Imagine you are a student walking into a classroom. The teacher stands at the door and cheerfully greets you by name. She may say something personal like, “I hear you had a rough game last night. Are you okay?” Or maybe she says, “Thank you for being on time; I’m glad you’re here.”
Now imagine walking into another classroom. The teacher frantically shuffles through the papers on her desk. She doesn’t acknowledge you when you come in. As the bell rings, she looks up, exasperated, and says sarcastically, “Oh good, at least some of you managed to find your seats. Get out your homework if you have it, which you probably don’t.”
Within the first few seconds, these teachers have set a tone for the class period. Which scenario do you think makes children more likely to learn? To have positive interactions with their peers? To treat their teacher with respect?
Students who have friendly, positive relationships with their teachers are more likely to feel a personal connection that encourages trust, finds Sara Rimm-Kaufman, Ph.D., from the University of Virginia. In turn, this encourages students to confide in a teacher when they have trouble with homework or problems with bullying, she writes in her review of research for the American Psychological Association, titled, “Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning.”
What can teachers do? For starters, get to know each student. Granted, this can be difficult for middle school and high school teachers, who have five or six classes of 32 students each. It’s possible, though. At a minimum, she can learn her students’ names and use them every time she speaks to them. True, it is the student’s responsibility to learn and succeed, but a teacher invested in that success makes a big difference.
A positive classroom environment is key to building relationships among students, as well. And more than most, the difficult students need to feel emotional connections with their teachers and peers. Teachers can increase engagement and decrease disruptive behavior by giving praise and guidance instead of criticism.
The relationship itself is not the end goal; instruction and personal development are. A teacher must convey that what she teaches is important to her. Does the content interest her? Is she passionate about the material? Teachers that hold their students to high—but appropriate—standards show that they believe their students can reach those standards.
As parents, how can we help teachers build positive relationships with our children?
We should expect our children to treat teachers with respect. We should model forgiveness and stress offering second chances. We can remind our children that teachers are only human. They will lose patience, make mistakes and may resort to sarcasm. We should remind our children of the limitations placed on teachers because of overcrowded classrooms and limited time outside of class hours.
For preschoolers, we can practice behaviors that lead to positive teacher-child relationships. Get down on their level, make eye contact and have face-to-face interactions. Use calm and pleasant voices and greet children warmly. Really listen to what they have to say. Respond quickly and compassionately to their struggles. When a child cries out, provide comfort. Set up and teach expectations. Model appropriate behaviors. Give praise when expectations are met and acknowledge effort.
That’ll Teach ’Em
We rarely question the importance of strong and positive relationships among the littlest students and their teachers. How sad that as children get older, we often push them to “toughen up” and become independent to the point of not seeking motivation and support.
Does the push for academic progress and standardized testing leave less room for building relationships? Actually, many teachers find that positive relationships help them reach and teach their students.
As adults, we know what kind of boss we would prefer. Students want the same from their teachers. We all appreciate being addressed with respect, receiving support when needed and having our hard work acknowledged.
Jennifer VanBuren is a Georgetown mother of three school-aged children, an educator and a childbirth doula.