How to Build Meaningful Relationships with your Students
My former student and I sat at my desk while my current students faithfully worked through their online courses at their desks. She shared with me that it had been extremely challenging to manage her moods on a daily basis at her job, particularly with unfriendly and demanding customers, but that she was truly enjoying working and earning money.
While this student had returned to my classroom many times to grab lunch with a current student, to engage in a therapy session with our school psychologist, or to just say hi, it was the first time she had walked up to my desk and engaged in a conversation about life after high school. I jumped at the opportunity to converse with her about her transition from high school and to learn more about what was motivating her and what was challenging her.
The quality of my relationships with my former students is a metric of success that I hold in high regard. As a special education teacher, I know that for many students with disabilities, life outcomes can be bleak in comparison to their general education peers. At a recent conference that focused on students with autism, I learned that adults with autism are employed and in stable spousal relationships at much lower rates than their non-disabled peers, during adulthood.
The knowledge of these outcomes raises the stakes for the work that I engage in and creates a sense of urgency in my practice as a special education teacher. I know that I may be one of the last adults that have an opportunity to individually coach these students on a daily basis before they make the leap into post-secondary education or employment, and it is my desire to help propel them into a stable , balanced, and interdependent life following high school.
Each person's approach to building relationships is unique, but I would like to walk you through a few of the principles that shape my interactions with students. One of the first values that I hold in high regard is the importance of honoring the student voice. When a teacher honors the student's voice, the teacher communicates importance and esteem to the student and becomes an important figure in that student's life. While of course content is important, as a special education teacher I have the unique ability to focus on building relationships, working toward goals, and connecting my students to services, rather than solely focusing on rote memorization and content acquisition.
In my classroom I use a variety of approaches to honor the student's voice. I hang up their water colors around the room. When my students finish a course, I print out a certificate with the course title and put it on the wall, then I offer to laminate a copy so that the student can put it up on their fridge at home if they would like to. I plan 30 minutes of game time in which students teach me how to make origami or teach me about the games that they play at home with their family. I am always seeking to know more about my students and what they are interested in. Students want to know that the adults around them are interested in them, and I try to provide this to my students as much as I can.
On a more structural level, the classroom is set up to help students share who they are with others. For example, when we began the program that I teach in now we had 45 minute work blocks. After asking students for feedback on what would help them be more productive, the students shared that they would like to shorten their work blocks and have more breaks; thus, we shortened our work blocks to 30 minutes, and then had 5 minute cell phone breaks between work blocks. During those 5 minute breaks, one student's weekly classroom job is to choose a YouTube video that he likes and play it for the class. Parents, families, and administrators who walk into my room feel, see, and hear a room that reflects the ideas, accomplishments, and interests of my students. And that is how I like it.
The results have been incredible: students who were not attending school at all in their previous placements attend at high rates; my wall is plastered with certificates of courses that my students have completed; the superintendent of my school district regularly receives emails from former parents who say their student has never been happier since graduating from our program...and this is only the second year!
Building life-altering relationships is the goal of my work. It takes consistency, patience, and special attention to the characteristics that make a child unique. Slowly, trust is established, and when it is, the student and I can look out on to the horizon and begin constructing the foundation for the life that they envision.
My former student spent a few more minutes at my desk and we checked out the tuition-reimbursement program that is offered by her current employer. She nodded her head slowly and I could tell that she was giving the idea of getting her prerequisites out of the way (for free) some serious thought. We looked at the other benefits provided by her employer by doing a quick Google search and discussed what a 401(k) is. She wasn't sure if she was ready to start planning for retirement, but we agreed to check-in about it next time we met.