How Well Do You Know Your Students?: Relationships are the key to unlocking success
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That is a quote from Teddy Roosevelt about working with other people. Teachers work with people, but teachers work with young people with delicate social and emotional needs. Your favorite teacher is likely the same teacher who showed interest in who you were and what you believed beyond their instruction. Good teachers are not always the most knowledgeable or skilled, but the ones who are willing to take time and energy to personally knowing their students.
There are plenty of studies that seem to suggest that students are more academically successful when they have a close connection with another adult, specifically a teacher (see the list of academic studies under references). Students need at least one teacher to serve as a mentor, even if it isn’t explicit, so they can feel comfortable and have someone to model appropriate mature behavior. Music teachers are especially suited for this role. We understand the importance of extra-academic learning (knowledge and skills that cannot be learned in the core academic classroom), like art, coordination, cooperation, leadership (which includes “followship” - check out the video below), and confidence.
Our students have the opportunity to learn and practice these skills daily. Our students need us to be willing to learn about what they feel is important - even if it isn’t important to us. They need you to ask them questions about their personal lives like what sports they play, the poetry they write, what their political beliefs are, who is their latest crush, their fashion choices, etc. Our students want to see us at their events, not as their teacher, but as a fellow person who cares about them.
Take time to get to know your students. Five minutes before warm-ups as students are settling down, target one or two students, sit with them and ask personal questions. You will get every reaction from TMI (too much information) to a sidelong glance of confusion as to why a teacher is close to them in proximity, especially asking them where they got their “cool” choker necklace, but it is worth every second of thoughtful music instruction they’ll get. Go to your student’s games, performances, recitals, etc and congratulate them afterward. It will cost you - money, time, energy - but it’s worth it many times over. Check the list of suggestions below for more ideas. As a result of whatever you spend on your students, you’ll make up in a decrease in discipline events, an increase in participation, and outright devotion to the music that we think is the most important part of our music classes. It’s worth it so much more so than any of us could ever imagine.
I have had a student for two years who seemed disinterested in music and struggled socially. I was surprised to see her name on my attendance in August of her eighth-grade year. But, she was there so I was going to do whatever I could to build a relationship with her like I try to do with all of my students. After several weeks, towards the end of September, I was getting the feeling that she didn’t like to sing - she rarely participated at her best or smiled, and she wouldn’t really speak to anyone, including me. Then, in early October, she was absent for a whole week. So I called the counselor to check on her, something I do for any student who is out unexpectedly for more than a few days, thinking she had just switched classes. Legally, the counselor couldn’t give me any information. I feared the worst: a family tragedy or illness. When she returned after a two-week absence, she asked to speak to me privately. She began crying immediately. Through her sobbing, I gathered that she had contemplated suicide. She told me that what kept her from committing suicide, and more importantly, seeking help, was because of me. She told me “I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me, because I love you and I love choir. So I told my mom that I was thinking about hurting myself.” I was dumbfounded and speechless. I didn’t think I had that much of an impact on this student. I thought I hadn’t done a good job of connecting with her. I was shocked by the news and began to cry. We cried together for a few minutes. It was hard, raw, terrifying, and beautiful.
This is an extreme example of the power of relationships, but it highlights how important it is for teachers to connect with their students. We build relationships with our students to help them learn, to help them connect to their own learning, but more importantly, for the opportunity to demonstrate empathy, understanding, and love. We may never see the benefit of our efforts to build relationships, but we are making a difference through them.
Suggestions for building relationships with students:
- Talk to your students:
- Five minutes before class starts have a conversation with students
- Talk to them in the hallway
- Greet and give students a compliment between classes
- Eat lunch with students at their lunch table (you’ll often get great insider info this way).
- Visit an academic class or substitute for another teacher.
- Learn their names - this is my biggest weakness so I’ve come up with some solutions that work for me:
- Make a “portfolio” of students names, birthdays, and at least one interesting fact, and their picture
- Download the Name Shark app (iOS) - take a pic of each student and you can study - I started using it this year and it’s helped a lot but check with your district to avoid issues with student privacy
- Study the attendance register
- Celebrate their birthdays and send them a birthday message.
- I created a Google Calendar for birthdays and I put in every student’s birthday so I can see it on my phone with my personal and professional calendars.
- Tip: put in the student’s cell phone number in the notes section, you can click on the number and send a text to them to make it personal.
- Hold once per month open discussions about a topic that interests them.
- Play a game during class - it can be related to music, but it doesn’t have to be.
- Have “office hours” and be available in your classroom for students to visit.
- Meet students where they are:
- Be present on social media - react, like, comment appropriately on their posts and make posts celebrating their success.
- Make a point to go to the local “hang-out”.
- Tip: it’s weird for students to see their teachers out in public so when they see you in public it reminds them that you, like them, are human. That helps to break the wall which divides us.
- Go to student’s events - athletics, concerts, programs, recitals, etc. and then congratulate them afterward.
- Encourage students to invite you to their events.
- Be open, honest, and forthright with all of your students.
- Do you have something personal going on? Tell your students (within reason). Your display of vulnerability will help make them feel comfortable.
- If you don’t usually get emotional, fake it. They need to see emotions and how you handle it.
- Allow students to share their artwork, letters, and notes with you and post them in your office or classroom.
Baber, S., & Noreen, S. (2018). Student-Teacher Relationship: an Analysis of the Perception of Sixth Grade Students in the Elementary Private and Public School. Journal of Arts & Social Sciences, 5(1), 31–48.
Brennan, D. D. (2015). Creating a Climate Achievement. Educational Leadership, 72(5), 56. Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2019). “There Was This Teacher . . .” Student-teacher relationships are critical--and must be cultivated. Educational Leadership, 76(8), 82
Hansen, T. (2018). All because of my teacher: A practical approach to developing positive student-teacher relationships. Leadership, 47(4), 30.
Pianta, R. C., & Stuhlman, M. W. (2004). Teacher-Child Relationships and Children’s Success in the First Years of School. School Psychology Review, 33(3), 444–458.
Spilt, J. L., Hughes, J. N., Wu, J., & Kwok, O. (2012). Dynamics of Teacher-Student Relationships: Stability and Change Across Elementary School and the Influence on Children’s Academic Success. Child Development, 83(4), 1180–1195. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01761.x