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Connections Count - Five Tips About The Key Work Of Making Relationships A Priority

As the new school year moves into gear, one familiar mantra should be self-evident, but is easily put aside: you must build relationships with your students.

In the rushing stream of teaching, grading, testing and reporting it is easy to forget that without those connections, you are not likely to get the best out of a student – and probably get much worse.

The value of those connections has been proven in two new studies that show students who stayed with a single teacher for two years performed better, and those who had the same teacher through several classes did better than those whose teachers used "platooning" and specialized so that the elementary-age students had 4-5 different teachers each day.

A related pilot program where 6th graders who stayed with the same teacher for half a day for core classes rather than rotate through all their classes performed better than their classmates who rotated all day. Those who devised the program felt it was particularly important as a transition into middle school.

"Relationships is school are critical," says David Essink, principal at Hastings, NE, Middle School, who has won awards for his work improving the school culture. "They are just as important between students and teachers as they are among adults"

He says he makes certain his staff makes those connections to students – and their families – early and thoroughly and he has found it pays off in performance and behavior.

"Culturally responsive teachers make the time to learn about the lives and preferences of their students," says Melissa Schlinger, vice president of programs and practice for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. "Getting to know your students as people and learners will help teachers to provide developmentally appropriate instruction that connects to students’ interests and concerns."

Here are five tips about how teachers can build relationships.

1) Check out their shoes. Experts say the key to building relationships with students is first finding out more about them than their academic skills and whether their binder is organized -- and then thinking about their perspective. Check out what life is like in their shoes. So, does a student have friends or desperately want more – that can mean they act out to get attention. Do they not sleep well because they are not monitored and stay up late playing video games? That, of course, can result in bad study habits and test results. Did they get breakfast? Did they face conflict at home? Has a loved one died in the last year? All of that can affect what they do in a classroom. Relationships require information and empathy.

2) Yes, you are biased. Everyone is, and if we were honest we would admit we have favorites and they are probably those who are most like us. But to build relationships with all students we have to get to know our subtle biases and overcome them – and treat all our students fairly and get to know the the loud, brassy student who offends us because he needs attention or the quiet manipulative one who tends to be dishonest because that's the standard at home. Treating all students as fairly as possible will benefit them – and will pay off for us.

3) Be that one. Some educators will say it is better to be a good teacher than to be well liked – but the two are not incompatible. It doesn't mean you don’t have consistent expectations and rules, but being a teacher that students trust and like will probably mean you'll get better results from them in how they behave and how they perform. Don't you remember how you liked to go into the classroom for some teachers -- and performed better.

4) Make them big shots. Every student – from grade 1 to high school – needs a boost to their self esteem – and it can do wonders. Whether it is a call home on a good day, a private note telling them that they have a particularly strength, a glance and smile at the right time,  a brief chat about a good quality or giving them a job in class they can handle – in almost every case it will make students try harder.

5) Stick with it. As the research has consistently shown, relationships pay off. So on those days when you don’t have the energy or aren't in the mood – or you're with those kids who don't seem to care -- keep at it.  You'd probably be surprised to know how a class understands that you aren't in the best frame of mind and appreciate your willingness to move past it and  treat them respectfully and with energy. And research has also shown that even the most disengaged, difficult student appreciates a good gesture. It might change their thinking – if not right away, somewhere down the road.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (