What is the most essential ingredient for effective teaching and learning? There may be as many answers to this question as there are teachers! Is it thorough planning? Epic resources? A teacher with an A-list actor's charm and infectious charisma? Is it the implementation of an amazing curriculum? It could be one or all of these, or something else completely. But, I think that the one thing that trumps these all is relationship.
If we reflect on our own experiences as learners at any stage of our lives we can remember at least some of the people who taught us. What do we remember about them? What kind of an effect did that person's approach have on us? We could characterize our relationship with that educator as either warm or cold, close or distant. I remember my first piano teacher when I was a kid. She was a Catholic nun; small-framed, old and wizened and tough as nails. I didn't like her and I think the feeling was mutual. In all honesty, I most likely didn't practice enough and it’s probable that her solution to that was to strike fear into me and thereby push me to improve. Needless to say, that didn’t work. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I practiced less. I lasted a year and I never learnt to play properly. Should I have practiced more? Yes. Should I have been more self-motivated? Probably, but I was a 9 year old kid. I think the onus is on the educator to at least try to create rapport with his or her student. I say try, because there will always be personality differences - we are human after all.
I have had many positive with my teachers. I remember back to when I was a primary student and our beloved dog Keri died. I was pretty cut up about it but I remember my teacher's response. It was warm, and she showed genuine care for me in what was to me a sad event. It made a difference to me - to experience that kind of empathy, and I think that apart from gaining respect for that particular teacher I may have developed a greater sense of compassion through it. The way we treat our students, or anyone has a profound ripple effect on our environment and the people around us.
How can we build better relationships with our students?
Smile. Genuinely smile. It's so simple, and most of us probably do this already. Everybody likes it when we smile at them (as long as that smile is real and well-intentioned).
Show a genuine interest in each student’s life. I realized that I was so obsessed with only using English in my class that I was missing out on making this important connection with my students. For the majority of my students conversing in English about what's going on in their lives is not a realistic option at the moment. So, I have started to ask them questions about their lives in Japanese (sports events, school, interests etc.), usually before or after class. It has made a positive difference.
Use appropriate physical contact. You will likely know what your boundaries are for you and your students. I tend to not hug my students but often high-five them during and after lessons. My younger students also like it when I throw them up in the air. Just watch out for the ceiling!
Be honest and fair. This doesn’t mean that we have to treat all of our students in the same way. Every student is different and therefore has different needs. But, if you have expectations of behavior in your class then make sure you maintain them consistently.
Treat your students with respect and dignity. No yelling! In the past this has been a common and accepted means of “class control”. However, there is no reason that a teacher should ever need to yell if he or she is doing an effective job. If you've ever been yelled at, and most of us probably have, then you will know that it is an awful experience and counter-productive to developing a positive relationship. We as teachers should have our emotions in check even when under stress, and also make sure that we are a positive role model to our students.
Grow in empathy and practice it in the classroom. In spite of how busy or stressful our classroom life may be, we need to make an effort to show empathy towards our students. We may not know exactly why a student is upset about something, and it's easy to brush some things off as inconsequential even though they are real to our students. It's important to know our students’ backgrounds as best as possible and to be able to look behind their behavior in order to understand why they act the way they do. What we see is often the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is going on in a child's emotional life.
Building relationships with our students is both a means and an end. Our ultimate goal as teachers is to make sure that students learn, no matter what our subject is. Having a positive relationship with our students will help us build trust and students are most likely going to listen to and follow the example of somebody they trust. Also, being able to build and maintain meaningful relationships is an integral skill for every person to learn and practice. What an amazing responsibility and privilege it is to be able to lead students in this way!
Do you think that it is important to build relationships with your students? Why or why not? What have you done in order to help build positive relationships with your them? Let me know in the comments.
PS. I wish I'd kept learning the piano. Anyone up for the challenge. I promise I'll practice!
Oh yeah, and get your students' names right!