On Teacher-Student Relationship

I’m not going to pretend like I know all the answers for this post, because the truth is that I don’t think there is a universal response for how to have relationships with students. Every student is different and every teacher is different. When I was a hospice volunteer I was told that there is no universal way of grieving because every relationship is different, and so no two responses to loss would be the same–it’s a different loss each loss that we suffer in this life. That said, there are certain things to keep in mind when considering teacher-student relationships, and that’s what I will share now.

“There is no learning without relationships,” is something that we are often told as teachers, and I have to say that I agree. However, I think that the nature of the relationships we have between teachers and students are also really important because not all relationships are created equal.

Looking back on my teaching career, I can now see how I’ve had relationships with students that were generally positive when I was positive, but if there was a behavior issue that I had to hold the student accountable with things became a little difficult, and how it was difficult to maintain the bond we’d established after I had been (constructively, and needfully) critical.

Over time, I learned how to still be positive and proactive even while holding students accountable, but it didn’t come easily initially. I like to tell new teachers to stay in the zone of helpfulness and productivity. And to be proactive.

Another thing that is important is to be equitable in how one gives praise or administers consequences. This is especially true in diverse classrooms where there is the risk of unconscious bias. Having colleagues observe us in the teaching environment can alert us to blind spots. I remember how, once, I was passing out papers to students without making eye contact with or greeting the students as I interacted with them. My colleague who was with me said that that was a microagression, and it had never occurred to me that I should be different, because I was doing the same thing that I had often done in predominantly white environments where I had been a teacher previously. Now I am more conscious of students when passing out papers regardless of the students who are receiving them, but that would not have been the case had I not been alerted to how I was coming across in a cross-cultural interaction.

Being in healthy relationships with colleagues who are thriving in our given teaching environment is crucial, as this situation indicates. It is even more important amongst peers, because specialists (and I was a specialist for a year) are frequently responsible for reporting back to administrators, which isn’t always in a new teacher’s best interest. Best to have frank discussions amongst equals when you’re trying to get your bearings.

There are also more universal aspects to relationships, regardless of setting. A key aspect is to forgive and forget, but without forgetting to establish consequences for repeatedly bad behavior; and yet also setting benefits for positive contributions to the classroom environment. It is important to not refer students out for minor infractions, even if they are frequent, but instead to partner with the school psychologist and create a behavior plan. This is because of something called the school to prison pipeline, whereby students who are diverse are more frequently noticed as a perpetrators of minor infractions and therefore are more likely to be referred out to administrators. The situation frequently accelerates from there, ultimately with law enforcement being involved.

On a separate level, we would never want to be so close to a student that we wouldn’t feel comfortable holding them accountable. But we also don’t want to be so distant that when we hold them accountable that this is the only feedback they are getting from us. I think that the risk right now with current educational models is that in order for students to still feel approved of in the midst of receiving constructive criticism, they must be inundated with positive feedback because our current generation is so anxious. I worry about the long-term consequences of giving praise too easily, and yet I can’t think of a way around it that would be universally applicable. So just try to be mindful.

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