The Relationship is Everything
by Jan Fisher
Who wants to cooperate with someone they can't stand, don't respect, and don't trust? I don't, and it's probably a safe bet that I am not alone. Most people prefer to work and to socialize with people who are friendly, caring, and fair. Kids are no exception, especially when it comes to teachers. Students almost always say when asked to describe a good teacher, "Good teachers are caring."
Quite a large body of research today indicates that academic achievement and student behavior are influenced by the quality of teacher-student relationships (Jones, 2000). Positive student relationships are associated with more positive student responses to school and with increased academic achievement. As teachers, most of us know this and try to establish some kind of connection with our students. In today's world, though, this connection has become even more central to effective teaching, and it is the absolute bedrock of classroom management. I am amazed at the amount of time and space in the management research that is devoted to establishing relationships with students. It is the issue that is front and center for the 21st century. Many of our kids come to us without ever having had a successful relationship with an adult. For some, adults are people to fear and to distrust. For others, adults just aren't around very much. If we are ever going to impact students in our classrooms, we have to make a real effort to make a connection on a personal level---to get to know them as people and to have them get to know us. Strangers don't have much influence.
Most of us who have taught for awhile know that students need and want positive teacher behavior to be associated with firmness, realistic limits, and competent teaching. The ability to blend firmness with warmth and caring is difficult, especially for the new teacher. We sometimes try to assist them with this confusion by suggesting that they should be less warm and more distant toward their students. You know, "Don't smile until Christmas." The issue is not whether teachers should be warm or distant, but that they simultaneously assert both their right to be treated with respect, and their responsibility for ensuring that students treat each other with kindness. Warmth and firmness are not mutually exclusive. They can exist side by side (Jones, 2000). In fact, effective teaching involves blending these ingredients. Kohn states, "Preceding and underlying specific techniques for encouraging particular behaviors is the practice of nesting all kind of discipline and instruction in the context of a warm, nurturant, and empathic relationship with students (1991). Fay and Funk in "Teaching with Love and Logic," (1995), remind us that "No behavioral technique will have a lasting, positive result if it is not delivered with compassion, empathy, or understanding."
So, how do we go about making a connection and developing a warm relationship with our students? Some kids won't reach out, don't respond to our efforts. We have to work diligently at this---the relationship is the foundation upon which learning rests. The good news is that there are strategies to accomplish this. They are strategies we all know about but perhaps have not used as consciously and explicitly as we must now.
Model the Behavior you Want
Never underestimate the power of a teacher. Or, the influence. Young people seek adult role models to assist them in developing their identity. The relationship between teacher and student is important here. People, including students, tend to emulate those they like, admire, and respect! So, if we want our students to show respect, we show them first. If we want them them to be courteous, we are courteous. If we want them to trust us, we behave in a trustworthy way towards them, and if we want them to believe we care about them, then we do caring things. Reaching out to students, demonstrating interest in them as people, and teaching them appropriate behavior can be a great assist in making connections with kids that will lead to better behavior and increased achievement. And, the better the relationship between teacher and student, the more powerful our modeling will be. Effective modeling is like winning the daily double!
Create Open, Professionally-Appropriate Dialogue with Students
It is important for us to provide opportunities for students to know us as people. It is necessary to decide exactly how open and involved we wish to be with our kids. In their book, "Comprehensive Classroom Management," Vernon and Louse Jones (2000), describe three levels of openness for student-teacher relationships:
1. An almost complete openness where we share a wide range of personal concerns and values with students.
2. Openness related to our reactions to and feelings about school, but limited openness regarding our out-of-school life.
3. An almost exclusive focus on a role-bound relationship: that is, we share no personal feelings or reactions but simply perform our instructional duties.
All us us, but particularly beginning teachers, often struggle with which degree of openness is appropriate. Students respond best to adults who are comfortable with themselves, their beliefs, and their values, and who can share them non-judgmentally. If teachers enjoy the same books, movies, music, and sports, then discussing them with students can be a way to establish a personal relationship. Common interests that are shared can be the foundation for a relationship. When differences in opinion occur, to exchange ideas between teacher and student can be interesting and educational. Knowing just how much to disclose about yourself is a matter of personal preference and professional judgment. It is not necessary for us to become overly involved in students' lives outside the school. It is important for kids to know that adults have interesting lives apart from them and that we find life stimulating and exciting in ways that are different from theirs. At the same time, they need for us to be interested enough in them to share our ideas and engage in conversation (Jones, 2000). At times, teachers, usually novices, share too much personal information with their students. We need to be cautious about this. There is an old saying that "familiarity breeds contempt." There is truth in this. When a teacher discloses too many personal details, the line between teacher and peer is blurred. We must maintain our role, always, as "teacher". We are neither their friends nor their parents. Our influence is most clearly felt when we act within our given role as teachers.
Another way to establish personal relationships with our students is to model a degree of openness to students' expressions of concerns and feelings. Keep things in perspective; don't overreact to things the students say to you. A student may say, "You're so mean!." Or, "You're unfair." Respond calmly. Say something like, "You know, you may be right." We are the adults in these situations and we need to model adult behavior. We can have a hissy fit when the kid says for the hundredth time, "I forgot my homework." Or, we can follow Jim Fay's "Love and Logic" (1995) and say, "Bummer. It must be frustrating to do your work and not get full credit. When do you think you will be able to turn it in?" These kinds of reactions go a long way toward establishing relationships with kids.
Systematically Build Better Relationships
In addition to the more casual conversations and personal disclosure described above, we also need to take steps to systematically build relationships with our students. This is more difficult with some kids than with others. There are students who have never had a successful personal relationship with an adult. They are not going to respond quickly or enthusiastically to our first efforts. Trust is not a commodity they have experienced and it will take a lot of "relationship building" before they are comfortable letting down their guards. So what do we do?
First thing is to take specific steps to make a connection. Showing an interest in them is key. Jim Fay, again in "Teaching with Love and Logic" (1995), talks about writing six "I've noticed...." statements for each student. For example, "I've noticed you wear a lot of blue." "I've noticed you like jazz." "I've noticed you enjoy mysteries." Put these statements on a card in a card file. Twice a week, in private, say one of your statements to the person for whom it belongs. Just say it---don't add, "And, that's great" or any other comment. When you have said it, walk away. The student should not feel he needs to respond. After three weeks, when your six statements have been used, you will be well on your way to a relationship. You have demonstrated to the student that you are interested in him. This is the first step to making a connection. I have tried this and so have others I know. It works!
Another important strategy is to maintain a high ratio of positive to negative statements. It is human nature to notice misbehavior. We see things that need attention. Misbehavior needs correcting; appropriate behavior does not. The trick is to not respond every time we notice! Frequent negative remarks almost always cause students to dislike school (Jones, 2000). We sometimes tend to think that critical remarks will improve behavior. Actually, research says the opposite is true. In classrooms where teachers make many negative statements, students perceive those teachers as less understanding, caring, helpful, and fair (Jones,2000). The message the students receive from these negative statements is that they are unworthy, incapable, and worthless. When this happens, students are not willing to work cooperatively with teachers. Greater misbehavior and lower academic achievement results. This does not mean we allow misbehavior to escalate. It does mean that we deal with it in more positive ways by teaching the students the appropriate behavior and giving them support and assistance as they work to change it. Teachers who see misbehavior as a problem to be solved in collaboration with the student, and does it in the context of a positive relationship, will be much more successful than one who seeks to simply punish.
Other strategies that help to build relationships are giving choices within limits, modeling self-acceptance, concentrating on the development of trust, understanding students' points of view, and giving credibility to students' feelings.
We always have to remember that the only behavior we can control is our own. We cannot control our students, but we can have a major influence on them if we change what we do.
Communicate High Expectations
Students like and have trust in a teacher who believes in them; believes they can be successful both academically and socially. Communicating these beliefs is an important part of building a relationship. Makes sense to me. Not many of us are close to people who think we are ineffective and incompetent! We know that, as teachers, we often respond differently to lower-achieving students. We give them fewer opportunities to respond, shorter time periods to respond, and less specific feedback. These teacher behaviors, although unintentional on our parts, result in some students feeling less valued. Just being aware of this possibility is usually all it takes to equalize our statements of high expectations.
Create Opportunities for Personal Discussion
During the school year, create as many opportunities for personal discussion with kids as you can. These are only limited by your time and creativity. Some teachers attend student activities; eat lunch once a week with them; join in a playground game now and then; have your family--or dog---visit class; send notes, cards and letters; and join in school and community events. I allowed students to sign up for personal conferences, usually 5 minutes in length. I usually scheduled two or three during center time. I had an appointment schedule, they would sign up, and then it was their responsibility to remember and to arrive on time. I had a corner of the room where we met. They loved this private time and so did I. It gave me a chance to learn something about them. And, it saved all that running behind you and yelling, "Teacher, teacher, I need to tell you something." Now, that can drive a person right over the edge!
Establishing relationships with students matters. William Glasser, in 1990, noted that "By the end of the seventh grade, more than half the students believe that teachers and principals are their adversaries." Students often respond to this perceived belief of being devalued by misbehaving. Cusick, in 1994, reported that most student resistance to teacher directions occurs in classes where students report disliking their teachers. This is supported by research that says, "50%-60% of school children suffer from at least one occurrence of maltreatment by an educator, which leads to some stress symtoms, including aggressive responses" (Hyman & Perone, 1998). Positive student-teacher relationships are essential in influencing motivation, achievement and behavior of all students. It is particularly true for students who find school more challenging.
I am a great believer in the power of a teacher in a student's life. We can influence behavior and achievement in amazing ways, and making a personal connection with the students in our classrooms is where it all begins. And, for us as teachers, that same connection is what makes our jobs and our lives rewarding. The kid you remember from 20 years ago---you know, the one whose life you changed, and who changed yours--is the one with whom the relationship was strong. In fact, the relationship was everything!