Student/Teacher Relationships: Build Them and They Will Learn

Students choose from whom they will learn. A strong teacher-student relationship is an essential foundation for creating a warm, welcoming classroom community that can function throughout the entire school year. Building relationships is important to me because I want that strong foundation. I want to let all of my students know that I value each and every one of them as a contributing member of our class community. Research supports the notion that strong relationships correlate with higher achievement. Teacher-student relationships have an effect size of .0.72, where 0.40 is the hinge point of one years’ academic growth, according the meta-analysis of research by John Hattie in his Visible Learning series. Teacher credibility has an effect size of 0.90. Without a good relationship, teacher credibility will suffer.

I isolated four strategies I use that promote strong teacher/student relationships. Perhaps one of these strategies will be useful to you or spark your thinking to improve a strategy for your own use.

Pre-planning Communication

Teacher supply stores have  a variety of inexpensive “Welcome Back to School” postcards. I am a 25 year veteran teacher, and I have sent a welcome postcard to every child on my roster during pre-planning for all those years.  And every year, one or more students brings that card with him/her to Open House or on the first day of school to tell me, “I got this card from you.”

Morning Greeting

Every morning my teacher greets me good.” Jesus, my fifth grade student, wrote in a recent article. I think Jesus meant to write my teacher greets me ‘good morning.’ Then as reflected on it, I really like thinking that I greet all my students ‘good’ every morning. Jesus’ comment made me feel like I have been successful in laying the foundation for high academic achievement.

One of the easiest ways to build a solid relationship is to greet each student by name every morning. That may happen by standing at your door or it may be in your classroom. I have a morning check-in procedure, so standing at the door delays the start of my day. I do speak to each child by name as they enter, while I am doing the check-in. So, each child has been seen, spoken to, and listened to twice within the first 15 minutes of the day.  If you are not already greeting your students by name with a hearty ‘good morning’ and positive smile, then you can start tomorrow. If you are not feeling positive, “Fake it ‘til you make it!”

Weekly Letter Writing Journal

I do not know another way that lets me know my students and their personal lives as much as the journal.  Every Monday the first assignment is to write a letter to me. Each student has a dedicated journal for the letter writing, so that all letters are together for the year. It can be about anything, even if they want to make up a story. The purpose is to not only learn more about my students, but I make sure they know I am listening to them. I write back to every student in the journal, making sure to comment on something they wrote. The comment may be a clarifying or probing question, or statement about their activity.  I value what they have to say, and by confirming through my written message back to them, they know I value their voice.  

I learn many things about my students this way.  Most choose to write about their weekend, but students have also shared personal details about the deaths of their dogs, their aunties, and about the births of siblings and cousins. I learned that one student struggles because her dad may be deported soon. The procedure of him being incarcerated, then out, then waiting on what might happen next has an impact on her learning. The girl is very shy. She would never say the words out loud that she speaks to me through her journal. For a week, she was tardy every day because her mother had to leave to be with the dad during some hearings, and she was staying with an aunt who lived 25 miles away from the school. Better tardy than not coming at all. Another student is an expert billiard player, but not much interested in academics. I have found on-line articles that show pool players how to improve their game by utilizing the scientific laws behind force and motion, along with precise angle measurements (math). When it was time for our science focus to be force and motion, I brought those articles for him in order to draw him closer to the academic content. Another student is on the autism spectrum. I found an article about Sesame Street’s new character, Julia, who has autism. Using this article, brought about a breakthrough with this student, as he recognized himself in the article. Later in the day, he came to me and quietly said, “You know, I have autism.” I gently nodded and let him know that I knew. We had a discussion, and he revealed how hard things are for him. It opened a door for him to discuss these hardships. Our relationship was permanently changed for the better on that day.

Lunch small groups

Oh, we love our duty free lunch. However about once a week, I eat lunch outside with a small group of students. When students earn a privilege this is the most requested privilege year after year – with no second choice even coming close. Sometimes the small group is a group I target to put together with the goal of improved relationships among them. This is similar to the ‘cogen’ concept in For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin. Lunch conversation can be revealing, just like the journal, but the students also like that they can ask me questions about my off-time from school. “Ms. Cook, what did you do this weekend?” is a popular question I get at lunch. It gives them an opportunity to know that I train other teachers on some Saturdays, I go to church on Sundays, I clean my house – just like them, I go shopping – just like them, I watch television – just like them. I think I become more human and not just the teacher, but their teacher.

All students need to be valued – and to know that they are valued. What a bonus that building the relationship and establishing a positive classroom culture will also yield improved academic learning.

These four strategies are not some new innovative rock star idea; however, they are simple to implement, require no major expenditure, or professional development training. If you have some different ways you build relationships with your students, please share them in the comment box below.

Faye Cook is a National Board Certified Teacher in the area of Middle Childhood Generalist. She is the Fifth Grade Team Leader at Wilson Elementary School in Plant City, President of the Hillsborough NBCT Network, Secretary of Hillsborough Classroom Association and the very proud ‘mema’ of 3 grandsons. She lives by the Golden Rule and that is the only rule posted in her classroom.  You can contact her at faye.cook@sdhc.k12.fl.us. You can follow her on Twitter @hillsnbctnet.

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