Building Relationships – Treating Students Like the Important People They Are in Your Life

March 23, 2021

Just working the phones on an average day

Today was my monthly call day for the week.  In my virtual teaching world, I have to have a monthly call to check in with my students and families working at home. It’s just what we do.  I always thought that what I did was the same as everyone else—until today.

I was talking with a student this afternoon. I teach a middle school career and technology course and always chat with them about their life, other classes, what’s happening in my life—you know, regular conversations we’d be having if they were in my classroom or passing in the hallway.  Last month, she had been assigned to read a book I hadn’t had a chance to read, and I asked her about it. She hadn’t gotten far, so I told her we’d talk about it on our next call. I made a note for myself and, today, when we were just chatting about life and school, I asked about the book, the assignments, and her thoughts.  We talked about her course work, too, but at the end of the call, she said something that caught me off guard.

I’m really going to be sad when I finish your class because I enjoy our conversations. None of my other teachers have ever talked to me every month like you do.

Whoa.

Really?!

I mean, not even factoring in this crazy Covid life we are living right now, how is having a real conversation with students not a part of our calls?

Then I realized, as teachers, we have so much to do, many are probably so overwhelmed and just trying to get it checked off and done.  Very much how students approach our assignments—get it done and move on to the next thing.

Several years ago, I made a shift in life to be more intentional in how I live. As a parent, a spouse, a human, a citizen, a Christian, and a teacher. That meant having real conversations with everyone. Making sure our chores and tasks we do at home, school and work were essential to forward progress and served a purpose. Designing lessons and presenting the assignments in a way that it showed the benefit it would present in life—and if it didn’t, finding a way to change that.

That fed into the phone conversations I have as we have shifted to a highly virtual world. Sure, we could talk shop and in 5 minutes I could be off the phone and log that we discussed their progress, grades and what needs done. But, instead, I block off 30 minutes for my calls. I text on Mondays to let my families know it’s Monthly Call time and send my calendar link to schedule it for a time that works, and I wait until Tuesday or Wednesday to cold call. And when I do, I ask if it’s a good time or if we need to schedule for another time. Most schedule and like being able to prepare thoughts and questions.  But we all thoroughly enjoy that chat with parent and student on speaker phone with teacher, chatting about life stuff, sharing stories and experiences, laughing, and connecting like friends or long-distance family. Sometimes, we talk for longer than that half hour window because we are enjoying the conversation.

I look forward to these talks.

They look forward to these talks.

Moms, dads, students—they all thank me for chatting and for taking the time. They ask about my family when I call.

These connections are vital to their social and emotional development. Not just the teens and tweens on my roster. Yes, they need to learn about how to have a conversation, plan and manage their time, and ask questions about what they are learning.  But the parents need the social and emotional connection. They need to know they will survive their child’s shift from child to adult. They need to hear the good their child is doing.

Even on my large group Zoom calls with some of my courses, I still strive to chat them up and make the connections. I post a joke of the day and a fun fact of the day.  I call each of them by name and ask how they are doing, what’s new, if they have some insight to share or question to ask.  Many don’t engage, but some do.

So, the next time you talk to your students or their parents, make it meaningful. Make it personal. Make notes and follow up.

I’m blessed to have these connections with students.  This is my 14th year teaching.  Some of my friends in life, were once students in my classroom, and I value the roll they have evolved into in my life and the small part I played in theirs as they grew into adults.

Make those connections. Even if it is only one a year—I promise, it’s worth it.

I’d love to hear your stories about those teacher-student connections, both as the student and as the teacher.

Becoming the Teacher My Students Needed Me To Be

By Sonya Barnes    4/30/2020

Please like and comment on this article if it resonates with you.  You can also interact more frequently by following me on Twitter @addictedtoteac1 or join the conversation on Facebook in the group Addicted to Teaching.

I remember the days of kids not wanting to work, or fake working when they didn’t understand and avoiding asking for help.  They would do as little work as possible to just get done as quickly as they could.  I remember calling home to parents or students to be hung up on when they heard it was me or sent to voicemail so they wouldn’t have to talk to me.  Those moments truly made me an unhappy teacher.  I questioned everything about my practices and wanted to do better, sometimes even considering a departure from the profession entirely.

We hear so much about building relationships with our students, we were shown videos of students and teachers high fiving and fist bumping, with glistening tears in their eyes about their love for each other, but not enough on how to do that.  Sure, I’ve had a few students I’ve connected with over the years and am still in touch with as adults. But it’s rare. And, honestly, I’m not even looking for that with every student. But I would like an enjoyable professional relationship with every student that is positive and progressive in their learning.  It’s not too much to ask, is it?

By happenstance, I stumbled across the how this year.  I found a way to define it, break it down into reproducible steps and saw it succeed-although not 100% because, well, what is ever 100% in life? 

My school does PLC’s a bit differently.  Our principal lets us choose our area of growth to focus on, let’s us do the leg work on it and share about it in a video at the end of the year with our colleagues—and we do so enthusiastically.  It’s not very often that your mandatory learning for the year gets to meet you right where you are and be about something you want it to be about.

With carte blanche, my team decided we wanted to explore the area of Growth Mindset.  It has become such a buzz phrase in education, but, other than defining it, we hadn’t really gone in depth of how to expand on it since it started. We wanted to explore this and see if we, already happy, bubbly people in a positive work environment, could find a way to do it better. And, to be perfectly honest, we were the newbies at the school still learning a new job, so wanted something we thought would be pretty easy.

We had to start by posing a question, so here is what we posed:

Once that was done, we started digging into the research element. I won’t bore you with all the details (unless you are interested, then check out the snip or comment below or email me and I can send you some links!), but we found out some amazing things. 

The sources–if you can’t read them, I can send them

We were surprised to learn that growth mindset not only impacted student learning/teaching environments but could impact whether or not dietary changes or attempts to quit smoking would be successful. Whoa. Game changer. 

A coworkers response to a research post

We realized we needed to do more than we already were, though. Especially since our project required us to make changes and implement them to get data.  We already used the “positive sandwich” approach in student feedback on assignments, but we stepped it up. In fact, when we stopped being negative at all, we saw a whole new level of connection with our students and parents.

You see, by creating a safe and welcoming environment focused on learning and not perfection, learning truly happened. We worked hard at the old proverb of treating others the way we wanted to be treated. We didn’t like being told what we did wrong, we liked hearing what we did well and what areas we could improve on and how.  So, if we, as professional adults, didn’t like negative feedback, why on earth would our kids?! How would they learn positive feedback and growth mindset if we didn’t live it?!

A student that hadn’t worked in weeks would start a conversation apologizing but would quickly relax when asked if they and their family were okay, or about some challenge they’d been struggling with the last time we talked, or how I could help them get the outcome they wanted.  I stopped telling kids to redo work they messed up on, but told them what I liked, what they could do to earn back points lost and gave them the choice of doing it—and most did.

By telling them I wasn’t worried about the past since we couldn’t change it, but that I was worried about how they could succeed right  and in the future showed them that they are the most important thing, not something they can’t change, I changed their view of the task. It truly became one of those teachable moments.

You know what else happened? Parents and students answered my calls, texts or emails. They knew my goal was to help, not judge, not make them feel bad, not point out the flaws. The students would call or text for something they didn’t understand and needed help with. And no matter how obvious the fix should have been or that I had a hundred other kids ask me THE SAME QUESTION that same day, I never made them feel bad. In fact, no matter how silly the overlook may have been, I’d downplay it as being something that was okay to not know since it may have been different than what we had known or just pretty hard to figure out. 

To truly embrace building those relationships, you’ve got to treat students as people and as equals, regardless of rank or responsibility in the infrastructure. You must respect their life and where they come from, what they are going through and be willing to walk through it with them to the other side.  You need to compliment them, celebrate their successes, and work together to solve the not YET successes.  Will it work every time and with everyone—I doubt it.  Who can make that kind of guarantee that isn’t selling something for 3 easy payments of $19.95 plus shipping and handling?  But I can guarantee that you have no chance of seeing success if you don’t try.

So, start looking at how you interact with students, parents, coworkers, your own family—people.  Look for opportunities to focus on positives and celebrate successes or turn negatives into positives in the making.  You’ve got nothing to lose, but everything to gain, and you may find the payoff is in more than your day to day teaching interactions.