December 02, 2015 18:56 Age: 2 yrs

Teacher Voices: Building Relationships in the Classroom

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Erin Thomas is a teacher at AF Crown Heights Middle School and recently shared her story on the Center for Transformative Teacher Training blog

Building relationships with my students is the crux of the culture in my classroom. My students know that I love them deeply, and because of that love, I will accept nothing but their absolute best and I will push until we both feel like they have reached their best.

But this is a big ask of any student, and I know that if they don’t trust me and the relationships I work to build, this type of task will become overwhelming and frustrating. As an adult, it’s easy to forget the different responsibilities the teenagers in my classroom may have—looking after siblings, getting their homework done, in some cases, cooking dinner, and making sure they get themselves to bed at a reasonable hour. I learned quickly that instead of enabling students by letting these obstacles lower my expectations of them, these responsibilities became small successes in class and a proof point that if you can achieve all of those other things—adult life responsibilities—then you can definitely write a 7th grade-level essay on the themes of persecution found in Night. And yes, you can revise it to make it better.

At the beginning of the year, I work to get to know my students; their family life, their dreams, their future aspirations, their college hopes, everything and anything they want to tell me. I joke with them, and I tell them about myself at their age. And while they think we’re just having a conversation, I put all of these details in my back pocket to bring up later. Throughout the year, I like to call my students by their desired occupation: “Dr. Thomas,” “District Attorney Charles,” “Private Investigator Rodriguez,” “Sports Agent Harvey.” I make my directions clear, and I constantly remind them of why it is important that they do their best on every assignment. Through relationship building, coupled with rigorous questions and high expectations, I’m showing them that I believe they can do it. If I didn’t believe they could, I wouldn’t ask them to meet the expectations. When they meet them, we celebrate, and then we set another more goals.

Because my students trust that I believe they can achieve and exceed their goals, I am able to really push the boundaries of my classroom. When we work, we work hard, and if we zone out or get silly, a quick look is all it takes to get us back on track, because we know the importance of every action in the classroom.

At the heart of these relationships is a shared understanding between my students and I: they know that I am pushing them and will only accept their best work because I believe that they can do it, and through that love, support and challenge, we have established a culture where working hard has become the norm and achievement has become the expectation. If my students can meet and challenge the expectations set for them, then they can achieve anything they want to. They just need to know that someone believes in them.

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