With the start of semester 2 this month, my focus has been on building connections and establishing professional relationships with my new crop of students. There is a very subtle shift that I tend to observe between day one and the end of week two; through that time my students become more comfortable with me and I with them so that we settle in and find ease with each other. It feels less awkward, and more like we’ve known each other for a longer span of time than two short weeks. How does this happen?
The most common response I get from students to this question is that I’m young, so they find it natural to relate to me. I have every class fill out a course evaluation for me at the end of the semester to inform improvements to my practice. I have had a performance appraisal in the past from an administrator, but them observing one class only gives a brief snapshot of my teaching. The students get the whole picture, day in and day out, and they often give the best and most poignant feedback about my strengths and weaknesses as an educator. The response at the beginning of this paragraph is one of the most common answers I get to the question: “What is the best thing about me as a teacher?” on my course evaluations. So I got to thinking these last two weeks, what is it aside from still being in my twenties that allows me to build relationships with students quickly and effectively?
I almost didn’t even include this point because it seemed too small to merit its own section, but it is something I spend a lot of time on and have a certain process for. Learning every student’s name is my priority on the first day of class. I get each student to wave at me during attendance so I can start associating names with faces, and if they prefer a shorter version of their name, I fix it on my attendance sheet right away so that I won’t forget. Secondly, I make sure I have an activity where they are working independently or in small groups on that first day so I can walk around and talk to each student, saying their names as I speak with each one. Finally, when students arrive to class the next day, I say their names in my head and out loud as I greet them, and if there are any I have forgotten I quickly ask the student to refresh my memory. By five minutes into the second day of class, I always know every single one of my students by name. It’s such a small gesture, but I think that it shows them right off the bat that I care, that I am interested in them as individuals, and that each one of them is important to me.
Smiling and Being Friendly
It seems so basic and obvious, but just being a friendly face in the classroom and in the hallways goes a long way. Of course, I have heard the advice from older colleagues to not smile at all for the first x number of months to establish your authority in the classroom. I understand the idea: that if you’re too friendly students will just walk all over you. However, I don’t agree with this advice for two reasons.
Firstly, for me, that’s not the type of person I am, and the idea goes counter to what I believe about teaching and learning. I can be stern when necessary, but on the whole I’m a positive, friendly, happy person. Never smiling and acting like I’m the scary boss isn’t who I am, and if you’re not being yourself, students will be able to tell, and they will quickly lose respect for you. In addition, by acting more authoritarian than authoritative, you may succeed at having a quiet classroom at all times where on the surface it appears as if students are engaged and learning. However, learning does not always occur in isolation and silence. Certainly, there are times when you need full class attention and quiet to explain a new concept, but students also need time to interact with each other and with the material in order to construct their own understanding of the new information and to integrate it into their cognitive constructs. Also, just because students are quiet does not mean that they are listening or engaged in your lesson. If they are too scared or uncomfortable with your authoritarian presence, then students will not be open to learning and are likely to be quiet but disengaged.
Secondly, I would argue that students have more respect for the teachers who reach out and treat them as people, taking an interest in them and their education. When students see that you care about them, they want to do well and behave in the proper way in your class. Moreover, if your usual demeanour is more relaxed and positive, then when it is necessary to be more stern to the class or to a group of students, they truly know when you mean business. It’s quite a large shift from smiling/welcoming/happy to a serious face and tone, so students tend to react quickly. If you always look and sound severe, how are they supposed to know when you’re really serious?
Talking to Students
Again, like my first point, this seems obvious, but many teachers don’t take the time to talk to their students about their interests or what’s going on in their world. When I’m teaching French (core or immersion), it’s much easier to work in time for these types of conversations, as one of the curriculum strands is oral communication, so simply conversing with students in French on any topic is part of the curriculum. In courses where that’s less of an option, arriving to my classroom early or staying a little bit later provides the opportunity to have these types of conversations before class begins or after it ends.
I would say part of my ease in talking to students is most likely my youth, but I don’t believe that it is a necessity. It doesn’t take much to have topics of conversation with teenagers. I watch Sports Centre and follow sports in general (especially hockey), so I can talk about last night’s game with the sports fans in my class. I listen to the radio while driving to and from work and stay somewhat up to date with pop culture so I can discuss celebrities, music, movies, and television. Sometimes I even share my own interests now or what I was interested in during high school and find common ground with my students. Small things such as the fact that I play musical instruments, or what sports teams I played on in high school, or that I was always part of the school play remind students that I’m human and that I have gone through similar experiences to them.
Humour is a tricky one and highly personal, as everyone has their own unique sense of humour. As well, a misplaced joke or a funny comment skirting the line of what is appropriate for the classroom could just as easily alienate students. My style of humour is a bit goofy and self-deprecating. I show off my nerdiness and intense love for all things to do with school and learning, especially in my subject specialties, and poke fun at myself. Most students find this amusing and even endearing, since I’m not using any of them as the butt of a joke.
Working off that last point, I will admit that I do use sarcasm from time-to-time, despite some advice against it. Sarcasm works for me with high school students, especially with seniors, but I only use it with certain students who I know can handle it and only after I have gotten to know my class and they have become comfortable with me.
I would venture to say that there does not exist a hard and fast formula for forging professional relationships with students, as each teacher is different and each group of students is unique. However, I know that these are the four major steps that I take and ways that I behave in my classroom each day that facilitate these connections. And hopefully, as I age and gain experience, I will continue to be relatable to students by being young at heart.