If you’re a teacher who struggles with classroom discipline, a natural reaction might be to focus on establishing clearer rules, enforcing consequences, or getting administrators involved. While all of the above (and more) can be effective strategies, my experience has taught me that the most important thing to having a consistent and positive classroom environment is through building relationships with your students.
Relationships with your students have an enormous impact on your student learning outcomes. Simply put, if the your students like you and respect you, they will perform better and generally be more motivated. These five tips helped me to foster relationships with my students, many of whom I still have contact with years later.
One of my first educational jobs was working with adjudicated youth in the wilderness of Utah. One of the mantras we repeated with the students was “seek first to understand then to be understood.” When I eventually moved into the classroom in a traditional K-12 setting, I found this mantra to be ever as true. Always ask the students their side of the story first. Who knows what is going on in their life? Maybe they didn’t get that important paper done because a relative passed away or some other stressful event in their lives. It’s easier to not jump to conclusions when you listen first. In the process, not only do you appreciate and learn more about the circumstances behind that one specific situation, you also learn more about them as a person and individual that will help guide your future interactions.
Teach creative and memorable lessons.
When a lesson is creative and memorable, it’s usually because the students were engaged in the lesson and had the opportunity to produce an original product or content piece to demonstrate their learning. While perhaps as a teacher you won’t receive immediate feedback on the long-term effects of your lesson, one of the greatest rewards now that I have been teaching for several years is when students I stay in contact with tell me about how fun or memorable a lesson was many years ago.
Two creative and memorable lessons I always loved to teach were poetry videos and literature trials. For the poetry videos, the students learned about the elements of poetry, video production, and the writing process. At the end of the lesson we enjoyed popcorn, snacks and our work.
The literature trials were one of the most talked about reading assignments I’ve ever seen. The trials required the students to act as lawyers and characters from the book, putting them on trial. Napoleon from Animal Farm was on trial for abuse of power. George from Of Mice and Men was on trial for Lenny’s murder. It was always interesting to see how students from different years and groups took a similar prompt and really made it their own by exploring and acting out their own interpretations of these characters. The project was a lot of work for the kids. They created costumes, scripts, arguments and so much more. And many years later, they still talked about it.
Have fun in the classroom.
For teachers, there is a lot of pressure to “finish the curriculum” and have a certain amount of assessments. High-stakes testing and pushy administrators only exacerbate this pressure sometimes. As teachers, we pack hour-long classes in with the stuff the kids “have to do” or “have to learn.” What we often forget to do is to stop and have fun in this process.
It is so important to have fun with your students. Although “fun” can manifest itself in many forms – such as a game or creating a video, the common denominator here is that there is a positive and playful yet meaningful relationship between the teacher and students. These fun activities are a great way to further build community, trust, and engagement with your students.
Interact with students outside the classroom.
A student’s experience in school is so much more than just what happens in the classroom. Whether it is field trips, sports teams, university visits, community service projects, or musical concerts, a great opportunity to build relationships with students happens outside of the classroom. For me, this always came in the form of coaching or photographing an event. When the students saw me on the soccer field and not in front of the class, they liked me more because it made me more human and relatable. It helped them understand that the rules of the classroom were there to help them move to a desired goal, just like on the soccer field. Seeing students outside the classroom allowed me to see the talents that I had no idea they possessed. While taking photographs for the school plays, I saw students sing, act, and lead. My students had talents that I had no idea they possessed. After learning more about their talents I had something to talk with them about. I had a new way to create meaningful connections to the curriculum.
Do the projects that you have your students do.
If you are teaching kids about poetry and having the students write a poem and turn it into a video, make one yourself! This is a hard one for teachers, because teachers might have apprehension that their work is not perfect or beyond criticism – but that’s exactly the point! When the students see that you are going through the process with them, they will respect you more. And in the process of doing the project with the students, you will have more empathy and understanding of their perspective.