Like any other educator or administrator, we sit here wondering about what school will look like for our students in the fall. As we reflect upon our 2019-2020 school year, and how it ended, we know one thing is a must…building relationships with our students needs to be our priority! Last school year, this was our school’s focus and we incorporated it into an “All School Advisory.” As we moved later into the school year, our students were surveyed using the Illinois Youth Survey. We were excited to see that our students identified the success of our “All School Advisory” incentive based upon Rita Pierson’s, “Every Child Deserves a Champion!” However, looking to this upcoming school year, things will look different. Our school is no different than any other middle school in that it faces the same question: How are we going to build relationships with our students, regardless of how we are conducting our teaching?

Why are Relationships Important?

Think back to when you were a student…which teacher really stood out to you and why? Usually those teachers we remember are the ones who impacted us positively and we want to be like them or negatively and they have shown us what not to do. Imagine walking into your school as a child and being told constantly by your teachers that they believe in you and that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. How would hearing those words on a regular basis have impacted your life differently? These types of words and beliefs implemented regularly by us as educators are those that will stick with our students. Many times, these relationships are what get our students through the day and are the reasons they come back daily or even many years down the road. These words of encouragement that we instill in our children on a daily basis are words that they will never forget and will remember during those difficult struggles that they will encounter as they move forward in life. As an educator, I always instill in my students the meaning of the phrase “Echale Ganas”, which means to have the desire to keep going. To this day, my former students reach out to me and tell me how my passionate preachings of “Echale Ganas” have gotten them through high school and beyond. These visits are priceless as an educator and reaffirm those reasons why I became an educator…to make a difference in a child’s life. Now looking ahead…how are you going to build these relationships with your students? Everyone must have a starting point…here are some suggestions on how to build those positive relationships with your students:

  • Create a class newsletter and let the students learn about you.
  • Ask students to fill out a survey about their interests outside of school. A lot of times, you can use this information to engage students within your lessons.
  • Send home a survey to your students parents and ask for additional insight about their child.
  • The number one, and easiest, way to build a relationship with your students is to ask them… “How are you?” Ask them questions in an open ended way, rather than in a way where they can answer with “yes” or “no”.
  • Learn every one of your students’ names and how to pronounce them correctly. Trust me, this can be challenging when you have a larger number of students but being able to call on your students by name shows them that you do care about them.
  • Use empathetic language in your classroom. Terms like “you” can come off to students as accusatory or very one sided. Rather than saying to a student… “you are being very disruptive.” Try to phrase it as… “I feel bad as a teacher that I can’t engage you in the lesson, how can I do a better job to engage you?” The first way, you are making it their error. The second way, you are stating it to them in a collaborative way about your feelings.
  • Allow the little things to sometimes roll off. If a student is chewing gum, has a minor uniform infraction, shouts out, or swears…sometimes let those things go. If they see you as someone that allows them to make minor mistakes and doesn’t get on them, they may feel more willing to share something larger without feeling judged. Students will also begin to feel safe inside of your classroom, which is extremely important.
  • When a student is misbehaving… don’t ask them the “who, what, where, when and how” of their misbehavior, but ask them “why?” When a police detective is investigating a case, they will look for the first five questions to gather information. Oftentimes when you ask the “why” the other questions in regards to the behavior won’t matter.
  • Call their parents for positive things. Everyone likes to have positive calls to their parents. Even as adults, we enjoy parental praise. If the calls are made home for positive things, it builds a rapport with the student before you have to make a more constructive call.
  • Don’t be afraid to apologize when you are wrong. Too often as educators we want to make sure that our students know that we know what we are talking about. It is also good to show our students that we make mistakes and fail at times ourselves. It is ok to say I am sorry. It is ok to laugh at ourselves when we make mistakes. It shows our students that we are human too!
  • Go to an extracurricular event. If your students are on a sports team, try to check out a game. If your student plays an instrument, try to make it to a band concert. If they are a great artist, have them create a painting for you.
  • Post student work. When I taught some of the lowest students in the school, we created a “refrigerator door” on one of the walls. This was for any work that the students were proud of completing. Most often as teachers, we choose the work to put up there. Allow the students to post their work. Many of our students today don’t have somewhere to post the work at home. Allow them that space to show their pride at school.
  • Allow them to grade you. Give them a survey, and have them be able to answer questions about teaching. Now this may be difficult to hear sometimes, but we want to show them that even as the teacher, you are open to reflect and improve, just as we tell them to do every day.

Looking Ahead to Fall 2020:

With so much uncertainty on how to prepare for our new students, building relationships with my new students and their families is still sitting at the top of my to-do list. Many schools and teachers are struggling with the question about how to go about engaging students and building those relationships if we are teaching remotely. Here are some ideas on how to build relationships remotely:

  • Create a survey for your students to fill out about their interests and hobbies. These surveys can be created by using Google or Microsoft “Forms”.
  • Create an additional survey to send out to parents. Have questions that allow for them to answer about ways to best help their child as well as support they may need during this time of remote learning.
  • Create a handout about yourself and electronically send this out to the families of your students. On there be sure to include: contact information, some information about yourself, classroom information such as expectations and/or syllabus.
  • Like we mentioned earlier to do with your students, survey your parents about how they feel your class is going for their child and ask for suggestions for improvement. Remember as educators, we are lifelong learners.
  • Communicate frequently with your students and their families by creating a weekly or monthly newsletter. Students and families have enough uncertainties during this time to worry about so they will appreciate the extra communication. Teacher’s newsletters can be emailed to parents and school-wide newsletters can be posted to the school’s social media accounts and emailed out as well.
  • Set aside time for the SEL needs of students during this time of remote learning. Schedule in a weekly class time, where there are no discussions of academics. Use this time to build a community circle and discuss topics relating to the SEL needs of your students.
  • Look to create online advisory periods as an entire school where SEL lessons could be taught with your advisory group of students.
  • Celebrate your students online successes! Anytime students have done a great job with an assignment, we would always recognize them with things such as stickers or certificates. Remotely, we can do the same thing by sending a special postcard in the mail or by emailing a reward certificate. Online homework passes are also a great tool that can be created electronically and be used to reward your students remotely.
  • Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there in order to connect with students. Create a video for them with a special message and share it. Otherwise, try out some of their hobbies. Many middle school students are into Tik-Tok…create and share a video of yourself trying out a Tik-Tok video and share it with them to get them to smile. Remember, teaching a lot of the time requires us to step outside our comfort zone and is well worth doing when it comes to building relationships with your students.
  • Continue to incorporate PBIS values into your entire school and classroom remotely. Student engagement is crucial during remote learning and constantly looking for ways to engage your students also lets them know that you do care for them. Last year, our PBIS team created Spirit Week themes and used Padlet for students and staff to respond and post on these different days.
  • Look for ways to create an “All School” trivia contest and tie this to your PBIS team, where the winners can receive a small prize. These trivia contests will actively engage your students and staff and can be accomplished by using Quizlet or Kahoot.

In conclusion, the key idea to remember about building relationships with your students is to be there for them and show that you do care about them by taking an interest in them. Regardless of what our 2020-2021 school year looks like, our students are our future and deserve to have us guiding them through this time of uncertainty. As Rita Pierson would say…be that champion that EVERY child deserves!

Tracy Fuentes is an ESL/Bilingual Resource teacher at Stevenson Middle School in Melrose Park, Illinois. Tracy is passionate about middle school students and shows this dedication to middle schools by being an Executive Board member through AIMS. In 2018, Tracy was also recognized as a Chicago Bears “Hero in the Classroom” based on the relationships she has formed with her students and the community she serves. Tracy has also worked with Stevenson’s BIS Jon Palicki and initiated Stevenson’s “All School Advisory” program in 2019.

Twitter: @TracyFuentes17