4 easy ways to form positive relationships with students

Effective teaching includes building strong student-teacher relationships

[Ed. note: This article is excerpted from “The New Teacher Revolution” by Josh Stumpenhorst, reproduced here courtesy of Corwin. Stumpenhorst will deliver the closing keynote at ISTE 2015 on Wed. July 1]

student-relationshipsBuilding relationships with students is probably the single most impor­tant thing we do as teachers. There is nothing more important than getting to know your student, and I often say you have to know the kid before you can teach the student.

Having a relationship with a student and having mutual respect does not mean being best friends. It also doesn’t mean being the favorite teacher or being obsessed with students liking you. There are a lot of ways you can go about building a relationship; however, it must be clear that simply hav­ing a positive relationship with a student will not make all misbehaviors disappear. It has the potential to greatly diminish them, but there are times where you will need to bring in a colleague or an administrator to support you in extreme cases of student misbehavior. Here are four easy ways to form positive relationships with students.

1. Say “Hello”

The easiest and simplest way is to simply say hello. This may sound ridiculous and too simplistic to be effective. However, I will tell you that simply greeting every single student every single day will go very far in building a relationship. There are children in our schools who can go an entire school day without a single individual speaking to them. You may think I am lying or making that up, but that is the sad reality for some of our students. They are the quiet students and the forgotten ones. They go through their entire school day without anybody engaging in a conversation with them because they’re quiet and meek and just do their work and don’t cause any problems. It can be something as simple as standing at the door of your classroom and saying “Good morning” as every kid comes in.

Next page: Meeting kids where they are

2. Have a conversation

Go a step further and ask a student how his evening was or how his favorite sports team did last night. I often find myself in the hallways talking about who was kicked off American Idol or how in the world that person survived on that latest outdoor-survival reality show. Whatever it takes, put yourself in a conversation with every single kid, every single day. Some people will say, “I don’t have time for that.” How can we as teachers say we don’t have time for our students? Bottom line, we are not in this business for impressing politicians, upholding a curriculum, or increasing our PISA score, but rather we are in this business for kids.


Some people will say, “I don’t have time for that.” How can we as teachers say we don’t have time for our students?


3. Meet kids where they are

We are very fortunate to have a lot of morning and after-school activities the kids can participate in at school. One of my all-time favorites is bombardment. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that game it is the new way to say dodgeball in a somewhat politically correct manner. Now we have dodgeball, I’m sorry, bombardment every winter. My good friend Jay has been doing this intramural for as long as I can remember. On any given day we have over 200 students in the gym playing bombardment. On many days, you will see teachers and administrators in there as well. They are not in there because they have to be to supervise or are required to be there. They are there because they want to go and play bombardment with the kids. I always loved playing dodgeball as a child, so I love the opportunity to go in there and throw a ball around and get hit as well. To be clear, the students all voluntarily choose to participate in this intramural and we no longer use the red rubber balls from our childhood that left a red badge of courage on our cheekbones all morning.

Find an extracurricular activity where the kids are and join in. They will love seeing you there and enjoy interacting with you in a non-classroom setting. Most schools have clubs and activities for kids to participate in outside of the school day or possibly during. If not, create one and make it your own.

4. Be real

In addition to doing the bombardment intramural, Jay also teaches in our school’s BD or behavior disorder program. We often talk about how important relationship building is and how it is a huge part of what he does. He will go so far as to say he could not do his job without creating those bonds with kids. Early on in my career he shared why he does all of the intramurals and interacts with kids in these extra curricular spaces.

First, he thinks teachers who do this have a huge advantage when those students come into the classroom setting. No longer are you simply the teacher who’s pestering them about their schoolwork or yelling at them about different things they’re not doing. You are now also the guy who is going to the gym and playing games with them as well. You are the guy that took a shot to the face and split your glasses off of your head because of the eighth-grade boy (who also pitches on one of the local club baseball teams) caught you off guard. You have a little bit of street cred and to the students you are “real.”

Now when you ask that child to do the work or to engage in a conversation about school, you’re not just a teacher. You are now more of a real person and the more real you are to a kid the more likely they are to engage in whenever you’re asking them to do. While this may sound like just attempting to be the “cool teacher,” it really is not. Over time you build these relationships to the point where a kid will do anything you ask him to do because he cares about you as a person and knows that you care about him in the same way. It sounds so simple and it really is. Create situations where you can engage in real interaction with your students and it will pay off in the classroom when you are asking them to do something they may not be terribly excited to do.

Josh Stumpenhorst is a junior high history and English teacher in suburban Chicago and the author of “The New Teacher Revolution” from Corwin.

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