Meaningful Relationships With Students

A classroom with a red apple, books and a blackboard with handwriting in white chalk on the board.
A classroom with a red apple, books and a blackboard with handwriting in white chalk on the board.

I have created and delivered a lot of professional development to educators. One of the repeated messages of these trainings is the importance of building meaningful relationships with students. This is often a misinterpreted pedagogical philosophy and practice.

Some teachers believe a meaningful teacher-student relationship is knowing about their students' reading level, learning styles, preferred genres, hobbies and extracurricular activities. These are all significant elements that a teacher should know, but, knowing your student, I mean, really knowing them requires connecting with them, respecting them, appreciating their uniqueness, engaging them in learning, empowering them with new knowledge to explore and have ownership of it, and quite importantly, not being quick to discipline or label them because they do not fit in our "box" of how one should behave or act in a certain situation. It necessitates learning about their background, what's important to them, their culture, their challenges and their strengths. It requires a growth mindset of acknowledging and validating their individuality. It means regarding their character with esteem and building them up. Meaningful teacher-student relationships stresses genuine caring for students. When we build those relationships, we view and treat the kids differently.

Sometimes, teachers overreact to discipline and find themselves asking a student to challenge their choices. We have to be careful on what and how we pick those choices. Too often, educators mandate behavioral adherence based on their own experiences, backgrounds or unconscious biases leading to unnecessary negative consequences for the student. As teachers, we need to be selective on what we are going to correct or demand that a student change about themselves. This is not to suggest that students are free from responsibility, or that teachers should not help students correct certain behaviors, but take the time to deliberately think about disciplining the student for the act or what we consider misbehaving and whether it is a non-negotiable (e.g. looking up at the ceiling hardly warrants a trip to the principal's office). Whether it's an effort to cease or diminish misbehavior or to absorb students in learning, build and maintain meaningful relationships with them.

Take the time to talk with students, whether at their lunch or in the hallways. Get to know them for who they are, their aspirations and fears. Have conversations about a variety of topics that are not school-related. Let them lead the discussions and ask you questions. Appropriately, of course! Share a childhood story. Never discipline a student in front of the class. Imagine if we were chastised at a work meeting with our colleagues present. We would run to the HR department to complain. Like a layered cake, our work is so much more than teaching. There are social and emotional layers, instruction, support, and rigorous layers too. The layers seem endless. However, the best thing about our job are the students and our exhaustive and unrelenting efforts to build meaningful relationships with them, which is truly the icing on that fifty-layer cake.