It’s All About Positive Relationships!
September 20, 2023
September 20, 2023
By Steve Hicks
Perhaps nothing is more important to our success as educators than how well we build relationships within our school communities. The best way for a teacher to help students reach their full potential is by creating and encouraging positive relationships with them. “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is a famous quote attributed to several people and often referred to in school circles—because it’s true.
I have been part of public education my entire life. My nuclear family growing up has over 100 years of combined experience in the field: My father was a middle school principal, my mother was a special education teacher, my brother is a recently retired social studies teacher, and I’m about to enter my 30th year of education. In observing my family and in my own experience, I have learned that building successful relationships is hard work that needs constant nurturing and reflection. One of my former principals, Ginger Minshew at Park View High School in Loudoun County, often told us, “We need to model our academic and behavioral expectations for students.”
Here are ten methods I have learned for building meaningful, positive relationships in school:
Greeting my students as they walk into class is the most important action I take every day—it ensures our first interaction is a positive one. Sometimes I congratulate them on an accomplishment or give them a compliment. Even if a student is having a tough time, a simple gesture like this conveys that today is a new day with a clean slate. This also helps gauge a student’s emotional well-being. If a student appears mentally off, I know that I may need to pull them aside or tweak my lesson plan according to my students’ energy level.
This is a simple way of making a positive first impression. As a child, I remember watching my father use class pictures from elementary schools in Amherst, Ohio to memorize students’ names and faces so he could greet them on their first day of middle school. When I asked what he was doing, he told me he was just getting ready for the school year. Just by knowing his students’ names, sometimes before they even knew his, my father displayed how much he cared for his students as individuals. My current principal at Dominion High School in Sterling, Dr. John Brewer, has taken that concept a step further by visiting the home of every incoming freshman. Following in their footsteps, I also take some time to review my seating chart and look over the kids’ pictures before the first day, Googling the names I cannot pronounce. Incorporating “ice breaker” activities into bell ringers or morning meetings will help students learn about each other as well, which fosters a constructive classroom atmosphere.
I try to talk to each of my students individually at least once every two weeks. I might sit with them while they are doing individual work, approach them in study hall, or talk with them during announcements. It doesn’t need to be a deep conversation—just a quick check-in allows teachers to take those relationships to a deeper level. Additionally, taking the time to talk with students outside of class time can help teachers understand how to motivate them, and may help them recognize more quickly when a student is in crisis.
Your students must know you like them and care about them. When I began my career in 1994, I just assumed my students knew I liked them as people. I quickly learned I had to be concrete and explicit about this.
Helping students find answers to their own questions or problems is far more powerful than telling them what to do. Sometimes kids just need empathy more than anything else, and a listening ear is the most important thing you can provide. If I pull a student out in the hall to help them redirect their behavior, I always start the conversation with a calm, “Are you OK?” It is amazing how disarming that simple question can make even the most upset kid. By asking questions, I am guiding students to develop the ability to solve problems on their own.
My niece, Katie Hicks-Matusevich, who is an elementary school teacher in the Richmond area, often uses incentives, such as stickers, to build relationships with her third-graders. I have started keeping rewards like this on hand as well for my high-schoolers and will hand them out to kids for doing the right thing. My students love them and sometimes keep them on their laptops for the rest of the year. My niece also recommended redirecting behavior by only giving positive attention to a student doing the right thing. If one student is on their phone, I will find another one who is engaged in the activity at hand and give them a sticker or compliment them for completing their work. It is amazing to me how often that gets the students who are off-task to redirect their focus.
Another thing I do, too, is try to identify students who will be a challenge early in the school year and then find something they did well, thank them, and call their home. The parents’ initial trepidation on hearing from a teacher almost always turns to relief, then to happiness. Any issues that come up later become much easier to handle if the first interaction is positive.
Often relationships start with a simple “Hi” and “How are you doing?” I make a point of greeting anyone I see at school, including students, secretaries, other teachers, or janitors. This is a simple, easy gesture that models a lifelong skill to students and increases positive energy in the building. It is also another way to take the pulse of how a student is doing. Sometimes I have students reply, “Not well Mr. Hicks,” which allows me to go into a deeper conversation about their mental needs. If you already know what might be bothering a student, ask them a specific question about it or mention a previous conversation you have had with them. In other words, personalize the conversation—it does no good to just performatively ask how someone is doing. Students who I did not even have in class come back to the school years after graduating and tell me I was the nice teacher in the hall.
Like “hello,” “thank you” is so easy to say and a crucial modeling behavior. If a student is helping me clean up after class, I always make a point of looking them in the eye and saying, “I really appreciate that.” When I walk into the cafeteria after lunch to supervise study hall, the janitors are usually still cleaning tables and I always make a point of pitching in to help. I also like to thank our secretaries and ask if they need any help. Being a secretary is one of the hardest, most crucial jobs at a school, and I am always willing to get extra steps in by running an errand in another part of the building. Saying “thank you” or lending a hand is another way of modeling respectfulness to your students.
If you do not know how to do something or see someone doing something well, ask for advice. It is human nature to attempt to figure out issues ourselves. However, this often slows us down and more importantly, eliminates an opportunity to allow others to be experts. Additionally, encouraging students to exhibit the same behavior fosters a positive classroom atmosphere. For example, technology is an area where students often have the edge over teachers. As part of my students’ research paper project, I require the students to make videos. I sometimes ask them to teach me how to use the video software, which boosts their self-esteem and teaches me about video production. I also encourage them to help one another with the technology and ask some students if I can use their work as examples for the class. I take a similar approach in my role as a department chair. Many of the techniques I use in my classroom come from observing other teachers. At department meetings, I will often ask a teacher to display a new technique, which not only saves time but allows teachers young and old to display what they do best.
According to Allison Klien of Education Week, teachers make an average of 1,500 decisions a day. We are bound to make mistakes. I have apologized innumerable times. By modeling this behavior, which is crucial to improving students’ emotional intelligence, I find most students respect me for admitting my errors. There is nothing wrong with apologizing the next day if you realize you could have handled a situation in a better way.
Being a part of a student’s life outside of the classroom fosters and deepens relationships. You often do not have to be an expert. My first year of teaching, I asked the academic challenge/ scholastic bowl coach, whom I did not know well at the time, if she needed help. I knew next to nothing about academic challenge/scholastic bowl, but the late Norma Bornorth at Broad Run High School taught me everything about coaching the activity. It turned out to be an absolute blast and a great way to get to know the kids. A few years later, I asked the school’s football announcer if he needed a spotter (a person who tells the announcer who carried the ball or made a tackle). Not only did I have something to talk about with the football players, dance team and band, but I also have made some of my best friends in teaching. I enjoyed it so much I became an announcer myself and have been doing it for the past 20 years. Meeting your students outside of school does not even need to be at regular events. I have gone to Eagle Scout ceremonies, religious services, and sporting events. Whenever a student invites me to something that demonstrates their passions, I try my best to attend.
Building relationships can be hard work. At the same time, observing students grow and thrive as they reach their potential is the greatest joy of teaching. I am often reminded of the words of the late civil rights icon and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody—a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony, or a few nuns—bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” Helping students reach their goals is not happenstance and luck. It takes thoughtful planning. As teachers, we serve as role models and need to consider our actions carefully. There is no greater sense of fulfillment than when a graduate visits you and lets you know how much of an impact you have had on their life.
Steve Hicks, a member of the Loudoun Education Association, is a social sciences teacher and department chair at Dominion High School. He was named a finalist for the 2023 Washington Post Teacher of the Year Award.
Why positive teacher-student relationships are so important, according to Greater Good in Education, based at the University of California-Berkeley: