I started teaching in the fall of 1986. Let me also say that my parents, my husband, my in-laws, and my son were/are all teachers too, so I might be a little hyper-aware to educational issues. In the fall of ’86, I was hired into a rural school outside of Springfield, Ohio. I had 2 preps (teacher shorthand for preparations, meaning classes that were in my teaching load). At that school a normal load was to teach 6 classes, so roughly 150 students. In subsequent years at that school, I had 4 preps, and always 6 classes. We were expected to do all the usual things that teachers have to do: prepare for class, impart knowledge, assign homework and give tests, grade those materials, average grades (with a calculator), handwrite interim reports and grade cards, maintain order in our classes, and contact parents if and when necessary. Our principal required us to hand in a 6 week goals and objectives sheet (which was roundly derided by all) and he, of course, was required to observe us maybe twice a year. I honestly have no recollection of being formally observed with the requisite paperwork, but do remember him sitting in my class every now and then—as he should have. That was pretty much it. The kids were pretty good—I still keep in touch with some of them today, and they have been wildly successful considering their humble roots—but that’s a story for another day. The staff was also filled with wonderful teachers and some slouches just as every other staff I’ve ever worked with has been. Schools reflect real life, after all.
As way led onto way, my husband and I decided to move to the Columbus area and I took a job in another rural district for a year and then ended up in a very large suburban district where I taught until I retired last May (25 years in that district alone). The school that I last worked in is regularly ranked in all the ‘top’ rankings there are. I was proud to teach there, but am ecstatic in my retirement. So how was my job different in 2018 than it was 32 years ago? Where to begin?
The One Constant: Relationships
I think I’ll begin with the one constant in all 32 years—relationships. Relationships remain THE most important aspect in education—or really in life. Relationships were important when my dad started teaching in 1961, they were important when I retired in May, and they are important to my son as he teaches now. Why? Why are relationships so important?
The educational axiom, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care,” has been attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. Nowhere is this more true than in the classroom. It seems that teachers that have the knack of creating good relationships with their students often are able to get more out of their students; certainly, the students enjoy being in the classroom more with teachers with whom they have good relationships. To truly great teachers, this piece, this relationship-building, comes naturally. It is like breathing. What is it that teachers (or anyone, really) who are good at relationships do? How can you improve your relationships?
1. Be confident
The teacher (leader, manager, parent, friend, co-worker, owner, etc) is confident but not condescending. The teacher is warm without crossing important personal boundaries. The teacher is not judgmental or mean-spirited. The teacher lets it be known that it is OKAY to make MISTAKES. MISTAKES = LEARNING. The teacher might even make a mistake herself and should always own up to it. Be confident in the job you’re doing and that you’re giving it your best effort.
2. Be organized
Organization and executive functioning skills don’t come naturally to everyone. If you are someone to whom they don’t come easily, take the necessary steps to change. A disorganized person does not elicit confidence in the job they are doing and causes unnecessary stress and upset to the students (or employees or family members, etc). Relationships are not fostered when a teacher loses an assignment, doesn’t get those papers graded, and/or doesn’t follow through with planning for the trajectory of the course.
3. Be funny or fun if you can
Is anything worth doing without a sense of humor? The class should know that there is plenty of room for laughing together at situations that occur but that it isn’t okay to laugh at someone. The teacher should be the first one to laugh at herself. Even a somewhat serious person can play a game or two in class every now and then. A serious person can also have candy for prizes. In fact, candy for prizes is a sure-fire, relationship win!
4. Be present
First and foremost a good teacher knows the name of every student. A good relationship with those students is based on the teacher knowing something personal about each one. This is so very easy to cultivate—either explicitly or implicitly with small conversations as you greet them each day, asking them to take some sort of survey at the beginning of the year, journal entries for world language or writing students, etc. Beyond taking an interest in them personally, how the teacher acts within the classroom dynamic is important as well. Be willing to help, listen ACTIVELY, focus on the student in front of you. So many times young people just need someone to listen to them. It is a good thing when adults haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be young, and all the angst and feelings that go with it.
5. Be authentic
Little personality quirks or habits that helped me to form good relationships might not work for another person. I loved to give nicknames to kids, I was quite sarcastic most of the time—but NEVER in a mean way, and I gave kids sincere compliments and encouragement. Another teacher might have a different set of behaviors that work for him. Regardless, it’s important to be real and be yourself. Being yourself doesn’t mean, however, that you should share your personal problems with young people. It’s okay to share tidbits here and there about yourself, but kids do not need to know every detail of your divorce proceedings. Connecting with them about pets, hobbies, things you enjoy (or maybe hate!) make you relatable to them. Finding common ground is paramount to a good relationship.
6. Be humble
It took me a long time to be able to admit that I didn’t know the entire Spanish dictionary. Admitting that I’m a learner too, helps the students in their learning journey. When a student would ask a word in Spanish that I didn’t know, I would simply say, “I don’t know; let’s look it up!” Learning WITH the student is powerful. Treating students as equal, sentient beings is important. They know you’re older and more savvy than they; there is no need to act superior just because of your age. Engendering the feeling that we’re all in this together goes a long way toward building good relationships.
7. Be vulnerable
This one comes with a word of caution. As I said above, don’t pretend to have all the answers. Certainly, you should have an incredible amount of answers as the leader in the classroom, but there WILL be times when you don’t have the answer—and that’s OKAY. You, too, are a human being. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you talk about all your innermost feelings to the students, it just means that you show and share your humanity.
8. Be honest
There comes a time in every teacher’s career when they make a mistake. Maybe a grade wasn’t calculated correctly, maybe the test key had an error, and the list goes on and on. The very best way to handle this is to be up front, name the problem, and TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. A sincere apology does wonders for relationships—with students AND parents. Kids can smell a lie a mile away. Parents appreciate straight talk—especially when they may have been expecting a confrontation. “What can I do to make this right?” is a powerful relationship builder. In another vein, not every thing one has to learn is all bells and whistles. Sometimes, you have to have a little straight up learning to get to the exciting stuff where you get to apply what you’ve learned. Be honest about all that too. As Mary Poppins said, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!”
9. Be open
Be open to new ideas, suggestions from peers, AND suggestions from the CLASS. Letting a lesson go in a different direction can be powerful. Flexibility before, during, and after a lesson is one of the hallmarks of good teaching—and it is also good for relationships! Don’t throw out everything you’ve used before or all your tried and true methods, though. The new and the old can and should go hand in hand to create a robust teaching/learning dynamic.
10. Be the leader
It is your space, the classroom, make it welcoming. It is your time, the class, make it worthwhile. It is your subject area, the lesson, make it meaningful and real. If you aren’t passionate about what you’re teaching, how can you expect a child to be? Let your excitement for your subject(s) show!
This list is at least a start for examining the qualities of people who build good relationships, specifically the teacher-student relationship. I hope that I’ve not omitted something really important and I also hope that the reader has some good food for thought. Thanks for reading!