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5 Practical Ways For Teachers To Transform Learning Through Strong Student Relationships

     We read and hear a lot about the importance of relationships in the field of education. It’s mentioned in numerous writings, trainings, meetings and programs. Most educators agree that it is important. I would argue that it, in the end, is the most important. Indeed, learning cannot be maximized or optimized without great relationships. Secondly, students will only have a potentially transformational experience if they connect with and truly enjoy working with their teachers.
(Photos Courtesy of Minarets High School and Buchanan High School)

     Here are some practical tips of how to approach enhancing one’s relationships with any and all students:

1) Accessibility - make yourself available. Personally, I was giving out my cell phone number since that technology emerged. I figured if my students wanted to contact me, they should be able to. They usually don’t need to. But when they did, it was almost always easy communication for me and important to them. Just because they have my cell phone doesn’t mean I’m available 24/7. Calls, texts, etc. still operate on my timeline. But it’s nice to get the info and to “be there” in some capacity. If you think we’re so important that students are just dying to contact us or misuse our contact info, then think again. We’re not that important. But for those that need it, it’s there. And it sends a subconscious and psychological message to them that we do care and they can access us. For me, I’m happy to connect on social media because my biggest priority is to be accessible. I have nothing to hide and again they don’t think we’re that important. Don’t want to give out your # or connect on social media? Google Voice is a great option. And if not that, how about just being in your classroom before school, or at lunch, or after school to be available?
(Actual Text Conversation with 2014 Minarets High School Graduate)

2) Student Voice & Choice – giving people choices and options is a powerful psychological tool that creates empowerment, buy-in and higher-level learning. For years, we have had teacher directed and dominated classrooms that produced limited results, lower level thinking and compliance at best. If you want higher-level thinking, you have to empower them. Choice and student voice will lead to that. In a project-based environment, for example, it’s easy to create choice. Teachers may come up with the challenge or driving question, but students can choose the type of final product or project. Indeed, I know several teachers who create project menus allowing students to choose their questions, their challenges, their final products, their readings and more. In terms of voice, ask your students. That’s right. Ask them what they think and what they want from their learning. Students should be surveyed, formally and informally, on a regular basis. That’s how you and they learn. It facilitates reflection for both students and teachers when learning and learning experiences are assessed.

(Student Survey Data Courtesy of Former Minarets High School Teacher Jon Corippo)

3) Creating Significance – make all of your students important. One way to do this is to create roles and make sure all students have a chance to serve in a meaningful and vital role. What if every class had at least one or more Student Tech Coordinator, Class Documentarian/Historian, Class DJ, Class Media Specialist, Class Marketing or Promotions Person, Project Coordinator, Project Leader, Class Organizer, Class Celebration Coordinator and more? Teachers have lots of needs. Have students serve those needs while expanding their roles as leaders, specialists and facilitators. Get them to own something in your class. Certainly, roles and duties can rotate as well. But students have talents and skills that can help the entire class function more smoothly while increasing their buy-in, responsibility and engagement. Think also about class competitions, recognition, rewards, special activities and celebrations and more.

(Photos Courtesy of Buchanan High School and Minarets High School)

4) Music – we all know that music is a powerful connection for students. It’s personal and life altering. First, get to know their music. Find out what artists they like and ask about them, feature them, play and promote them. I wasn’t always a huge speed metal or hip hop fan, but I learned about them, asked about them and showed respect for them. When I played music in my classrooms, I didn’t just play “my” music. I also played or featured theirs. Trust me, if you have a student that is disconnected or disengaged with your class, long-term investment and interest in “their” music will potentially have some of the biggest payoff. When I was an activities director, we used to do noontime activities. One of our most successful ones was our Guest DJ Program. Instead of us playing our selected music at lunch, we would take applications from students to play “their” music at lunch. Naturally, it had to be school appropriate in terms of offensive language, but genre was open territory. To see the most disengaged students at our school sign-up to play their death metal or electronic music, as two examples, was amazing. First, they were excited. They went through the process to be able to own the campus airwaves that day at lunch. Some students didn’t like their music and complained. I had to continually explain that as long as the lyrics were not profane, we could not judge their music. So not only did we get disengaged or uninvolved students engaged and involved, we ended up teaching valuable lessons to the student audiences daily. Music is a life-changer. Use it.
(Photo courtesy of Clovis High School and Minarets High School)

5) Food – I don’t know where this idea of food and learning together became taboo. Do you know any professional settings where they don’t have food on a regular basis? I don’t. I’m not saying students should eat anything and everything with no parameters (after all sunflower seeds are a mess). However, what if you allowed them have food at certain times (for class breaks, celebrations, progress, mastery, achievement and so on)? Food is our most universal culture commonality and your classroom is a culture. So, bring in the chow. Throw a party, have them potluck, and offer food prizes or incentives if and when you can. Want happy workers? Feed them. Look at corporate giants like Google and Facebook for models. They feed their creative and engaged employees constantly. I’m not saying you have to finance this. Just allow them to bring it in and they will. High schools students have a constant appetite for food and it can make a huge physical and mental difference in the work they produce. Experiment with what works for you and your students. But the idea of classrooms being food and snack free is something that came from that outdated teacher or school manual that never worked to begin or ever.
(Photos Courtesy of Minarets High School and Buchanan High School)

     These are certainly not the only relationship-building tips teachers can deploy. We each have own ideas and methods of connecting with students. The important thing is that we focus on it and maximize them for truly transformational learning experiences. Whatever we do, we need to revisit them regularly and make them all part of our consistent classroom culture. The days of using fear, intimidation or professional distance are long gone. Students are waiting to connect with their teachers as mentors and learning guides. Certainly, students will be more engaged and ultimately more successful. Additionally, teaching, which has an immense number of systemic challenges, will be more rewarding.


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