If you look back on being a student, I’m sure you remember not the specifics of what you learned, but your teachers, the people tasked with helping you learn the content. They inspired you to pay attention and work hard. The task didn’t matter. You believed in them, in their love of the subject, and you connected the work they assigned to their love of whatever they taught: the formulas, the dates, and all the confusing academic terms that confounded us. When we liked a teacher, we trusted them, and were eager to complete the work. So how can we make our classroom a warm, welcoming place where it feels easy to get busy and learn?
Here are my five ways to create good relationships with students:
Stories are the heart and soul of what we do. Writers craft unbelievably complex storylines with many characters, places, and events. I find the best way to get students to think deeply about those stories is to tell stories from my own life. Over the years, I’ve been telling whatever stories pop into my head that relate to the story we are reading. Don’t think of it as digressing or getting off topic. You’re diving deep into the relevance of literature when you tell a story. I’ll never forget I had a roommate when I was living in Philly that ran into an old student of mine when he was at graduate school. When they figured out that they both knew me, she told him about how I once spent a whole class period talking about when I was in Philly when the Phillies won the World Series. She said it was the most amazing story she’s ever heard. I can’t even remember how it related to the book we were studying, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone remembers a great story.
Whenever I get the chance, I tell a joke. There’s nothing I love more about teaching than trying to crack a terrible joke. Our students sit through class after class, sometimes never moving out of their seat for an entire class period. They work hard, learning new concepts and terminology, and they deserve a good laugh. I’m not trying to be a stand up comedian up there, but let’s be honest, there’s a lot to laugh about in a Jane Austen novel or play by Shakespeare, especially when we compare it to our own lives or really think about how ridiculous people used to be.
As I walk around the room during an activity or as class starts, I try to ask students questions about whatever – what sport they play, what they’re drawing, what they’re eating, what instrument they’re carrying around or what musicians they like. One of my students told me she played guitar so we started talking guitar players. She mentioned Clapton. I asked if she knew Slowhand. A few months later, out of nowhere, she said you’re right, it’s amazing. One year, I was asking my students what kind of music they liked, so one of my students asked me about my favorite song. I said “Mr. Jones”. At the end of the year, he came in with a guitar and told me it was no easy task, but he learned to play it, so he played and sang the song for the class.
4. Greetings and farewells
It’s such a common sense thing to do. Say “hi” and say “bye”. We do it to every single person we encounter in real life. So why would we not do it with as many individual students that we can? Instead of do nows, let’s just say hello. Let’s treat them like people, not robots that we can program and fill with algorithms. The most magical part of an education is not what happens in class, it is what happens as our students carry the conversation outside into the hallway. That’s why I try to float around after class, just in case a shy student wants to share what they were thinking or ask a question. Think about how many times a student asked you a question simply because you were walking by them and not standing at the front of the classroom.
5. Read alouds
We can have great relationships with students by telling stories and having short conversations, but we can also connect through literature. Great poems and novels contain very intense, emotional passages. When we read the words out loud, we need to really feel the words and allow those feelings to come out in our readings. I have a colleague that will complain about how many poets have “poet voice” when they read their own poems out loud. Their readings almost never contain the deep feeling behind their own words. When we read literature with intensity, with slowness or loudness, or authenticity, our students know why we are there. Because we care about what’s happening in the story. Because it matters and it demands our attention. Our students might prefer the sciences, or singing, or drawing, but every student loves a good read aloud.
high school English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers