There are many things in education where research disagrees about whether they are effective or important in student learning, but the value of a positive teacher-student relationships is not one of them.
The research is in universal agreement that it’s a critical element of a successful K-12 classroom (see The Best Resources On The Importance Of Building Positive Relationships With Students).
I’m confident that the vast majority of teachers recognize its importance, whether they have read the research or not. We all see – everyday – what education researcher Robert Marzano has found:
Positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction. If the relationship is strong, instructional strategies seem to be more effective. Conversely, a weak or negative relationship will mute or even negate the benefits of even the most effective instructional strategies.
No matter how hard we work at it, however, sometimes our once-positive teacher-student relationships “go south” or never get started on the right foot. It could be totally unrelated to our behavior and, instead, be caused by conditions the student is experiencing outside of school or because of past years’ experiences in school. Or, perhaps, we may have made an off-hand comment one day that was misinterpreted by a student. Maybe we were having a bad day and said something that did not demonstrate patience or compassion to a student who needed one or both at the time.
If any of us teachers, or our administrators, need research “back-up” on the importance of repairing our student relationships, we need to look no further than recent research finding the overwhelming effectiveness of a classroom management strategy using a model called “Establish-Maintain-Restore [Relationships].”
Based on sixteen years (so far) of secondary school teaching experience, here are a few strategies I’ve used to successfully “restore” a positive relationship with a student:
Invite A Student To Take A Leadership Position
This is a “tried-and-true” strategy that is used by many teachers – ask the student to take a position of responsibility. These could range from being the person who catches-up students who have been absent with what he/she missed to passing out folders each day. This strategy is a variation of what is known is psychology as The Ben Franklin Effect, which you can learn about at The Best Resources For Learning About “Psychological Effects” Useful To Teachers and at Variations On “The Benjamin Franklin Effect.”
Go On “Walk-And-Talks”
“Walk-and-Talks” are a strategy refined by our Principal, Jim Peterson, into an art form. He has written about it at Guest Post: “Walk & Talks” Are Extremely Effective Way To Connect With Students – Here’s A “How-To” Guide. In one sense, it’s the simple act of taking a student on a walk during your prep period to check-in with him/her but, once you read his post, you’ll learn it’s much more….
Saying “I’m sorry” can go a long way to repairing a relationship, not to mention being an excellent role model for students to see. Even if I really didn’t do anything wrong, saying something like “John, obviously there’s some tension between us, and I apologize for my contribution to it” can make a difference. See The Best Resources On The Importance Of Saying “I’m Sorry” for more info.
Every day is a new day, and approaching each one as much as humanly possible with a cheerful smile and attitude when interacting with every student – no matter how negative they have been to you for no matter how many days, weeks or months – has a chance of ultimately winning them over. And, even if it doesn’t, I always finds that it makes me feel better about myself as a person and as a teacher.
I would say that this strategy has been the most successful one in my teaching life. Sometimes a student is testing – intentionally or subconsciously – if you will give up on him/her. See The Best Resources On The Importance Of Building Positive Relationships With Students.
Bring In An Outside Mediator
At times, I’ve asked one of our school’s counselors (we have a great one in Cary Farley) or Phillip Taylor, one of my teacher colleagues who leads a restorative practices program at our school, to mediate a conversation between a student and me in an effort to get a better working relationship.
Looking for reasons to make a positive phone call home (see Making Positive Phone Calls Home) in the presence of the student can sometimes work wonders. A student might be expecting you to share negative comments, and shocking him/her with the exact opposite can result with the student questioning their own perceptions of you.
And, if it doesn’t, you’ve set-up your relationship with the parent as someone who doesn’t just “have it in” for their child, and they are probably more likely to trust your analysis of challenges in the future. And, if I have to make that second call, I always lead by asking parents for their advice on how I can turn around my relationship with their child.
Even better than making that second call, of course, is making a home visit (see The Best Resources For Learning About Teacher Home Visits).
Agree On “Signs”
I don’t know about you, but get tired of repeatedly calling out the same student for behavior issues time-after-time — and the student sure gets tired of it, too.
In those situations, I’ll sometimes approach the student and start by saying just that – “I don’t want to keep on calling out your name and I suspect you don’t me to keep doing it, either.”
I’ll go on to explain that, in the past, I’ve worked out a “sign” with students that I can give them instead of saying their name, and that if I give it, they know they’ve gone too far and have to re-focus. I explain I won’t use the sign when there are minor issues – just when things are “going over the top.” And I further explain that once we decide on that sign, we can figure out a sign they can give me when they feel I’m bothering them too much – we can try both as an experiment.
Often times students will say that having me put my hand on their desk is a sign I can give them. The sign they can give me varies – one year a student chose the word “Remember.”
In this situation, all it took to dramatically change our relationship for the better was for him to say “Remember” one time and for me to immediately respecting it and back-off. I’m not sure if I had ever seen a student’s face with a more shocked look on it.
I find that having a cupboard full of graham cracker and small packages of peanut butter and crackers is well-worth the expense. Being able to check in with students to see if they got to school early enough to eat breakfast and, if not, being able to offer a snack helps students see that we see them more than just a “client.” In my experience, at least, I’ve never had students take (much) advantage of this kind of food availability. Offering to share a snack when on a “Walk-And-Talk” can add to a positive atmosphere, too.
I’m sure there are other strategies not listed here, and I hope readers will share them in the comments section.
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