it is not working.
I don’t know how many times in those first few weeks I looked out at my class and noticed that the majority of my students weren’t listening. It is a sickening feeling for teachers and one of the hardest parts of being a new teacher. I spent hours getting my lessons ready only to find that after about ten minutes, I was bombing. Again, I found myself teaching how I was taught with the teacher standing at the front delivering the lesson to the students. In my applied class, there were very few students who could learn this way. I learned to design my lessons so that they could be flexible. I started paying attention to the students’ level of achievement and would switch my lesson up when I felt them fading. Instead of me doing examples on the board, I asked students try them on the board, and rather than insisting that they sit and listen to me for the whole class, I had them work in groups where they could help each other.
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
I ended my first year on a high note. The second semester went a lot more smoothly for me because I used these techniques right from the beginning. I also found that once a group of students found that you were relatable, other students were more likely to give you a chance. That first semester, I earned my keep every day and was constantly tested by the students. I feel like I passed, but it came with a lot of hard work and dedication. It would have been easier to walk away and return to my career in engineering, but the first time a student told me that I was her favourite teacher and that she felt like I cared about all of the students, I melted. I knew I had made the right career choice and that all the work had been worth it.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Goodyear started her working career as a Computer Engineer but quickly realized education was a better fit for her. She is currently a secondary school teacher for the Grand Erie District School Board and is working on her Masters of Education at Brock University.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2011 issue.