This blog was originally published on March 30th, 2018. It has been updated with new information and links.
His name was Tony. He had a tough exterior and was not easily convinced of anyone’s care. He would test me with his apathetic words, his helplessness, and avoidance, yet I persisted. I started to see a sparkle in his eyes when I asked him about his little sister or how many points his favorite football player scored. I noticed him choosing more often than not to work close to me so that he could get help if he needed it. It took months, but slowly I was able to build a level of trust with Tony that allowed me to push his learning in directions and heights he never thought possible. It was a beautiful journey to watch. It’s the reason I became a teacher.
Maya Angelou said it best when she stated, “...People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Many teachers (myself included) can get stuck on a narrow path that only focuses on curriculum. We are sometimes swept away by the objectives, skills, and assessments that must be covered, losing sight of what’s at the core: relationships. We must make time to build positive relationships with students through mutual trust. It’s the glue that binds us together, especially when working with students across different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.
Brain research proves that once a positive, trusting connection is made, the bonding hormone, oxytocin, is released allowing our bodies to feel safe. Building a school culture of care helps students open up, feel relaxed, and accept that academic pushes from the teacher. Lack of trust can result in a fight, flight, or freeze response leading students to withdraw or become defensive.
How would you characterize your relationships with your students, especially those who are different than you? Do your words and actions say, “I care about you?”
Here are some steps you can take to establish and nurture a culture of trust in your school and classroom:
1. Are you listening? I mean REALLY listening? Students want to see educators interested in their activities or hobbies. Educators can demonstrate respect and interest in the activities what their students are involved in. A simple, “How are you?” or “What are you excited about outside of school?” can greatly impact the level of care each student feels from you. Ask and really listen to their answers. It seems so obvious, but a few minutes each day for attentive and empathetic listening can build the foundation for a trusting relationship.
2. Zaretta Hammond outlines a set of actions in her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, that can help us make connections with one another and further open the door for trust-building. She calls them Trust Generators. Consider these new ways in which you could model openness.
- Selective Vulnerability -- Show your humanness by sharing your personal challenges as a young learner or your current progress learning a new skill.
- Familiarity -- When students see you often in a particular setting (such as crossing paths at lunch or at community events) a sense of familiarity can develop.
- Similarity of Interests -- Plant the seeds of connection by sharing your hobbies, favorite sports team, or a social cause about which you are you are passionate.
- Concern -- Demonstrate genuine concern for important events and/or people in a student’s life by asking follow-up questions or even providing a platform to share.
- Competence -- Teachers who make learning less confusing and more exciting build trust with students. Demonstrated skill and knowledge give a sense of expertise.
3. Think you’re already doing a pretty good job of building rapport with your students? Try collecting some data on a small group of students or an individual. You may be surprised by the results. Tally each encounter with the student(s) and mark the encounter as positive, negative, or neutral. Reflect on the overall quality of your relationship. Set some goals for intentional positive interaction. Think about how you might gather more personal information about the student. Try REALLY listening! Track your progress over time with an occasional tally check.
- Track --Tally each encounter with the student(s) and mark the encounter as positive, negative, or neutral. Reflect on the overall quality of your relationship. Set some goals for intentional positive interaction. Think about how you might gather more personal information about the student. Try REALLY listening! Track your progress over time with an occasional tally check.
- Analyze -- Look at the data you’ve collected. How many positive interactions? Negative? Does the data match your intended goals? What were the circumstances of your positive interactions?
- Act -- Identify one small change you can make with your focus group and track its impact. Extend these new actions to other students and groups. Continue to nurture trusting relationships with positive non-verbal communication and affirmations, but most of all-- find time to have a little fun!
Strong relationships are the cornerstone of culturally responsive teaching. Make relationship building with students through trust and rapport development a priority in your daily interactions with students so they feel your care and accept your push.
Want to learn more about developing relationships with your students, register for 5058: Building Strong Relationships in the Classroom: Care to Connect.
Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin, a SAGE Company, 2015.
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