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How to Build Better Relationships With Your Students This Year

6 min readdecember 14, 2021

Building Better Relationships With Your Students

Don’t immediately jump into work.

A couple of years ago, our school moved to a model where we are actually not allowed to do any curricular/content related activities for the first two days of school. Day one is all about getting to know each other; day two is spent focusing on skills or topics that can relate to every subject. Topics such as time-management, stress reduction, academic honesty. After that, we jump on in — syllabus-going over, book checking out, homework assigning, and lectures on the Middle Ages, all still happening in that first week. 
When my principal told us that this no-content the first two days was mandatory, my first reaction was “Oh, hell, no, do you know how much content I have to get through?!?!” But I admit it, he was right. The thing I see most on the first day of school now, rather than yawns, is laughter. We’ve done a lot of different “get to know you” activities. I did the scavenger hunts (high-schoolers get through them way too fast), questionnaires, and moving lines where the students get 90 seconds to discuss questions like “describe your perfect dinner” and “what game or movie universe would you live in and why?”.  My favorite activity we’ve done is an “either-or” game. We throw up two options and our students move to the side of the room they agree with; then we have a couple of people from each side defend their choice. We get through about 10 questions and it’s fun to learn who is going to be too into defending their choice of crunchy peanut butter over creamy (confession: it’s me). Plus, we are sneakily teaching the kids how to defend their arguments with evidence. 
So take a day, get to know your kids, defend your breakfast choices with passion (waffles are clearly superior to pancakes)… then jump into the Middle Ages!

Offer opportunities for non-academic sharing.

I’m going to be really honest here: sharing circles terrify me. The thought of being put on the spot and having to answer a question or reveal something about myself to people I don’t know is crippling; and if I think about the super-shy-introvert I was in high school, I know I could never put kids through that. It’s just not something that works for me. 
However, I do understand the need for a way to share and bond in class. What has worked for me is gratitude journals. I hope to write more about gratitude journals in depth in another post, but the gist is that every Friday, I start class with 5 minutes of gratitude journalism. Everyone (including me!) lists three people and three things/events that they are grateful for and one thing that is a challenge for them. Then, we do an optional sharing portion right after.  I make it a point to always share at least one thing from my gratitude journal. First, to model what I want to see. Second, and more importantly, half of a relationship is letting the kids know us. They know who my best friend is (hi Sarah!), about my vacations, when a colleague does something nice, and when I’m really really struggling to finish grading. 
At the beginning of the year, the students who share are the students you would expect to share. But by the end of the year, every kid was sharing. Maybe not every week, but at least once a month. And I learned SO so much about them – from siblings’ names, and their hobbies, to hard relationships with parents and struggles in other classes. And they learned so much about each other. And they loved it. They asked to do it every day. It is the single most popular lesson I’ve ever done, hands down.

Celebrate their achievements.

Was someone super kind to their neighbor? Did someone pick up trash during lunch in the halls? Was a student asking the best questions ever during your lecture? Did someone just make you smile? TELL THEM! A lot of praise for these mini-moments stop after elementary school. I carry 160-170 kids a year, and that’s a lot of kids to try to find moments to praise, but I’ve found that if I do, it strengthens our relationship and makes any disciplining I have to do so much easier. 
Whenever I have some time and I’m avoiding grading, I send a note home to the parents of a student in each period. It takes me about 10 minutes to write them (6-note), but those notes mean that (1) the student knows you noticed them for a positive reason, and (2) the parents now love you if you ever need to get them on board with a grade or disciplinary issue. I keep a box of blank cards in my desk, and these notes are definitely another step to building great relationships. 

Schedule time for fun.

AP classes can be really hard. The kids who take them are often in more than one AP course, and they also tend to be the students who are working really hard on extracurriculars or jobs or volunteering outside of their classes. While we do need to really push them intellectually and work hard to build skills, sometimes it’s okay to just have fun. 
That fun can be curricular! On Halloween, we talk about witches (which is in my framework) and vampires. For the Enlightenment, we hold a salon where we dress up as 18th century thinkers. To learn about the many many wars of the 17th and 18th centuries (why, Louis XIV, why?!), we act them out with my favorite accessory – poorly made prompts. In all of these are days, the kids laugh and have fun even though they are learning what the Great Northern War is.  I also schedule in some classic and plain fun days. On Valentine’s Day, we make historical Valentine’s. In April, we have an Age of Anxiety arts-and crafts-day (it’s just painting about our anxieties, but if a principal asks, something about inter-war years culture), and after the AP test, we watch the first season of Downtown Abbey
These days are actually few in number, but they give me a chance to get to know the kids better while giving them a bit of a break during a stressful time. Again, worth the bit of sacrifice!

It’s worth it to embarrass yourself

When I first started teaching, I was worried about being too big of a dork to connect with high-schoolers. Now, ten years later, I realized that the reason I connect with them is because I’m a big dork. Now, I nerd out with them about the books I’m reading and podcasts I’m listening to. I sing directions to them when the mood strikes, and I don’t try to hide my very loud and distinctive laugh. In free moments, I make TV recommendations and blast the newest album I’m listening to.  And I never ask them to do something “embarrassing” that I wouldn’t do; I dress up for the same activities they do. I go all out during Spirit Week and I have an ugly holiday sweater that “wins” (is it a win?!) ugliest quite often. For years, Habitat for Humanity did a fundraiser that somehow always ended up with me having to teach an entire day in a Captain America costume. Guys, it’s real hard to teach holding that shield. 
Being my truest self has lots of perks. One, it’s not as exhausting as trying to be cool me. Second, I’ve connected with more kids this way! They want to talk about The Good Place and Kendrick Lamar albums, so go for it!

Focus on relationships this year, and a lot of the other things will fall into place!

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