By Amanda Jonas February 19th 4:45 PM
“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Thich Nhat Hanh
A student told a lie about me. Marcus* told his mother that in math small group, somewhere in between teaching changing improper fractions to mixed numbers, that I had called him a bad name. He even went a step further, telling his mother that I hated him and picked on him constantly.
How could Marcus get it so wrong? How could I hate any kid? I was the teacher that took kids out for fro-yo after school and the teacher that kids wanted to sit next to on the bus. Had Marcus missed the memo? What made him feel this way?
The very next day, Marcus did something even more confusing. He came up to me after school, gave me a huge hug, and said, “You know. Even though I get mad at you, you’re still my favorite teacher in the world.” If I could insert that confused emoticon face right here, I would.
This befuddling incident led me to some serious deep thinking. What was the difference between a student who writes, “Ms. Jonas, you are like a mother to me and a long lost big sister” on his or her homework and a student like Marcus?
The simple answer is relationships. Although I had fostered positive and strong relationships with most of my students, there were some students, like Marcus, for whom I had not yet had the opportunity.
In my experience, relationships are the cornerstone to any successful elementary classroom. Someone once told me “kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Yeah, it’s cheesy, but it is 100% true. Having a strong relationship with your students, one where they know beyond a doubt that you care about them, not just academically, but as people, is incredibly important.
For anyone that doubts this theory, think back to the last time you had a coach or a boss that you knew disliked you or didn’t seem to believe in you. Now, think back to a time when you had the opposite: a coach or boss that not only liked you, but knew about your interests and dreams. Now tell me who you worked harder for, and who you trusted more to lead you?
I fear that sometimes in this high stakes, results driven climate, we forget that we are inherently nurturers of the soul as well as classrooms teachers. I recently met with my master educator who noted how warm and supportive my classroom felt. My master educator made a comment about how much my students were participating, unafraid to ask questions or make mistakes. When kids feel supported and loved, and know that someone will be there for them until they get it right, they feel safe enough to take academic risks.
While the results of these relationships are wonderful, they are not always easy to forge or maintain. It would be a complete lie if I told you it is easy to form strong relationships with every child who crosses the threshold of your class. There will be those children who seem difficult to reach or others, like Marcus, where you have no idea where you stand with them. The interesting thing is that the students who seem to give you the hardest time are almost always the ones who crave a loving, supportive teacher-student relationship the most.
According to a study by the American Psychological Association (APA), a child’s poor relationship with even a kindergarten teacher can set a child up for lower academic achievement up through eighth grade. Conversely, when teachers build strong relationships with students, they are less likely to act out or display defiant behavior. The reason? According to the APA, those students act out less because they know and trust you. Relationships are crucial especially when they are hardest won. The APA is a tremendous resource on how to foster and build relationships with even our most difficult students. With their help and some of my own experiences, I have complied a short list of relationship building tips.
You can’t fake it!
Fake it till you make it may work in show biz or passing off Sears as Hugo Boss until you can actually afford it, but it does NOT work with kids. Believe me, kids can tell how you feel about them. No matter how difficult or how many Hail Mary’s you need to say before class, you must learn to love every single one of your students.
What about that one kid…
Even with your most challenging kid, there is always something to find in them that you can latch on to. Those are the kids who need you to be there for them the most, and often times their little outbursts and tantrums are really just their attempts to get someone’s attention the only way they know how. The APA says that especially in urban, high poverty schools, teacher student relationships are crucial because they build resiliency in students and ultimately lead to higher academic achievement.
Is it too late?
It’s almost February, you might be thinking. There are only 5 months of school left, 4 if the polar vortex strikes us again and we have a month of snow days (wouldn’t that be terrible?). Is it too late to repair broken relationships or to foster ones I haven’t even started yet? The answer is absolutely not. The APA found in a study of over 4,000 poor and minority students that in only five months, students whose teachers worked to build stronger relationships had higher grade point averages than their peers whose teachers did not make that same effort.
Where do I start?
Kindness. Start with kindness and the mindset that you are vitally important to these children whether they willingly admit it or not. Take time to learn about who your students are and where they come from- more than surface questions like whether they enjoy reading or math more- and show a genuine interest in what they care about. Also, don’t be scared to be the real you around your kids. I am naturally a sarcastic, thoughtful and opinionated individual, and this translates into who I am in my classroom. My students enjoy seeing this part of me as their teacher, ultimately making us closer.
Kaufman-Rimm, Sara (2014). Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/education/k12/relationships.aspx?item=1
Amanda Jonas is a 5th grade math teacher at Stanton Elementary School.