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Belonging Begins with You: How to Build Strong Student-Teacher Relationships

Allison Bruhn
Allison Bruhn
written by

Allison Bruhn, Ph.D.

Teaching & Learning

This week, I received a note from a former grad student about her life, her career, and her future. In it, she mentioned how she always felt welcomed by me and my heart swelled.

Of course, I got a little misty-eyed about her kind words, but in typical fashion, I started questioning if my other students felt welcomed. Had I made all of my students feel like they belonged? Like they mattered? Had I supported them in valuable and effective ways? 

In some ways, this is an easier task when mentoring graduate students because you are working closely to complete projects and get them through the grind of graduate school. You only have a few students at a time, meaning more opportunities to sit and talk about life’s ups and downs all while enjoying a hot cup of joe at your favorite campus coffee shop. 

Teaching middle school was so much different. A different 30 students were trekking into my science class every hour. By the end of the school day, I had taught 150 7th and 8th graders. How could I possibly have built a relationship with every single one of them?

The sad truth is that I probably didn’t. Sure, I remember many of my students–Mason, Courtney, Logan, Karson—and the bonds we shared. But how many students did I miss? 

It’s funny how looking back on my middle school teaching days I think about how I might have done things differently starting with being more deliberate about how I built relationships with students. 

Relationships take work. Oh wait, did this just morph into a marriage blog? Oops! Sorry folks, I’m not Dr. Phil. For that information, please listen to our fabulous, affiliated faculty member and marriage counseling guru, Jacob Priest on Iowa Public Radio. 😊 

But seriously, positive teacher-student relationships take effort and can be built formally and informally. That is, they can happen through naturally progressing conversations and interactions, and through deliberate activities.

Building relationships with students is central to proactive classroom management and helping students feel like they belong. Like they matter.

Research has shown that students’ sense of belonging is critical to their achievement motivation (Walton et al., 2012). In other words, when students feel welcomed, safe, and comfortable, they are more likely to succeed academically. 

Here are 5 ways educators can get to know their students, create a positive classroom climate, and foster a sense of belonging through building relationships. 

#1 Say hello!

Really? That’s all it takes? Well…it probably takes a little more, but it’s a great first step. It’s also important to look students in the eye and greet them by name.

Even better is to add a little behavior-specific praise to your greeting, “It’s so great to see you this morning, Paige, thank you for being on time.” You can also add a pre-correction (i.e., a reminder of what to do before they must do it), “Great to see you, Jamal! Remember to grab your math book before you sit down. See you inside!”

Not only does greeting students at the door make students feel welcome, research demonstrates these greetings significantly improve student engagement and decrease disruptive behavior (Cook et al., 2018).

By now, everyone has seen the viral videos of teachers doing special handshakes with each student. If that’s your jam, go for it! If not, just sit back and enjoy the video of them, and focus on how you can make your own greetings at the door meaningful to students.

#2 Take interest in their interests.

You may know kids on the basketball team or in drama club. Ask them about it. Strike up a conversation. “How was the game last night?” or “What character are you in the play?” Better yet, attend the basketball game or the school play!

In grad school, I had a professor who ended every class period with, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In other words, if you want students to be engaged in classroom instruction, engage with them on a personal level. Show them you are interested. Show them you care about the things that they care about. 

#3 Share your own interests.

It doesn’t seem to matter what age your students are, but having taught or coached 8 through 28-year-olds, I can attest they enjoy seeing pictures or hearing funny stories about your life. Sad stories or motivational ones work, too.

Inevitably, someone else begins to share a story, a personal anecdote, a joke, or a comment. When you let them in, they will begin to let you in, too.

One of my favorite students, Mason, really struggled in school and in his relationships with teachers. But he had a wicked sense of humor and we bonded when I shared my adoration of Robin Williams. When my students had to write a report about a famous scientist, he was so frustrated because he just wasn’t interested in Madame Curie or Albert Einstein. Knowing Mason, I suggested Patch Adams (played by Robin Williams in the movie about Patch’s extraordinary life). His eyes lit up and he nailed the report, even showing up to deliver it wearing Patch’s infamous red clown nose. 

#4 Provide writing opportunities.

While the first three tips focus on social interactions, some kids may struggle to engage in that way. They may feel more comfortable letting you into their lives through their writing.

Pose questions like, “What is one thing you wish your teacher knew about you?” or “How was your weekend?” or “What are you most looking forward to/dreading over Winter Break?” This can be done through journaling, private discussion boards or email, entrance/exit activities, or even on tests.

When I taught middle school science, sometimes, I would pose a question like this at the end of the test for one point. Of course, students loved the freebie point and it was one more opportunity for me to learn about them, appreciate them, and develop empathy for the challenges they bring with them to school each day. 

#5 Showcase your students.

A final and more formal way to get to know your students is by letting them show you who they are. My daughter’s first-grade teacher did this through “Top Dog.”

Each week, a new student got to be the “Top Dog.” They brought in pictures to hang on a bulletin board and a favorite book to read to the class. And, they were the teacher’s special helper for the week. Of course, this may look different depending on age. Middle schoolers and high schoolers might prefer to play a game like “Two Truths and a Lie” or “Find Someone Who.” 

Whether you use formal or informal strategies to get to know your students, the ultimate goal is to make them feel like they belong. Students who believe that adults truly care if they show up are less likely to act out and drop out. One of our local schools, Liberty High School (North Liberty, Iowa), captured it perfectly in this video—YOU BELONG!