Education Week: ‘Building Relationships With Students Is the Most Important Thing a Teacher Can Do’

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The new question-of-the-week is: 

What are the best ways to build relationships with students? 

Response From Kara Pranikoff 

Kara Pranikoff is a elementary school teacher at a public school in New York City. Her book, Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation (Heinemann, 2017) shares many ways to keep the balance of classroom discussion in the hands of the students: 

I’ve spent the last few years out of the classroom, working as a literacy coach in an elementary school. I had a dedicated room in my building, but most of my hours were spent in the classrooms of my colleagues as we

planned and taught and learned together. I’ve had the honor of working across my school in grades K-5 and have been able to wrap my hands and thoughts around the curriculum and the students in a broad way. 

One of my favorite things about being a literacy coach was the ability to watch students grow up. This spring, while in conversation with a mother whose eldest son was graduating from fifth grade, I remembered a story about a favorite toy falling down the stairs, which he wrote during his first weeks of kindergarten. As a young writer he perfectly conveyed his story through an illustration of a stairway stretched diagonally across his paper, a toy hovering above each step, connected by arrows to show the downward motion. After sharing this memory, I went up to my classroom, found this ear;y writing piece, and sent it home for the student’s 5th grade self to enjoy. 

In addition to watching individuals grow over the years, I’ve loved that this position has allowed me to have daily contact with a wide range of students- -a group whom I lovingly call my “frequent flyers.” They are the students who stop by my room on their way to the bathroom or just after lunch looking for a book recommendation or wanting to share a recent piece of writing--that’s their guise anyway. Really, they are looking to connect. Something happened during my time in their classrooms, when we got to know each other not as teacher and student, but just as interested and interesting equals. 

I have loved my time out of the classroom and the insights it has provided, but for the past few years I have also longed for a tighter community of my own. This coming school year I will be heading up a second grade classroom, which I have been planning and dreaming about all summer. I’m looking forward to spending more prolonged time with a single group of students, knowing that the most important thing I can do in the first few days of school is to let them know that we are in this together, we are all learners. 

Here are three things, which I learned from both the students whom I have seen grow and graduate as well as from my current group of “frequent flyers.” I am going to be certain to do the following in the coming days to build relationships in my own classroom and I encourage you to consider them as well: 

Share stories 

Our pull toward narrative is strong at every age. The stories we tell draw us together and help us get to know each other intimately. Building relationships requires individuals to share parts of themselves, to reveal themselves, to find connections. Your students want to know about you as much as you want to know about them. So, think about some good parts of your past to share. What were you like when you were their age? What were your favorite games to play during recess? What’s the biggest adventure you had during the summer? I guarantee the stories will make their way home and soon the parents in the class will feel a little closer to you, too. 

Make individual time 

In the course of a day a teacher needs to work like a camera lens, continually zooming out to catch the class as a whole and then zooming in tight to see each individual student. This ability to shift focus helps a teacher gain clarity about the students who she is teaching. We need to teach the group as a whole, of course, but the real learning happens during independent work time. Kneel down next to individuals, watch their process and confer about their thinking. This focused time makes your learners feel attended to and will help target your lessons in response to individual needs.

Hold on to the details

When your students come to school and want to tell you about their soccer practice or the lego creation they made last night, they are really asking to be seen as individuals. They let you into their lives because they want you to know their whole-selves in a more well-rounded perspective, not just their school-selves. These details build connection and memory. They allow each student to take an independent shape in your head. Hold on to what your students share with you in these off-moments, write them down somewhere to help you remember. The delight is in the details.