Big Walnut teacher focuses on building relationships to improve student achievement

by James Sturtevant, Big Walnut Education Association

big-walnut-blog-sqTeachers are often lectured, “Get to know your students, but that’s not easy to do. A lot of kids can be pretty closed down, and, if you try to get to know them before they’re ready, it can be counterproductive.

Bonding with students is fundamental to the learning process. John Hattie, in his landmark book Visible Learning, created a list of 138 influences on student learning. He placed student-teacher relationships in 11th place, far ahead of many things one might think more important. State departments of education, including Ohio’s, are requiring resident educators to demonstrate that positive relationships are being fostered in classrooms.

Invite students to come to you

If you’ve been tasked with bonding with students, and you’re a bit stumped on how to do it, try reverse engineering the problem. Instead of you coming on too strong, encourage students to come to you. In order to coax students out of their shells, melt arctic exteriors, or win over the disruptive, teachers need to be:

  • Approachable
  • Interesting
  • Safe
  • Non-threatening

How about sharing these experiences with your class?

  1. A movie review
  2. A restaurant review
  3. Detail a particularly challenging workout
  4. Map out a new home construction project
  5. Have your students help you select new eyeglass frames
  6. Or a new car
  7. Or maybe display a before and after picture of
    your next haircut

Tell your own stories

A great way to bond with students is to tell stories about yourself. That’s right—this means teachers may have to come out of their shells too. Strive to become an adult that kids find interesting. Bring students into your world. Not literally. I’m not proposing you invite them to your house for dinner, but allow them to live vicariously through some of your experiences. You’ll be amazed at the power of this simple tactic. Allow students to get to know you. Isn’t that the way you’ve forged other relationships?

To give your stories more power, accompany narratives with images projected on your SMART Board®. Become a photojournalist. If something interesting happens to you, capture images on your phone and share them in class.

Invariably, when I spout my ideas about sharing personal stories, I get some push back. Here are some common reservations:

  • What a tremendous waste of instructional time!
  • Teachers need to be respected…they’re not
  • My students would look at me like I’m an idiot!

Certainly, spending a few minutes at the beginning or end of class bonding with kids isn’t a waste. Particularly if you believe, like John Hattie, that relationships are essential to the learning process. You might find improved student-teacher rapport magically leads to
better student performance. I would never want to undermine any educator’s image. Sharing information with students shouldn’t lead to this. You don’t have to be a court jester, stand-up comedian or an extrovert for that matter. The stories and experiences you share don’t have to be humorous. Just because most student skits turn into comedies, doesn’t mean your show and tell sessions must be the same.

Foster student sharing

For those concerned with student receptiveness, I totally understand. Students can be tricky. When you first go down this sharing path, some kids may be dismissive or hostile, “What’s this gotta do with what we’re studying?” Or, “Why are you telling us this stuff?” One crabby student does not constitute a consensus. The majority of your class might really enjoy your rendition of your experience, but be too reserved to express it.

And, I’ve often found, kids who are initially the most persnickety, later tend to be the first to start sharing back…“Mr. Sturtevant, guess where my family ate last night!” Or, “Mr. Sturtevant, wait till I tell you what coach made us do at the end of practice!” So, if you experience some initial resistance, keep trying. Your students will come around.

And finally, these reservations fail to appreciate—and this is MOST important—that contemporary youth are totally comfortable sharing and hearing trivial details of daily existence. Think about what students post on social media:

  • Massive photo albums of themselves
  • Their favorite teams, food, music, movies, shows, games and apps

Young people are totally down with this form of sharing. They’re constantly informing all of humanity…what’s up. This ultra-connected, online, social networking generation diligently refreshes the stream of information.



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