6 Questions to Tackle in Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

Have you seen the magic between the best teachers and the most difficult students? It seems these teachers know how to connect and correct behavior through positive and meaningful conversations. As an administrator, you want to video these interactions and hit "play" for others to see the subtleness, yet effective words these teachers use. Likewise, when these teachers work with the top progressing students, they can challenge and make them even better than they are currently.

After having a teacher once tell me, "We don't need to push these students because they have been working so hard in other areas," I vowed to tackle a culture. How can a teacher have that conversation with an administrator or parent of the student, in essence, telling them "we are not going to challenge them and they can relax this school year?"

Over the past decade, educators have been hearing that "relationships" are the true ingredient to drive instruction. While this is true, there is much more to it than just having a relationship with a student. The master teacher utilizes some very specific strategies in their classrooms to get buy-in from students. These relationships are modeled and then replicated between other students. How do those master teachers create an environment that supports this student empowerment?

The following six questions will help you reflect on your practices and take you from a proficient teacher to exemplary level educator.

#1 - How Does a Teacher's Interactions Set the Tone and Model an Emotionally Healthy Environment for the Entire Classroom?

How the teacher treats students is constantly under the microscope. Students are studying how the teacher treats their peers.

During conflict, the students learn a lot about teachers when difficult students test them. How will the teachers respond?

If a teacher can do it by holding the student accountable, and doing it with respect, the students know that the teacher is legitimate, and they are in a safe environment.

Likewise, how the teacher praises students when they do the correct thing is also modeled to the students. Master teachers find examples of positive learning experiences, kindness, tolerance, and empathy to give positive specific praise.

Exemplary teachers set a positive and model a positive learning environment by putting time not only into relationships, but also into building a sense of agency within their students. Students leave their classrooms at the end of each year knowing that pushing themselves for growth is something inside of them they can control. These students understand that a love learning starts with them. They own their progress and work ethic. The master teacher talks with students about this throughout the school year and is able to support them in goal setting.

Students also watch as teachers interact with each other. If there is a sense of kindness and respect among the teachers, students know it. Similarly, if students see disrespect between the adults in the school, that disrespect permeates into the classrooms and student interactions. Exemplary teachers understand this and work at relationships with adults in the school as much as with their students.

Exemplary teachers work at teaching, modeling, and discussing kindness, tolerance, and empathy. They understand the power of recognition of these three traits and give positive specific praise connected to these characteristics. They spend time in class meetings discussing examples in the classroom, around the school, as well as proactively planting information for future lessons. These teachers do it so well, that the students around the school echo their words as they take ownership of their classroom culture and the school's culture.

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#2 - How Does the Relationships Between the Students and How They Treat Each Other Important to the Classroom Environment?

An easy observation to make is watching how students communicate with each other: are they kind to each other, or are the interactions riddled with disrespect and ridicule?

All classroom environments have a culture of their own. This culture is created by the teacher, and ultimately by the school leaders.

What the teacher models and permits is directly related to this classroom culture. A teacher that permits students to be disrespectful to each other creates a classroom environment that is toxic. A master teacher understands this and is constantly stopping, taking on these student conversations by modeling more respectful language, and being proactive with teaching mini-lessons when such conflict occurs.

The ability to "teach from your feet and not your seat" is quite evident in order to create a positive learning environment. A teacher that sits at their desk, plays on their phone, or is not engaged with students while they are in the classroom misses all the interactions going on with their students. There are many missed opportunities.

Master teachers utilize every minute in the day to connect with students, monitor instruction, and push each student to their potential. The stronger the relationship between the student and the teacher, the more potential for student growth is possible.

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#3 - How Can a Teacher Create Strong Relationships with Students?

Several characteristics master teachers possess illustrate the ability to create strong student relationships.

Be a Good Communicator

Those that stand out are also inherent to being a good communicator. Master teachers listen, ask questions, and genuinely care about the well-being of their students. They understand that strong relationships are built on trust. A fabulous school-wide philosophy that builds trust is titled, Trust Psychology.

Listen to Students

Listening to students can be difficult as it takes time. As the burden of work and accountability that is placed on teachers increases, the amount of time to listen seems to wane. The ability to listen to students, especially when there is a problem or concern is key to creating a positive environment. Many times students just need someone to listen and not comment, and then there are students who are looking for guidance or a response from a trusted adult. The exemplary teacher knows when to listen to a specific student in order for them to be ready to learn. Sometimes the first five minutes of a small group instructional period is spent listening. Without this time spent listening, the master teacher knows he or she will not be able to get a student or group of students ready to learn.

Ask Questions and Know When to Ask Questions

Asking questions seems like a no-brainer for a teacher to connect with students. Unfortunately, some teachers do spend the time taking interest in their students and are unable to connect with them. Asking about after school activities, family, or even a favorite sports teams may be a place to start. Exemplary teachers know when to ask questions in order to strengthen the relationship with the student.

Love and Logic philosophy talks about building an emotional bank account. Before we can withdraw, we must build up the metaphorical account of positive interactions. Some research suggests a seven to one ratio (seven positive interactions before correcting one negative behavior). This rationale may seem ridiculous, but with tough students, this ratio may be even larger. Master teachers understand how this ratio works with the most difficult to reach students.

Don't be Fake

Students can see right through adults that are fake…teachers that say they care, but their actions do not emulate their words. This hurts the ability for a teacher to build trust with the student. Students want an adult that is going to do what they say they are going to do, are caring, and take an interest in their lives.

#4 - How Can Body Language Tell You About the Relationships of Students and Teachers?

Actions speak louder than words!

Master teachers understand they need to study the body language of their students. They are proactive by asking questions and using a coaching model to better understand students. For example, if a classroom teacher learns that a student is rude to the lunch lady, they are questioning and making sure that the student fixes the relationship with her. They do not let comments or rudeness slide and are making sure the culture of the school is maintained through strong relationships. Though this rude gesture was not done in the classroom, the master teacher understands they are the primary person who is responsible for that student while in the school setting.

The master teacher is aware and is self-reflective of their own body language. They match their body language with how they feel, yet they are always spinning and reframing conversations as to cultivate a growth mindset (see Carol Dweck's, Growth Mindset).

The teacher understands that what they model, especially during conflict, is what they will see their students use to solve problems. Body language that instills patience, kindness, and perseverance are a few of the qualities that have been proven to support a positive learning environment.

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#5 - How Can Teachers Build Agency, Have Students Support Their Own Learning, and Supporting Others' Learning?

Master teachers know that they alone cannot guarantee student achievement. They need support from many different entities, but most importantly the students themselves. These teachers build agency within their students. It is best defined and described by the web site, gettingsmart.com as

…the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative-the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others' lives.

A great article from this web site, 10 Tips for Developing Student Agency, by Tom Vander Ark (Dec. 22, 2015), states that teachers can do the following to build agency,

  • Be attentive and sensitive and keep high standards.
  • Encourage and respect students' perspectives.
  • Strive to make lessons simulating and relevant.
  • Regularly summarize for students what they have learned.
  • Take steps to detect and respond to confusion.
  • Strive to develop clearer explanations.
  • Give feedback that provides scaffolding that builds on students own understandings.
  • Press students to think deeply.
  • Require students to persevere.
  • Strive to keep a positive learning classroom culture.

Students can support their own learning by keeping a growth mindset, as well as reframing perspectives of other students in their classroom. When students can find the positive in a situation, the probability of success and student achievement improves. If they can do this on their own, they can help others, too.

Many times students do not know what to say when a peer is constantly negative, or tears someone else down. Master teachers understand they must model language for students and give them strategies they can use to help other students take a different perspective. They can move a peer's perspective to empathize, or maybe even letting a peer know that silence has power, too!

#6 - Do All Students Feel Valued, Safe, and Comfortable Enough to Take Intellectual Risks?

During an observation, an observer can determine the classroom climate quickly. Are students able to take risks in the classrooms? If so, an observer should see students comfortable enough to ask any type of question, make a comment, or express themselves in other ways without ridicule or putdowns from the teacher or other students.

A master teacher puts an enormous amount of effort into listening. They listen to student comments, answers, and responses to the whole class in order to uphold respect and dignity. They model language when a question or comment is made that is bias, disrespectful, or hurtful. They model corrective language like the following statements, "You could ask the same question by stating…" or, "Another way you can say that is…" In this fashion, teachers can continually teach tolerance, empathy, and kindness. These teachers understand that through positive specific praise of student communication, more respectful learning conversations will occur. They understand that you "get what you pay attention to."

In the same fashion, teachers extensively listen to the conversations between students in their classrooms. They are listening for respectful words and positive tone, while watching body language. When the teacher hears something that is questionable, they jump right in with prompting questions, modeling alternative language, and coaching. They are proactive every day by modeling and practicing language for students to use when they do disagree. They do not ignore or let comments slide, nor do they allow sarcasm to build. Master teachers know that all students should be able to communicate freely, even when they disagree. How students communicate when they disagree illustrates how safe the classroom environment truly is for all students.

(Charlotte Danielson Model: Domain 2 Component A)

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Jon Konen