Lately, I have been pretty distracted with my new job and have not done a great job of focusing on myself! I realized that it had been quite some time since I got my hair cut.  I actually didn’t even have a preferred place.  I found a salon close to work that could get me in right away.

Little did I know that there was a specific reason that I was supposed to be at that salon on that day.  I walked in and a kind young woman greeted me.  I told her my name and that I had an appointment.  As I looked at her, I began to recall a much younger version of her.  I could see her expression change and her eyes sparkle with surprise.  She said, “Ms. Wortman, is that really you?”

Ana was a student of mine for two years in a row several years back.  In fact, it was the year before I got married because I had many students, including her,  trying to find out the location of my wedding, so they could attend as my bridesmaids. Which still makes me laugh to this day.  I couldn’t believe that she remembered me because I never really remembered any of my teachers.  Her and I took a stroll down memory lane chatting about her experience with school and how her classmates were doing now.  She’s doing great now by the way!  She loves working in a salon.  I never realized that I made such an impact on her.  She told me that she knew I always believed in her, even when she didn’t believe in herself.  That took my breath away.

As educators, I think we don’t realize the power in everything that we do.  It also has very little to do with the content we teach.  You have heard the old saying by Carl Buehner, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  So keeping that in mind, what are some ways that we can make building relationships with students a priority?

I started researching this topic and I came across an article that connected building relationships with brain science! Which happens to be my favorite topic.  1According to Kaufman (2021), there are four reasons that positive relationships can help students be successful.

The first is that positive relationships build motivation.  When a student receives positive feedback, their brain releases dopamine.  This creates a positive feedback loop in their brain.  A suggestion is that for every corrective feedback that you give, provide 5 positive pieces of feedback to balance the positive feedback loop.

The second is that positive relationships create safe spaces for learning.  Creating a bond with students through talking and laughing allows for the body to release oxytocin.  This is considered to be a “bonding” hormone.  This promotes the idea of psychological safety to participate in class and persevere through difficulties.

The third is that positive relationships build new pathways for learning.  Using retrieval practices to tap into the student’s previous knowledge can help the neural pathways to connect to the new learning.  It is especially impactful when you can use previous information that is high-interest to students.

The fourth is that positive relationships improve student behavior.  Neuroscience has shown that students will imitate your words and actions subconsciously.  This is called the mirror-neuron system.  So being mindful of the energy that you are putting out can have an impact on how students are acting in your class.

If you are not sure about the idea of building relationships, I want you to check out his TED Talk by Rita Pierson.  She gives me chills when she speaks about the sheer power that we hold as educators to make a difference in the lives of children.

Even the smallest classroom routines can make a difference.  Here is a list of 5 things you can try right now to build better relationships with your students.

  1. Apologize when you make a mistake.  
  2. Model for them what it looks like to accept an apology.
  3. Share things about your life and have them share things about theirs.
  4. Remember the things they share with you, and check in with them frequently.
  5. Use their interests in your lessons.

If you invest in building relationships in your classroom, you are giving students the chance to feel safe taking risks with you, but also helping them to learn lifelong skills. How might this look in your classroom? Do you have any awesome strategies that you use to build relationships with students?  Please join in the conversation by tagging us @KaneCountyROE. 

I feel so fortunate to have seen the person that Ana became, and I hope that all students have a champion that believes in them too.

1Building positive relationships with students:  What brain science says.  By Trynia Kaufman, MS.

Raven Szalkowski – Professional Learning Coordinator

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