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Virginia Journal of Education


 “There Was This Teacher. . . ”

Building trust and respect with your students can make all the difference.

By Sueanne E. McKinney and Clair Berube 

“There was this teacher. . . ” How many times have we started spirited conversations this way? We’ve all had that special teacher that somehow had a significant impact on our lives. You still remember their welcoming smile or the way they made you feel in difficult situations. What is it about these teachers who make such a difference? What makes them so different from others? And, most importantly, can I be that type of teacher?

Teachers who leave an impression on the lives and hearts of students have a special gift in developing meaningful relationships with them, based on trust and respect. They make a deliberate effort to learn about the lives of each and every student, both in and out of school. They know their student’s strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, and their inner core, all which helps develop a “We are in this together” partnership in tackling success. They understand that without meaningful relationships in the classroom, lifetime learning will remain out of reach for many of their students, and they know these relationships are just as important, if not more, as having a sound classroom management plan, or delivering a standards-based lesson. 

“What about the child that appears to be unreachable?” you may ask. “Can developing a relationship make a difference?” Based on the Pygmalion theory, we believe so. Generally speaking, we all should believe so. The Pygmalion theory is rooted in the phenomenon that demonstrating high expectations in the classroom leads to greater student performance. 

Developing relationships is a process; it takes time to build trust and earn respect. It will also take time for you to sort out how you can use this relationship in building student success. But here are a few strategies to help that process along:                                                                                                                      

1. Build your Student’s Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem

You may have had an experience of being publicly embarrassed or humiliated by a teacher, or had a teacher who used embarrassment or humiliation as a tool for classroom management, discipline, or learning. That is so destructive! Embarrassing a child to conform to perceived classroom order can have a lasting and negative effect, and you’ll certainly be remembered, but not in a positive light. Take the time and make the effort to build your student’s self-confidence and self-esteem. All children want to feel good about themselves. Heck, everyone wants to feel good about themselves! Focus on your student’s self-worth and individual talents. Recognize and applaud those talents, and use them in the teaching and learning process. 

Help students find success. It’s overwhelming and frustrating when trying to learn a new concept your mind can’t quite grasp. Know that frustration in your students, and go beyond in finding approaches so that each student can have that “aha” moment. When students realize you’re not going to give up on them, learning habits are developed and practiced.

Help students make good choices and take reasonable risks. Risk-taking is a skill that can lead to unforeseen opportunities, build confidence, and allow for growth. Once students become aware of their personal thought processes in making choices, they tend to make wiser decisions.  

2. Share Your World  

It’s just as important to share a part of your life with your students as to know about theirs. Do they know about your interests outside of school? Your likes and dislikes not pertaining to school? Favorite TV show? Favorite book or food?

By sharing your world, you’ll be perceived in a new light—as a human, with feelings! This will allow you to connect personally with your students, which strengthens their willingness to trust you, to listen to you, to respect you—and they’ll work harder to please you and not let you down.

3. Always Take Time to Smile

“Don’t smile until Christmas!” is probably the worst advice given to teachers. Smiling communicates positive emotions and shows you’re open and approachable. Many positive benefits can come just from a smile! For example, smiling can build social trust, positive attitudes, and kindness. 

Can you imagine a classroom where the teacher never smiled? We suspect it would be a classroom based on fear and stress. Who would want to be a student there? The simple gesture of smiling will make for happier students. It alleviates their anxiety, and can set the tone for the day. A teacher’s smile or lack thereof will always be remembered. Also remember that smiling is contagious! 

4. Involve All Students in the Learning Process

When activities are meaningful to students, they’re more motivated to learn, and their attention and concentration grow. Active learning is centered on solving problems, formulating questions and investigations, discussing, explaining, debating, and brainstorming. How can I involve all my students in the learning process, even the unmotivated ones? When it comes to questioning strategies, you can do some delving and rephrasing to actively seek participation. When students realize you’re going to persist on their responses to a question, they quickly make adjustments. Providing them with leadership roles in an activity and incorporating lessons that include their interests also solicits active participation. 

5. Demonstrate Compassion and Empathy

Many students bring to the classroom life experiences that are challenging and difficult, to say the least, and if left unaddressed, will negatively affect their academic performance. Two important positive behaviors that support student learning and development, and assist with developing meaningful relationships, are compassion and empathy. Students will only share their life struggles with someone who makes them feel safe (emotionally, physically, and intellectually), who cares, and who will be nonjudgmental. 

When you cultivate compassion and empathy, it’s infectious with your students. They begin to regard the teacher as someone who understands and cares. They begin to feel loved, and they can, often, begin to see the world in a new light.   

6.   Take Time to Really Listen to Your Students

Everyone wants to be taken seriously, and having your opinion validated and your voice heard is powerful for young people. Be especially conscious of how you listen to students; active listening to what students want and need to say is crucial to developing relationships.  

Are you taking the time to really listen to your students with honest intentions? Making eye contact? Giving the child your full attention? Focusing on their thoughts? It’s important not to interrupt or appear impatient. Project interest. This level of listening leads to better understanding and builds rapport. It conveys the message that students are important and that you’re a thoughtful teacher, curious about their lives. 

7.   Demonstrate High-Expectations

Your expectations can dramatically propel students to greater achievement. How will they know you have high expectations for them? What behaviors do you need to demonstrate that let your students know you believe in them? Will these behaviors lead to great relationships? The Teacher Expectations – Student Achievement Model (TESA) identifies three strands of behaviors – Personal Regard, Feedback, and Response Opportunities. Each strand uses specific, research-based behaviors, such as offering individual help, asking high-level questions, allowing for equitable distribution of response opportunities, and praising your students. 

8.    Appreciate Effort

Many teachers need to realize the goal of education is not necessarily the end result, but the process of learning. This can be difficult in our high-stakes testing era. But so many educators are solely concentrated on the goal that they lose sight of the journey. And indeed, some of the proudest moments students experience are when they’re improving, gradually “getting it,” and persisting until they’re successful. 

Skills like perseverance needed to be cultivated, recognized, and valued as essential elements in both learning and life. Many students think that ability alone brings success in the classroom. It is important for you to help them understand that through effort, persistence, and perseverance, greatness is within reach. 

9.   Admit Your Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes, including teachers! Aren’t mistakes a necessary tool for growth and development? They’re not a sign of weakness. It may be easy to admit minor errors, such as misspelling a word, or working a math problem incorrectly. But can you admit to a major mistake that has the potential of breaking trust with a student? Suppose you publicly accused a child of misbehaving, only to find out later it wasn’t him or her. Of course you need to apologize, but you need to do so publicly, as well. Few teachers understand the magnitude of doing so. You will not lose status in the eyes of your students. Instead, they’ll see you as an individual with an open heart.   

Student mistakes are great learning opportunities. In order to be able to use students’ errors, help them change the way they think about them. If mistakes seen as a failure and students are scolded for them, it will squelch the risk-taking necessary for growth. Look to mistakes only as a way to increase learning.

10.   Recognize the Potential within Your Students

Challenging your students with sincere encouragement can help them accomplish a task they may have felt was beyond their capabilities. Acknowledge your student’s talents, push their boundaries, and move them beyond their comfort zone. While it is easy to see the potential in motivated students, it’s just as important, if not more, to assist students who struggle in reaching their potential. Get to know students’ life circumstances, and offer them hope. It’s tragic when young people feel they won’t reach their potential because of their life situations. See each child through the eyes of what they can contribute to the world.

Building meaningful relationships with students should be a high priority. Those relationships are what students remember, and what often most affects their learning and lives. You can be that teacher that leaves a positive impression on your students for a lifetime. What teacher would want to be any less?

McKinney is an Associate Professor of Elementary Education at Old Dominion University. Berube is an Associate Professor of Education at Hampton University.

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A Building Relationship Checklist

This checklist can help you strategize to build better relationships with your students. Take some time to reflect and assess yourself.

Ask Yourself: YES  or  NO

Build Your Student’s Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem

Do I take time to help my students understand a difficult concept? Do I search for and implement new approaches when they don’t understand my initial lesson? Do I convey to my students that we’re in this together when learning new material?

Do I convey to my students that I believe in them, and I won’t ever give up on helping them succeed?

Do I help my students make good choices? Do I offer guidance in making these choices? Do I help my students understand their choices have consequences?

Are my students often frustrated in the classroom? Do I make attempts to understand their frustration? Do I offer them strategies to work through it?

Do I make special efforts not to embarrass my students?

Share Your World

Do I take time to share a part of my life with my students?
Do my students know me as an individual?

Take Time to Smile

Do I smile? Is it genuine and heartfelt?
Do I encourage my students to demonstrate kindness to each other?
Am I promoting trust in the classroom?
Do I demonstrate a positive attitude towards my students?
Do my students appear happy to be in my classroom?

Involve All Students in the Learning Process

Do I plan activities where students are active learners and not just receivers of information?
Do I highlight problem-solving in the classroom?
Do I know how to involve and engage students when they don’t know the answer to a specific question? Do I give up on them and move on?
Do I demonstrate enthusiasm?
Do I know how to motivate my students?

Demonstrate Compassion and Empathy

Do I make my students feel emotionally, physically, and intellectually safe?
Do my students look at me as a teacher who cares?
Am I approachable? Do my students feel that they can talk to me about difficult situations they’re facing?

Take Time to Really Listen to Your Students

Do I listen attentively to my students? Make eye contact?
Do I let my students know and feel that I appreciate their contributions?
Do I ask questions to better understand what they’re saying?
Do I let my students know I’m interested in them?

Demonstrate High-Expectations

Do I take a personal interest in my students’ lives, both in and out of school?
Do I praise them and tell them why I’m doing so?
Am I in close proximity to my students while teaching?
Do I ask higher-level questions?
Do I provide meaningful feedback?
Do I provide equitable opportunities for students to answer questions? Do I only call on students with their hand up?
Do I use effective questioning strategies such as delving and rephrasing the question?

Appreciate Effort

Do I recognize and applaud my students’ individual efforts?
Did I encourage my students to work hard to achieve their goals? Do my students understand the powerful effects of putting forth effort?


Admit Your Mistakes

Do I easily admit to any mistakes I make in the classroom?
Do I apologize to any student that may have been involved in my mistake?
Do I create an environment where students are comfortable making mistakes? Do I look to mistakes as learning opportunities?

Recognize the Potential Within Your Students

Do I challenge my students?
Do I offer them encouragement in completing difficult tasks?
Do I help my students believe in themselves?



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