By Liz Bergren
There is nothing more important than a safe, positive, nurturing classroom environment. Learning can only take place if students feel comfortable and safe in their learning spaces. Building trust and rapport among peers in the room as well as between you and your students can, at times, even eliminate the need for discipline. As the semester changes and new students may be entering your room, consider reevaluating what you do to connect with them. This post will cover practical strategies for building trust among the students you work with as well as how to connect with your students and build rapport.
- Know and use your students’ names. My experience as a former middle school teacher is that one of the best ways to get student buy-in at this age is to work hard to connect with them individually. First and most importantly, make sure you know every student’s name and pronounce it correctly. For names that are particularly hard to pronounce, practice them before you address the students. I’ve worked with many students who have shared that they have had a teacher, or two, who mispronounced their names for the entire school year. Those students felt disrespected and humiliated and, in turn, had very little respect for those teachers.
- Start on a positive note. If you can, stand at the door and greet your students as they come in. Smile at them and offer a handshake, a high five, a fist bump, or something else that lets them know you are happy to see them. This in turn helps students practice communication skills. Work to build a bank of effective and appropriate opening activities that can spark student engagement and get them ready for your class. The first 5 minutes of class can set the stage for how the rest of your time together will go. I used to pose an open-ended question related to our previous lesson that required students to greet a different peer each day in a way that felt comfortable to them (such as a handshake or high five), ask the other student how he or she is doing, and then both respond to the question. Each day, I would pick a different student to have this conversation with as well. A special perk of the teacher being involved is that it can be a way to formatively assess students on your previous lesson. This activity also works well to help students get to know each other.
- Show that you’re a real person. Share personal stories with your students. There are boundaries you need to be careful not to cross when it comes to sharing your life with students for obvious reasons. But when they can see your human side instead of just viewing you as an authority figure, it can help build rapport. The more you can connect with students on a human level, the more they see you as a classroom community member.
- Ask for their feedback. I would often poll my students about their overall experience in my classroom to get a sense of how it felt to be them as learners. Essentially, we are the sales people and students are our customers. If we don’t acknowledge their agency and get feedback from them as participants in our classes, then they won’t trust or respect us. They want to be heard. I would also ask them, at the end of a unit, what was most interesting to them about the unit. Did they like the projects that were assigned? Did the unit move at a pace that felt appropriate to them? Was there anything they wished would’ve been different? If so, in what ways? An authoritarian approach to leading your classroom will push students away. At this age, they look to us as role models and caregivers, and it is important that we provide a safe space. Be warm and approachable so students know it is safe to go to you for help with their work and, in some cases, personal problems or dilemmas.
- Get every student to participate in class every day. If you pay attention to all students in your class, you’ve probably noticed that some participate all the time. While some don’t participate at all. Some students sit in the back of the class and won’t say a single word all period. It seems like an obvious practice to pay attention to who is participating and who is not, but I have worked with teachers who never took the time to notice. The best way to get everyone participating is to provide enough variation in your instruction so that all students are engaged at least once during your class. Be intentional about differentiating your instruction. The more engaged students are in class, the more effective their learning is, which in turn builds trust.
- Be humble and honest. If a lesson doesn’t go well, tell students that you are reevaluating and will try again. The most difficult class I ever taught was a class of 18 sophomore boys. I was young and new to the school—it was like diving into a shark-filled pond. It took weeks for me to get to know the students, for them to get to know me, and for us to establish our class community. They were ruthless in the beginning, testing my limits and boundaries. Over time, I learned that I needed to get over any expectations I had set for myself to “get through” our lessons and start listening to the students. I asked them about their needs as learners, what expectations they had for me as their teacher, and what topics they were most interested in. After a lot of hard work, I established lesson plans using their suggestions, and I found ways to make sure all were participating and engaged. I researched the needs of boys at that age and worked them into my curriculum. My feedback from the students was validating: They acknowledged and respected my interest in their needs, they praised me for trying different things when something didn’t go as planned, and they felt heard and understood.
- Offer retakes. If many students perform poorly on a summative assessment, spend time reteaching the material and inquiring about students’ misunderstandings. Allow some of or all your students to retake tests to get a better score. Help them understand that you want to be fair and meet them where they’re at in terms of understanding your content.
Teaching will never be an easy profession, so we need to stay on our toes. Complacency should be our worst enemy, because middle school students will notice. Stay fresh, current, and kind. Don’t forget to have fun with students—laugh with them, listen to their needs, and enjoy your experience. Joy is contagious, and you can pass that onto students even when you are teaching your most “boring” lessons.
Liz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent 5 years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
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