Building relationships with students is a foundational skill of a teacher. However, sometimes particular modes of instruction obstruct the teacher’s ability to build relationships, and therefore, the ability of students to learn. Teachers occupy numerous roles in their craft. They act as tutors, counselors, evaluators, presenters, coaches, first-aiders and hosts (just to name a few). Many of these roles conceal the human-ness of a teacher. In other words, a particular role can increase the relational distance in the teacher-student relationship making well-intentioned teachers into aliens.
Another way of illustrating this issue is to think about parenting. One role of being a father is much like law enforcement. There are certain rules of fair play in our family and when someone breaks a rule, I deal with the grievances that are reported and work to facilitate reconciliation. This often involves facilitating a small courtroom scenario where I listen carefully to both sides of the story and make an official ruling on the case. If I didn’t function in this role, I can only imagine the cycle of revenge that might occur. However, I don’t think that I would be a very good dad if I couldn’t switch out of my law enforcement role to also become a friend who has fun with them or a counselor who gives them advice. Teaching is similar to parenting in this way because no one wants a teacher that is always functioning as the rule enforcer or evaluator.
Of course, it’s easy to know that you should switch roles but difficult to create spaces where the switch can happen. In my experience, it often requires a different context and intentional planning. Struggles to find resources or parent support for experiences in different settings are real. With parenting, something as simple as taking one child out for ice cream might be all you need to create the space for a meaningful conversation. With a group of nearly 30 students, that switch of context isn’t so easy, and yet, if you are intentional about finding new opportunity to connect with your students, they seem to appear.
Finding Different Relational Spaces
Winding down the first term of school as we approached the Christmas break provided a number of opportunities to get to know my students as fellow human beings. Many of the year-end Christmas traditions in my class are focused on community-building. In the past, I’ve approached these events as time-fillers or ways to manage students as their pre-holiday excited grew. This year was different because relationship building has become a bigger priority in my classroom.
One unexpected opportunity to connect with students was our Middle School, Christmas assembly that involved a teacher, lip sync battle. Even though performing on stage in front of 300 middle-schoolers was way out of my comfort zone, I accepted an invitation to pair up with another teacher and join the competition. Finding a Justin Bieber costume wasn’t easy and All I Want for Christmas is You was an awkward song to sing with another teacher but, in the end, we had fun with it. More importantly though, for those few moments on stage, I stepped into a different role and showed the students a different side of myself. Instead of being the “talking head” giving instructions in the classroom, I was the awkward, tall guy at the front doing my best pop-star impersonation and Fortnite, victory dances (which were terrible).
Ice skating was another grade-wide, Christmas activity that provides a unique opportunity to build relationships with students. Skating circles around an oval sheet of ice provides the perfect setting to talk with students about a variety of non-school topics. While it is still my responsibility to supervise everyone on the rink, it also provides a great space to throw some snow and have some fun with them–things that you may rarely get the chance to do in the classroom.
Rather than subjecting the students to another holiday movie, one of my teaching partners suggested that we have a class-verse-class dodgeball game. One unique part about this dodgeball duel was that both teachers jumped into the game as players. Because I don’t teach P.E. regularly, this was a rare opportunity to be on the same team as my students. Even though my class lost the game, we had a great time together and this shared experience bonded us together in a way that regular classroom interactions fail to do.
Sharing Your Experiences
I’m curious to know how other teachers create spaces to build relationships with their students as a fellow human being. I would love to read your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.