5 things students require to build trusting relationships with their teachers

As we embark on another school year in which teachers are focused on supporting students’ rebound from disrupted learning, building trusting relationships with kids will be at the forefront of many teachers’ minds.

If you’re a teacher, you know trusting relationships are an important condition for engaging students. Depending on your years of experience, your location, the grade level of your students, and many other factors, there are any number of ways to build trust with your class. I’d like to share just a few with you.

What students expect

When I was in graduate school, I learned about five actions teachers can use to build trusting relationships with students. They come from Michael Smith’s and Jeffrey Wilhelm’s qualitative research, presented in the book Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys.

Due to the literacy gaps that are prevalent for many adolescent male students, the authors engaged in interviews with almost fifty young men to learn what role literacy played in their lives and what schools can do to better motivate young men (and, really, all students) in reading. During the study, patterns of responses revealed that the quality of young men’s relationships with teachers was a key factor in their engagement and motivation in school. Five expectations the students had of their teachers surfaced:

  1. A teacher should try to get to know me personally.
  2. A teacher should care about me as an individual.
  3. A teacher should attend to my interests in some way.
  4. A teacher should help me learn and work to make sure that I have learned.
  5. A teacher should be passionate, committed, work hard, and know their stuff.

These expectations became what Smith and Wilhelm call an “implicit social contract.” The students reported that when they had poor relationships with teachers, it was often because they believed the teacher had not met these implicit expectations.

These findings don’t advocate for an all-or-nothing approach, however. According to Smith and Wilhelm, “If a teacher met even one of these conditions in the eyes of students, the boys tended to respond positively and to learn from and work hard for that teacher. When teachers failed to hold up their end of the bargain, the students echoed Herb Kohl’s famous book title: ‘I won’t learn from you.’”

I encourage you not to become overwhelmed by five more things to do! As Smith and Wilhelm remind us, meeting just one of the expectations well can make a big difference in how you relate to your students. Let’s explore actions you can take this year to build trust with your class.

1. A teacher should try to get to know me personally

I recommend two practices that can help you get to know students.

The first simple practice is to greet students at the classroom door as they enter. This provides an opportunity to make one-on-one connections with kids before class begins each day. You can ask questions, make small talk, notice their mood, observe what they wear and what they carry in, and listen to the conversations they have with other students.

The second practice I recommend is to look for positive things about all your students. This idea comes from Jim Knight’s work with instructional coaching. This action helps you learn about kids from an asset-based lens, rather than a deficit-based one, and it improves your capacity to build positive relationships with them.

These two practices will make you more curious about the children in your room because you will notice each student’s individuality more quickly. The things you notice can prompt you to ask questions to help you get to know them more personally. Here are some examples:

  • You’re playing basketball this season. Who are you playing next? How are you feeling about the game?
  • How has your morning been?
  • How are things going with your new puppy?
  • Do you play Pokémon, or do you mostly collect them?
  • Are you still helping your grandpa with cleaning the garage?
  • I heard you say you won an award. Tell me about it.

2. A teacher should care about me as an individual

The two practices from above can also demonstrate that you care about students as individuals, not just as students.

Showing you care about kids can also be conveyed in quick, more private moments, especially because you likely won’t be able to have a long conversation with everyone at the door. For example, when a student is upset, you can share that you want to listen to what’s going on with them one-on-one as soon as you can. Tell the student that once class has started, you will come chat with them during an independent assignment. Another example is simply telling a student who has been absent that you missed them being in class and that you are glad they are back.

3. A teacher should attend to my interests in some way

Choices in curriculum and instruction can open the door for utilizing students’ interests and funds of knowledge in the teaching and learning process.

Many teachers will survey students about their interests and experiences throughout the school year. These surveys can be a gold mine for bringing students’ interests and experiences into assignments. Here are a few simple ways to attend to interests:

  • Have students share their interests during opening check-ins at the beginning of class.
  • Encourage students to select their own topics for writing assignments.
  • Have students evaluate their favorite part of a lesson and explain why.
  • Have students relate content to things in their own lives. They can share connections in realistic or imaginative ways.

4. A teacher should help me learn and should work to make sure that I have learned

Formative assessment can be key to helping students learn and making sure they’ve learned.

Formative assessment is currently defined by CCSSO as “a planned, ongoing process used by all students and teachers during learning and teaching to elicit and use evidence of student learning to improve student understanding of intended disciplinary learning outcomes and support students to become self-directed learners.” (Don’t forget that formative assessment is never graded!)

You can create frequent, informal, and ongoing activities that help your students both process and self-assess their learning. These opportunities make space for students to talk, write, and do, so use strategies that make learning visible to both you and your students. Having students show their learning in various ways allows you and classmates to provide real-time feedback throughout the learning process.

As Smith and Wilhelm remind us, meeting just one of the expectations well can make a big difference in how you relate to your students.

Improving your use of formative assessment can be a powerful way to meet the expectation of helping students learn and making sure they’ve learned. For detailed ideas on how to do this, download our eBook Making it work: How formative assessment can supercharge your practice.

5. A teacher should be passionate, be committed, work hard, and know their stuff

I know you are all these things! But students do not always see the time, expertise, and energy that goes into your classroom each day. Think about some simple ways to let your students see this a little more.

To show your passion, examine what aspects of teaching excite you most and share those with your students. To demonstrate your commitment, work on keeping your promises to students. Also, consider whether you can truly keep a promise before you make it. Broken promises are one of the quickest and longest-lasting ways to erode trust.

One of the best ways to demonstrate your work ethic is making sure you are prepared for class each day. I know sometimes that’s easier said than done, but kids notice the difference between a confident, prepared teacher and a timid, aimless one.

Finally, show that you know your stuff. Tell students interesting information about your content. Answer their questions about the topics you are studying. And, if you don’t know something, use it as an opportunity to learn about it with your students, which presents another chance to build relationships with one another.

Next steps

Which of the five expectations in the implicit social contract is an area where you excel? Reflect on how you developed that skill. Then think about which expectation could be an area for growth for you and which strategies or tips you want to try.

Remember: It’s okay to start with just one goal for yourself. As Smith and Wilhelm wrote, “If a teacher met even one of these conditions in the eyes of students, [they] tended to respond positively and to learn from and work hard for that teacher.”

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