The Importance of Student Teacher Relationships (And How to Build Them)
Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
There's a reason we remember our favorite teachers. They didn't have to prove that they were the smartest people in the room. They didn't always hold the most formal training or possess the most subject matter-specific knowledge. Our favorite teachers simply connected with us on a personal level and by demonstrating their love of academic content.
John Hattie, in his landmark meta-analysis, identified multiple student-teacher relationship variables that, when taken together and combined with feedback, matter a lot when it comes to student achievement and learning.
Create Opportunities for Students to Lead Learning
Hattie termed it "non-directivity", but whatever you want to call it, you can set the tone for classroom relationships by structuring ways for students to take charge of their own education. In managing the classroom, you could collaborate with students to create a class contract or list of essential agreements. Instructionally, build in opportunities for students to identify learning objectives, lead discussions, and present findings. For example, a science teacher might work with students to create lab expectations, empower lab partners to hold one another accountable to those expectations, and create opportunities for students to lead lab periods and the presentation of results. When teachers are facilitating and coaching, students feel respected and empowered.
They Don't Care How Much You Know…
…until they know how much you care. This is a trope to be sure, but it has the advantage of being accurate. Empathy and warmth rank highly on Hattie's list, and for good reason. If you are cold and distant toward students, that barrier can keep the class from achieving a synergistic flow of conversation and academic productivity.
I once worked with a colleague that expected all of her students to compartmentalize life events in the same manner as she expected of her own children. She was a brilliant educator. Her knowledge base was truly unparalleled in her subject area and kids generally respected her, but several times a year she would experience massive falling outs with students and their parents. Usually this occurred when a student had a death in the family or was hospitalized and missed a deadline for a major project or test upon their return. This teacher simply could not get her head around the fact that each student has unique ways of dealing with personal matters. By simply acknowledging their difficulties and affirming their dignity, the teacher could have been the best teacher in the district. She never got there because she just could not bring herself to lead with her heart instead of her head at appropriate times.
A Love of Learning, a Higher Place
Our favorite teachers had a knack for inspiring a love of learning. Think of some of the most popular education-centric films of the last 30 years: Stand and Deliver, Dead Poet's Society, Mr. Holland's Opus, and October Sky, to name a few. Even factoring for artistic license, the central message remains: a celebration of learning. When you present every lesson as if it's the coolest thing ever, your personal opus, that spirit becomes infectious.
Hattie also identified a significant effect size due to teacher encouragement of higher order thought. Every question, discussion, and project can build in a push to higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy or Webb's Depth of Knowledge. Deliberately leading students from a recall question such as "What were the causes of World War I?" to an analysis of each belligerent's key motives in 1914 is one example. The more you challenge, push, and inspire, the more student knowledge and confidence grows, and the better your relationships will be for it. This just verifies the importance of student teacher relationships and the benefits that can come from them.
Person-Centered Classrooms; Learner-Centered Beliefs
When I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher's mantra was the Episcopalian-esque "respect the dignity of every student." There is so much wisdom in that little phrase. When you develop a rapport with students that respects their individual backgrounds and needs, nothing can stop you. In addition to saying "hello" as they arrive, you can inquire about their wellbeing and engage in meaningful conversation. You can play music as students enter and allow students to share their favorites with the class. You can make positive phone calls home and randomly recognize their good work.
Beyond an inventory of learning styles at the beginning of the year, how do you allow your students' strengths to shine through in each lesson? Do you demonstrate learner-centered beliefs, such as that every child can learn to begin with? I recently observed a French teacher who constructed a cultural project so that every student could select an area of interest and meaning. Students of Middle Eastern descent in the class were observed to explore French-speaking countries in the Arabic world (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, etc.) with great frequency and enthusiasm. The teacher built respect for her students' backgrounds into the lesson - a key learner-centered attribute.
Keep It Real
Kids can smell a fake a mile away. I evaluated a teacher a few years ago who would stage her side of a conversation with students during the classroom observation. I watched the interaction very closely. The moment she turned away to go to a different area, I saw the student roll their eyes - they knew it was a dog and pony show! Be open, genuine, and honest with students at all times. Teacher credibility matters.
YOU are the Critical Factor
Contributions from the student, the family, and more certainly matter, but teacher-student relationships may be the most important. Think back to your salad days and remember the teachers you loved the most. They weren't afraid to show you that they loved you first.
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