As dedicated, passionate professionals, we all want to improve our relationships with the students we teach in class each day. Most of us entered our profession hoping to build trusting, positive relationships with our students to help them to meet their potential and realize their dreams. But building trustful, personal relationships isn’t easy in today’s crowded classroom with curriculum to teach, standards to meet, and tests to prepare for. Often, it seems there is barely enough time to reflect before another day begins and the cycle of planning, teaching, grading, and assessment begins again.
What can you as a busy teacher do to improve and develop relationships of greater trust with your students despite the demands of a full teaching schedule and a desk full of grading? Below are 7 trust-building practices that you can apply in class right now to build trust with your students and deepen your relationship with your class that won’t encroach on your instruction time and take only moments each day to do.
Try Your Best
Your students need to trust that you can teach them what they need to learn. Every lesson you teach is another chance to prove to your students that you can lead them where they need to go to reach their goals. Show them you are a competent professional through your passion, preparation, and effort. If you need to, professional development can help you to stay relevant in your teaching methods and techniques and keep abreast of new trends in education. Don’t be afraid to tell your students you are a learner, too. They will appreciate your honesty!
Be careful not to make promises to your students you can’t keep. It may be an honest mistake that prevents you from keeping your word, but your students may see it as hypocrisy. Establish a classroom routine and set of rules and stick to them, and make sure classroom rules and behavior expectations apply equally to all students in your class, every day of the year.
Don’t lie to your students. Kids have an uncanny knack for sniffing out dishonesty. Share your feelings and concerns over their behavior, or new lesson or assessment ideas that you want to try. Knowing that you worry sometimes will show them that you care about them and your professional practice. To be vulnerable with others requires true strength and bravery.
Give Students Voice
Trust needs to be given for it to be returned. Whenever possible, give students a chance to exert control over their learning and classroom. For many students, the trust you place in them will be a much appreciated breath of fresh air and freedom. They will respect your belief in them and appreciate the chances you give them. Don’t worry! They won’t disappoint you!
Respect and Protect Them
Of course we owe our fellow educators professional respect and the benefit of the doubt when they raise concerns about our students, but whenever possible, advocate for and defend your students. Go to bat for them and prove to them that you are on their side. They will appreciate that an adult role model is willing to put themselves on the line to defend them.
A learning community is united in its pursuit of learning. Don’t be afraid to let your students know if you don’t have the answer. Challenge them to research and teach a mini-lesson on a topic that interests the class. Get to know the your students' parents and get their advice and input. Share the lead.
Whenever possible, share the same space as your students. Between classes or during lunch breaks, open your classroom door or take time to walk the halls around your classroom. Take an interest in the hobbies and extra-curricular pursuits of your students. Ask about the video game they’re playing or the music they are listening to. Listen actively to what they say and remember. If you see the same student a few days later, recall your conversation with them. They will feel valued and respected if you do.
With all the challenges that today’s teachers face, it is easy to lose track of what is really important in building our professional relationships with our students. Simple actions like the ideas above are all it takes to start down the path to building more trusting and authentic relationships with the students in your class today.
Motivation and Persistence
Few in the education field are unfamiliar with the terms ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ motivation coined by Ryan and Deci in their self-determination theory (2000). Intrinsic motivation comes from within and describes motivation that sees the task as valuable in and of itself. Extrinsic motivation is motivation that stems from an external reward or punishment. Ryan and Deci found that intrinsic motivation was supported by learning environments where students experienced relatedness, autonomy, and competence.
Getting it Wrong
Unfortunately, the way we often approach instilling grit and self-motivation is at odds with Ryan and Deci’s findings.
Frequently, grit and self-motivation growth are used to justify having students work at tasks that they have little to no interest in, creating a situation in which the student feels that the classroom activity is ‘not for them’. Their sense of belonging, or relatedness, in the class decreases, thus decreasing their intrinsic motivation to continue. They may be forced to complete activities and assignments against their wishes, which decreases their sense of autonomy. Finally, forcing students to ‘bang their heads against the wall’ completing busy work will lower their own sense of competency if steps are not taken to make the learning more authentic and they continue to meet with failure due to an inability to engage in learning.
Clearly, fostering grit and intrinsic motivation are not at all a justification for enforced participation in low-engagement activities in the classroom. Unfortunately, many teachers persist in doing just this; consciously or subconsciously using ‘character building’ as an excuse for providing unengaging, boring lessons.
Getting it Right
In order to truly create intrinsic motivation and grit in students, our lessons must look much different than the one described above. Students should be provided with engaging and authentic learning opportunities in order to foster buy-in and a desire to be a part of the classroom community. Furthermore, we as teachers need to ensure that student voice and autonomy is supported in our classrooms to empower students to take control of and direct their own learning. Finally, students should be provided with challenging material that they can succeed at with effort and support. This will help students to ‘do’ grit and actually persevere to solve interesting and engaging problems.
While the need for grit and intrinsic, self-motivated learning is something we all can agree on, it is imperative that we as teachers provide students with the engaging classroom learning communities and lessons that they need to develop these traits in an authentic way. Grinding out menial, boring tasks doesn’t build grit and character; it builds resentment and distrust between students and their teachers. If we want our students to persevere at solving problems, we as educators must provide them with interesting problems worth solving.
Richardson, W. (2016, July 21). Why Do We Need to Teach Kids “Self-Motivation”? [web log post]. Retrieved from: http://willrichardson.com/need-teach-kids-self-motivation/
Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 68-78.
Tough, P. (2016). Helping Children Succeed: What works and why. [pdf edition no. 1] Available from: http://paultough.com/helping/
I read a cool article the other day called “The Life of a First Year Teacher, In Six Emotional Stages” that outlined six stages that first year teachers go through as they acclimatize to their practice. It included a cool graph kind of like the one above.
As I gave it some thought, I realized that not only does this science-tastic chart do a pretty good job of representing the emotional vicissitudes (thanks, Mr. Scott) of one’s first year in the classroom, it also kind of represents how more experienced teachers might feel as well, as if it’s just an emotional teaching cycle that repeats itself every year throughout a teacher’s career:
That was pretty satisfying until I thought back and realized that not only does this not represent how I’ve felt recently about my teaching, it also doesn’t represent my first year of teaching either.
My first year of teaching, if science-d into graph form, looked more like this:
Boomhower's Actual Experience as a First-Year Teacher
I was pretty pumped for the chance to be a teacher, and after getting over my stage fright and not crashing and burning, pretty much decided that I was the best teacher ever, forever.
After that good start, I moved more into the emotional roller coaster graph at the start of the article year in and year out for the next few years. The roller coaster continued after my move to Korea unabated, which might seem kind of terrible; being a helpless slave to the tempestuous whims of a teaching career, always riding wave after wave of success followed by barely-survivable near-defeat. But, no, if that was all there was to worry about, it would be a good career, dude. Unfortunately, sometimes this happens to break the cycle:
The Darkness . . . oh the Darkness
Sometimes, teachers get stuck in a rut and become increasingly disillusioned with the job for years on end. This is not a nice place to be. The disillusionment could be caused by administration, lack of funding, difficult working conditions, or just emotional exhaustion from all of that roller coaster-ing. Either way, it’s pretty terrible. And you should really do whatever you can to escape it…
Thankfully, there’s hope! Eventually, if you don’t give up, you might pull yourself out of the rut and get back into enthusiastic teaching again. Better still, you might gain some epic skills after thousands and thousands of classes and find that you’re not riding a roller coaster any more. The challenges get less horrifying and more fun, and you just keep on winning and improving and getting better and better. Like a boss.
The Sweet Veteran Awesomeness Experience
So, if you’re a new, first-year teacher, don’t give up! Enjoy your practice, and remember that it’s the same for all of us, new teachers and veterans alike! Battle disillusionment with the knowledge that the more you teach, the better you’ll get. Every day you teach a class, you get closer and closer to the 10,000 hour mark at which Malcolm Gladwell says you’ll master your craft and be an educational superstar, amiright?
I struggle to think of a time in the past that I have seen in person a lesson that qualifies as an example of redefinition. For most of my career as an educator I’ve dealt with crumbling tech infrastructure, and haven’t really had (until now, thank you Steve Katz!) a mentor to introduce me to the possibilities that can be realized with technology in the classroom. I’m keen to get started creating lessons that rate high on Puentedura’s scale.
My fifth grade team has created a project for our students to take on over summer break (sorry kids, school summer homework policy) that probably qualifies as modification or redefinition on the SAMR scale. The idea came from an article we read in class about 'catephiles' who have repurposed the catacombs beneath Paris as museums and community spaces. What follows is a brief visual description of the urban renewal/renovation project that we will assign them:
I’m really excited to see what our students are able to produce! And, I’m excited to spend some time before vacation showing them how to use some of the technology that they’ll need to complete their project. I’ll update this post with new information as we work on the project.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 18 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.