Today I have for you an amazing guest blogger….the fantastic Danielle Springs, an outstanding educator and a life long learner!
In this blog post I am going to share with you the importance of the awareness of our words when interacting with our students, and the significance of strong teacher and student relationships.
Let’s start with strong relationships. When I reflect on my years as a student in the public education system, I notice one common trend: my life was positively impacted by the teachers who took the time to build genuine relationships with me and my peers. These teachers were the same ones who used their words in a positive manner and encouraged me and made me want to come to school. Initially, this is the exact reason why I became a teacher; I’m in it for the children. They matter. Their voices matter, their choices matter, and their feelings matter. If you are familiar with Personalized Learning, then you know that my advocacy of strong relationships directly aligns.
As an educator, I make it my priority to intentionally build strong relationships. I am fortunate to teach at a school and in a school district that places relationships and students above all. I make a point to build relationships and not force them. Eventually, it becomes to natural and second nature that I build them without even knowing. I am going to talk with you today about some of the ways, big and small, that I strengthen the relationships I have with my students.
First and foremost, I stand outside of my classroom door each and every morning greeting my students. You will not find me sitting at my desk preparing for the day ahead or grading papers. I greet each student with a hug, a warm smile, and cheerful “good morning!”. I also take this time to greet their siblings if they are walking past my room to their classes, greet students in other grade levels, and participate in secret handshakes that the student create with and for me. I ask them if they had a good morning preparing for school… and sometimes, the answers surprise me. For example, most of the time, their mornings are routine and the same. Other times, they wake up late, forget to eat breakfast, or feel frazzled, sometimes they are simply “still tired!”. Knowing this is very important to me. I can take it into consideration if I notice any changes in their usual behaviors throughout the day. This is one small step in building relationships that any teacher can easily implement.
When the bell rings every morning at 8:15, we begin our morning meeting. I cannot stress the importance of this opportunity to build your classroom culture, which directly relates to your relationships with students. I allow students to choose topics that we discuss, share their personal lives, and express their interests or concerns. I encourage collaboration and stake my claim for the importance of taking academic risks. We participate in team building activities and set goals as a class and as individuals.. We do all of this together, and learn how to encourage one another along the way. I encourage you to listen to Podcast number 17 for more information on building classroom culture through morning meetings.
Another simple way to build your relationships is to spend time with your students at recess. I rotate throughout the week the areas in which I spend my recess time. Not only am I observing and actively watching the students play, I am also a participant. I engage in games of kickball either as a player or the referee, I play four square and make my way around the court from joker to king, I take nature walks to our big Oak Tree, I play gaga ball, and other times I simply walk around and students crowd around me asking me to either talk or play a game. I have students who walk up to me at the beginning of the school day and say “will you please play with me at recess this afternoon??” I see this carry over into the classroom and my bond with each student as an individual grow and strengthen.
Another subtle way to build relationships is to encourage and seek out my students so that their voices are heard. I do not create a pathway without student input. I make it a point to incorporate choices, videos, activities, and assignments that the students ask for. I intentionally place topics on pathways or embed them into my lessons that I know students are interested in and can relate to. I want my students to know our classroom is a community and is truly their room- not mine. I also stay true to my word. If I tell a student I will have something ready for them tomorrow, then I do it, even if I remember just as a place my head down in bed at night to go to sleep. It is important to not make empty statements, even if they are trivial in our minds. This builds trust and stability.
I also want to encourage each and every educator who is listening to not be afraid to share with students about your personal life and your feelings. If I forget to do something or make a mistake, I tell them right away. I am open and I am honest. I share stories about my personal life all the time. My students feel as if they know my family on a first name basis, because I make it a point to be an open book. This trust and vulnerability will allow for a two way street of communication and thus building your relationships.
I mentioned previously that we can build relationships in subtle ways at school, but I also want to mention about one way that I have strengthened my relationships with my students outside of school. I intentionally send out surveys to my parents and students at the beginning and end of each school year. I use surveys provided by the author of one of my favorite books, “Passionate Learners” by Pernille Ripp. I highly recommend every teacher to read it, especially if you are implementing Personalized Learning. The beginning of year school survey is beneficial for many reasons, one which includes the parents and students speaking on behalf of student interests and out of school activities. As a teacher I have attended soccer games, basketball games, baseball games, swim meets, and gymnastics competitions. One of my favorite moments this school year was at a baseball game I attended for one of my boys. He stepped up to bat and on the first pitch, he hit the ball to the fence. This led to a home run! Instead of heading straight to the dugout as he waited for the next batter, he sprinted through the dugout and headed straight for me. He gave me the biggest hug and told me that it meant the world to him that I was at the game and was able to witness this moment. Our relationship has been exceptional ever since. He knows I care about him and love him, and this is so much more impactful than solely focusing on academics.
The last point I want to make is that as educators we need to be intentional of the way in which we speak to our students. In the book, “Choice Words”, by Peter H. Johnston writes this: “To me, the most humbling parts of observing accomplished teachers is seeing the ways in which they build emotionally and relationally healthy learning communities- intellectual environments that produce not mere technical competence, but caring, secure, actively literate human beings.”
Our words matter. I encourage all educators to pick up a copy of “Choice Words” by Peter H. Johnston. It reminds us that our language affects children’s learning. If a student is struggling with a concept, we need to be careful of the way in which we approach our corrections. If we address the area of their needs in a positive light, there is a greater chance that the student will not be discouraged, thus continuing to build on our relationships and their progress academically. For example, I am thinking of a student I previously taught that was reading several grade levels below proficiency. During a research reading conference, I asked her to read her book out loud for me to hear. She read a sentence and replaced a key word with an incorrect word. When she was finished, she looked up at me. She expressed that it did not sound right, but that she could not figure out what the sentence said. There are several ways that I could have approached this. I could have told her the answer. I could have made her try again. I could have asked her to keep going. But, instead, I asked her this- “Why do you think that the sentence doesn’t make sense?” and “What can you do to help you figure out the meaning of this word?” Once we went through strategies together, I told her that I was proud of the way SHE figured that out. If you notice- I did not take credit for giving her the answer. I let her work through it, only providing her tools. I celebrated her ability to figure out the unknown word. I celebrated her ability to read. I chose my words wisely and I allowed this teaching moment to build on our relationship while encouraging her to be a reader. Peter H. Johnston writes about a similar scenario that occurred and I encourage you to read “Choice Words” for more. In reading conferences and in other situations throughout the school day, we find ourselves with opportunities to correct students and choosing our words is vital in all situations.
Let’s think about a time when a student may have become quickly frustrated in the classroom and acted upon his or her frustrations, I might say “What can I do to help?” or “What are your next steps?” rather than immediately correcting the behaviors and actions. This shows that I am going to support him or her in making a decision, rather than being a dictator. It is important for students to know that they are able to have feelings- and this includes frustrated feelings as well. We must celebrate their ability to express their frustrations and help them find solutions and ways to move forward.
The last thing I want to leave you with is this: there will never be a student of mine who goes home at the end of the day without knowing he or she is loved by me. I tell each and every student daily that I love them and care for them- and then I prove my words through my actions. I encourage all educators to do the same. Build your relationships. Love your students endlessly. Watch them grow both emotionally and as a result, academically.