Ten Ways Teachers Can Build Better Relationships With Kids
Early on in my teaching career, I struggled to find the balance between being an authority figure and being a real person with my students. When I came down on them they tuned me out. If I was too accepting, they walked all over me.
After I became a mother, I learned that teaching with love helped me find the balance between disciplining my students and inspiring them. Being a compassionate adult helped me define my role as an educator.
Caring for kids takes courage and vulnerability, but the success I’ve had reaching students has helped me realize that the rewards are worth the risk. Teaching with love has made my life and the lives of my students infinitely brighter.
How can you teach with love? Here are ten simple ways I’ve learned to build lasting, loving relationships.
1. Give them a nickname.
This may seem like the cheesiest way of forming a connection, but honestly, children feel special when you call them by their nicknames. Why? Because it implies you know them. You’re close enough to call them something else. When I want to establish a rapport with my students, and I always want that, I ask them what they prefer to be called. If they don’t have a nickname, I ask if they’d like one.
Over the last two decades of my teaching career, I can count on one hand the number of students who either didn’t have or want a nickname. Most kids enjoy feeling close to their peers and the adults who teach them. Allowing them to go by a name they choose from the first moment you meet helps them feel empowered and connected from the get-go. That, teacher-friends, is called a win-win.
2. Be real with them.
There are so many ways teachers can share their authentic selves with their students. When you share what you’re passionate about, inside and outside of class, you allow them to see what ignites you. By talking about your love of eating Italian, running marathons, or building stuff, you let them know it’s okay to share who we are as people, not just who we are as teachers and students, inside the classroom. In fact, it’s even better than okay. It’s the best way to form a relationship. Revealing what you love, what you struggle with, and who you are as a person, encourages our students to do the same. So many teachers feel like the only way students will take them seriously is to be a distant, impersonal translator of knowledge when the opposite is actually true. Kids learn best from people who they can relate to.
3. Break bread.
There’s an old saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” The same can be said of children. When you want to show kids you care, share food with them. Nothing shows kids how much you care more than some well-timed refreshment. Whether or not you break bread or bring in juice boxes, it doesn’t matter what you share (although something nutritious would help increase their brain function) it matters that you share with them. Sharing food with people is a universal way of saying, “I’m with you.” I care about you enough to split this last cookie. When you share food with students you pave the way to feed the other hunger inside them: the hunger to learn.
4. Find out who they are.
This is easier said than done. Though kids can be oddly revealing about what’s going on around them, they aren’t always so communicative about what’s going on inside them. It can be hard to learn what kids are interested in, what they like to do in their spare time, what they like to read, watch, play, draw, etc,. By asking them questions about themselves (to the rest of the world this is called small talk) we can learn the other sides of our students.
If they’re in an extracurricular, make an attempt to show up to one of their outings. If they have a big test coming up, ask them how studying is going. Be interested. Be a good listener. Let them know that you care about them as a whole person, not just as a student in your class.
5. Pay attention to what they’re not saying.
When children want you to know how they’re doing, they’ll often communicate with you through their actions as much as their words. Body language tells us a lot. Eye contact, facial expression, inflection, and mannerism reveal as much, if not more, about how they’re feeling. When students are experiencing hard times, they aren’t sure who to talk to or what to say.
This is why getting to know your students and what “normal” looks and sounds like for them is so important. Then, when they aren’t behaving or expressing themselves like they usually do, adults pick up on it. You know when something is off because you know how they seem when life is good. Psychologists call this establishing a baseline of behavior. Teachers call this paying attention. Either way, when you tune into students’ actions, you’re far less likely to overlook their feelings.
6. Be available.
This strategy is so simple it often gets short-shrift in teacher training. Why? Because everybody knows teachers have lots of students and little time. Of course, we want to be available to help, speak, and connect with children. Now ask us how much time in our day we have to help, speak, and connect with them. Not much. Teachers must make a concerted effort to find time before, during, and after school to prioritize children’s needs. In essence, you must make time.
This isn’t easy to do, especially when so much is asked of you, but if you don’t, then this is the message our students receive, “You’re important to me, but not that important.” Humans value what we give our time to. If you make time for students in your day, then you’re showing them you value them. Even when you can’t be physically available to work with students, establish a line of communication that allows you to find another time or way to help.
7. Don’t overstep.
There is a misconception that empathetic educators are adults with no boundaries or professionalism. This is simply not true. Being a loving teacher isn’t about transgressing boundaries or abandoning our obligations. In fact, the opposite is true. Establishing your role as a caring teacher means setting clear boundaries and being consistent in your thoughts, words, and actions.
Students will not respect teachers who say, “Do as I say not as I do.” Loving educators need to talk the talk and walk the walk. If you want to show students that you care about them, then you must set clear expectations for them and model the kind of work ethic, language, and behavior you expect. Remaining true to your own personal and professional boundaries is one way you can model appropriateness for students.
8. Talk to your colleagues.
John Donne may have penned it first but plenty of people have said it since, “No man is an island.” This is especially true in education. Teaching can be a lonely job. We are surrounded by children all day long, but adults are in short supply. Having conversations with other like-minded, similarly overburdened individuals helps us remain sane and grounded. Teachers need each other for moral support, professional growth, and overall good cheer, but we also need to share what we know about our students.
When you’re worried about a student, figured out how they learn best, or want to celebrate your success, often the first people you want to share your thoughts with are your coworkers. Talk to them. Tell them what you’re experiencing and ask questions. None of us is as smart as all of us working together.
9. Talk to parents/caregivers.
When you teach a child, you do not teach a child in isolation. Yes, other teachers can help you, but studies show the determining factor in a child’s success is parental involvement. When parents are engaged in their child’s education, their son/daughter is more likely to have a positive outcome.
How can parents be involved? By communicating with parents over our expectations, observations, and interactions with their children, we allow parents another way to support their kids. You’ll never hear a parent say, “Oh, I wish I knew less about my kid.” Most parents, no matter how busy they are, genuinely want their children to succeed because they love them. Though it can sometimes feel like you’re on two different sides, parents need to know that you want their child to succeed and that we’re all on the same side.
10. Love them.
Last, but definitely not least, there simply is no substitute for real love. Children can tell the difference between people who say they want you to succeed and people who help you succeed. How can they tell? Because they can feel it. Just like you can feel it when someone is genuinely pulling for you. Love is a verb, and it requires action. If a student is struggling, whether academically, socially, or emotionally, teachers are on the frontlines of this battle.
We are the ones manning the trenches, and when we turn our backs and pretend not to see, then we’re telling our students, “You’re own your own here.” We must pick up the shovel and help them dig their way out. We must teach them how smart, capable, and gifted they are and be the kind of educators who find a way to show students how much we care.
Opening up my heart to my students has brought so much joy. The gift of forming real relationships far outweighs the heartache. When educators say, “We can’t save every child,” we give ourselves an out, a way to be resigned when the system fails. Teachers need to realize: WE ARE THE SYSTEM. Yes, we may feel frustrated by illogical policies, inconsistent government mandates, lack of funding, poor administrative decisions, and so much more, but we cannot give up the fight.
So often I hear, “What can we do to improve the state of public education?”
We can stop waiting for the changes we wish to see, and start showing these children how much they mean to us. We can show them that emotion has an important place in education. Acknowledging our students’ thoughts and feelings while sharing our own is a vital way we make the work we do together more meaningful.
About the Author: Emily Denbow Morrison M.Ed.
An expert educator, seasoned writer, and loving teacher Emily Denbow Morrison writes for change in American schools. A lifelong advocate for children, Emily has taught high school English since 2001 and has loved, encouraged, and supported thousands of students. Her work centers on helping educators build strong, loving relationships with students, caregivers, and colleagues. She lives in Maine with her handsome husband, three beautiful children, and labradoodle named Benny.
Connect with Emily on Instagram.