Quick. Imagine you're on "Who Wants To Be a Teacher Millionaire" and the million dollar question is: "What do most teachers agree is most true about their work?"
What would you say? At the center of our teacher-hearts, what do we believe about our work? There are many good answers, but I think the answer I would offer, given all the teachers I’ve met in my career, is a belief in the power of relationships.
We know that with relationships comes the trust necessary to undertake challenging work, and grow in the process. We know that those relationships urge students and teachers to be our best-selves for one another. But we don’t often talk, in specifics, on how we go about the work of building those bonds.
To my new-teacher eyes it was a mystery. Did the magnetic teachers in my department just have some kind of superpower bestowed by the teaching gods? Or perhaps it was the result of a secret formula they got in their teacher education program? Was there a goat-sacrificing ceremony to which I wasn’t invited?
Over time, I've learned that we can all get better at building relationships if we are intentional and invest in the process. By no means do I have it all figured out, and I welcome reader insights and ideas, but here are some strategies I'm using this year:
Foundational First Days
Our opening moves matter. For our classes, I want students to know, in the first few days, that I already care about them deeply. Not because they’ve done something to earn it, but just for being themselves. I want them to know why I have chosen to be a teacher, their teacher. And I want them to know I have a lot to learn from them, that I will be responsive to them individually, and that I see them as individuals.
So I write them a letter. It's not perfectly polished. I intentionally wait until the night before the first day of school to write it (which does lead to urgent early morning copying, I admit), so that it's fresh and authentic. What's important is that the letter is a chance for me to be vulnerable first. For me to share something difficult from my life. For me to trust them. For me to share my highest hopes and bedrock beliefs. And then their first composition is writing a letter back to me.
This year's student letters were powerful. Some were not deep, but a number of students shared their experiences with family members fighting addiction, others about learning struggles, some others about the dreams for a future they felt slipping out of their grasp. And each student, in return for their letter, gets a handwritten response.
No shortcuts to relationships, but there is a turbo button. pic.twitter.com/Yj8QAe2dhQ
— Sean McComb (@Mr_McComb) August 28, 2015
This year I tried a new first day icebreaker, a community poem. I asked students to respond to two of these three prompts on sentence strips using one to five words: Describe yourself. What do you hope to get out of this class? What do you want for your future? After writing, students took turns adding their lines and re-arranging their responses on the classroom floor to form a poem (similar to the process in this video). Once arranged, I offered my best reading of the poem. It came together nicely, and in each class students remarked on the connections they felt to others. Next year, I think I'll also try a choral reading, with each student reading their contribution to the poem to have their voice be part of the performance.
Munchin' with McComb
It seems there's never enough time to have extended conversations that connect us with students beyond our content. However, we know these conversations play a vital role in building relationships, and emerging research points to the potential impact on achievement when similarities between student and teacher are identified.
A few years ago, I decided to be intentional about this. I chose to offer students lunch conversations. Just a chance to come eat lunch together and get to know one another better. It was so nerve-wracking to ask! It was like being a teenager again and fearing rejection. But a few students volunteered, then a few more, and I ended up having twenty-minute lunch time conversations with most of my students. The impact of this rapport -- a willingness to take on challenges and responsibilities, and most importantly, inside jokes -- was immediate.
Last week I passed a calendar around for this year's students, and it's booked-up into November. I can't wait to get to know these students on another level.
The Potency of Presence
Each of these strategies is important, but pale in comparison to being intentional with how I conduct myself and the presence I bring to the classroom every day. I remind myself of this by the above quote, which I keep on my wall. Making the choice to bring a spirit of care and positivity can be hard some days, but kids deserve it. There are times I need to be real about incidental disappointment, but I try never to cause a kid to call into question my belief that they can and will succeed. Students should know that when they come into our classrooms there is a patient, kind, determined teacher who is excited to learn with them. That is a belief and trust that is earned every single day.
And when it gets really hard, I give high-fives. Lots of high-fives.
How Do You Build Relationships?
The challenge of building relationships with students requires a plethora of ideas to find what best fits our various personalities. Do you have a great icebreaker to share? Have you found a certain question on a student survey gives you great insight? How do you go about building rapport with students intentionally? Please share your ideas in the comments below!
Sean McComb teaches students English at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in the Baltimore County Public Schools System. Sean also supports the development of teaching and learning for Baltimore County's STAT Initiative. He is affiliated with the Maryland Writing Project, NCTE, Learning Forward, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and ISTE. Sean is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year and a Teaching Channel Laureate. Connect with him on Twitter at @Mr_McComb.