TCHERS' VOICE / Class Culture

Three Strategies To Jumpstart Classroom Relationships

New Teacher Survival Guide

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.

Community Poem

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

Decisive Element quote

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 ProjectNCTELearning 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.

I love the ideas you bring up here. The letter was especially intriguing to me. Do you find it manageable to write a response letter to each student? That sounds like a challenging time commitment.
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At the beginning of each day, the children arrive to class and are met with a personal message posted on the TV monitor welcoming them to the new day. This message begins with a positive and happy Good Morning Year 5's and hoping that they are ready and excited for the day ahead. This message gives them a clue as to what might be happening throughout the day, especially if there are changes to the timetable. They are reminded to organise themselves to get ready for the day and gives them an idea of what they could be doing 'catch up work from our TO DO LIST' while they wait for class to begin with daily prayer gathered in a circle on the mat. The note always wishes them an exciting, wonderful, happy day, or words to that effect, (I mix it up quite a bit) being the best they can be and is always signed Love Mrs King. The children love reading the note each day, they follow the instructions and they are responsive to what is needing to be done in terms of organising the room. There is a vibrant chatter and energy in the room to start the day and they interact with me as one of them.... it is a beautiful feeling that creates a positive learning environment from start to finish. At the end of the day the children leave with positive enthusiasm and I receive many thank you's for the lovely day. Another, way I have found useful in relationship building with the children is to ask them to respond to the attendance roll call with a word or phrase that may describe their weekend, or their favourite sporting team, or colour... at times I use this statement/word to begin their writing where they are then able to give their reasons for their choice of word or phrase, or what made their weekend so "amazing" .... The attendance roll is always called by wishing the child "Good morning (Name)" ... the child responds "Good morning Mrs King" if they are not answering the word / phrase direction. This ensures that I have made eye contact with each child and wished them a good day .. The children respond positively to this greeting and I believe they know that I care very much for them.
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Sandy: It is a challenge. I've learned to respond in proportion to what they write to me. The image of the note cards is what they get back (not full letters, usually). If I don't get much from them, my response is usually to ask them a few questions and see if they will write again. If it's deep, I feel compelled to reply with substance. It can be a time challenge, but because of the nature of that reading/responding it does not feel like a chore. It's also the first week, so I have that extra juice :)
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Kerry: I love the morning note/well wishes. What a great idea to have that personal message. Sometime's I'll start class with sharing out things we are grateful for, just as a practice in gratitude. That might be a good idea to pair with your roll call idea--to share something for which they're grateful. You have my wheels spinning! Thanks for sharing.
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It is sometimes challenging to the teachers as well as the students to have good relationship . However , if students are approached the right way ,they will actually respond positively . To understand their behavior and their background and know more about their lives will help in building a good relationship based on understanding .To enter a classroom with a big welcoming smile is really helpful . To ask the students about their previous day and what new things they did could actually break the ice.Open a short conversation about their latest interests will help too . Then Let them express their feelings in writing whether it is a poem or other ways of writing .Thanks for sharing other ideas with us .
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