Fixing Student-Teacher Relationships

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It is a fact of life as a teacher that sometimes you will fall out with students. Okay, so I’m not telling you anything new there, but what can we do about it when it happens?

Students occasionally do the wrong things. They might not do their homework, talk out of turn, miss deadlines, pick on other students, cheat, lie, make things up. The list of possibilities are endless it seems.

The first thing to remember is that every one of the school students you have under your charge are immature; they are not adults.

Before we continue it’s worth thinking about that. From the preparatory student right through to the final year student, without exception, they are all immature. If you don’t believe me ask their parents.

That is an important thing to recognise, because when you try to fix a relationship with a student, you are doing so as the one with rational and reasonable behaviour, whilst the student is the one who is somewhere on the maturity continuum.

For the most part, when something like a relationship with a student is broken, it is because they have done something wrong.

On those rare but inevitable times when we stuff up as teachers, the best fix is to admit that you erred and apologise. Doing anything else normally breeds resentment and is just wrong anyway.

Getting into power struggles and saving face just doesn’t help, so don’t go there. If on honest reflection, you recognise there are some areas of your teaching practice, say classroom management, that need improvement, recognise it and work to fix it.

Explore some of these earlier posts for ideas..
How do I get my classroom under control?
Redirection as an Effective Behaviour Management Strategy for Teachers
The First Behaviour Management Trick I ever used as a Teacher
5 Tips for Using your Voice as an effective Behaviour Management tool

Okay, back to the students.

Some students have chronic behaviour problems, some have emotional issues and some have issues that defy labels!

Regardless, if you want the best for that student and maintain classroom discipline, you will have to try your best to form a good working relationship with them.

All be there a myriad of reasons for a student falling out with you, here are a few tips to get things back on track so that learning can continue…

Apply consequences

Surprisingly some teachers shy away from giving problem students consequences for poor behaviours. Perhaps they think that it will damage things further.

However, failing to apply classroom rules only leads to further problems with the student. The student may continue to commit infractions if there are no consequences.

When they are applied, you and the student can move on towards a better relationship, as things are now behind you.

Consequences are best applied immediately. Trying to fix a relationship when a punishment is looming is a hard call.

Explain the issue

Students can sulk. But they also get over things. So whether you think that you are speaking to a brick wall, it’s important that the student hears why there is an issue.

Often students just don’t understand the gravity of a situation they have created or the potential consequences of poor behaviour. So to fix things, they need to understand the problem, or they may continue to repeat the behaviours, creating a situation where no positive relationship is likely to exist.

Let them have their say 

You know the old saying…“Give them enough rope..?”
Okay we’re not looking for them to make things worse for themselves, but it is important that they are given the chance to explain themselves. Using open questions works wonders in these situations. And then listen.

Students will often talk themselves round when given a chance and they end up doing all the relationship repair themselves. Sometimes, in merely verbalising what is going on in their heads, it dawns on them that they have been the cause of the breakdown.

Talk to them privately

Many times after I have reprimanded a student, I have sought them out before the next class or lesson, to give me time to start fixing the issue.

You don’t need to make excuses or rhyme off a page long list of why you had to do what you did. It is enough sometimes to clarify the issue and then ask how we can fix it.

Doing this in front of others students is not the best idea. My teaching experience is with adolescents/teenagers. They are likely to want to save face, so don’t put them under any peer pressure.

I also try, depending on the seriousness of the issue, not to call them to my office, but perhaps catch up with them during a break on the school yard or on the oval. This can take some of the tension out of the situation.

Just make sure it’s out of earshot of their mates.

Don’t try to be popular

Going back to what I said above about the maturity differences in teachers and students, it’s important that you don’t try and ‘fit in’, come down to their level or be one of the gang. You will be despised for it.

Instead build respect in the eyes of the student by being fair, consistent and honourable. Students will often grudgingly come back to compliance and a working relationship, despite their ego telling them otherwise.

In my time, I’ve taught some pretty tough classes: non-academic boys of around the 15-18 year old range. Teachers who try to be popular with such students are eaten alive.

I’ve had enough anecdotal evidence from these students to tell me (privately) that they prefer well disciplined classes and solid teachers. Why? Because it keeps them out of trouble.

Praise them but don’t overdo it

At your next lesson, after having spoken to a student, you might get the chance to praise them if they have earned it. It makes them feel better and it sends a message that things are okay between you: that you are not nursing any resentment.

It’s important though that you don’t push this. Only give praise when praise is deserved. Make sure that praise is proportionate to the act. If the student gets a question right, acknowledge it and encourage further.

But don’t eulogise or wax lyrical at these moments. Remember that you have to be consistent across all your students.

Know your students

Depending on your teaching role, you might have your students all day, every day, or maybe only see them for one 40 minute lesson per week. Regardless, it’s important that you know the background of your students and any individual circumstances that will help you in your practice.

For primary school teachers, you are likely to develop a fairly in-depth knowledge of each student personality in your class. For high school teachers, this information is likely to be gained on the go as you deal with issues as they crop up.

It can be really helpful however, student consequences aside, to understand what might be hindering a positive teacher relationship with a particular student.

So talk to your colleagues, and when necessary parents, to help you get a clear picture of what is going on.

And finally…

Don’t be too upset if despite your best efforts, the odd student doesn’t take to you as a teacher. It’s likely that they are having issues with other teachers too, who don’t fit their ‘ideal’ of what a teacher is.

Keep working on them, apply consequences fairly across the classroom and unless there are some serious underlying issues that require support interventions, things will work themselves out.

You and I both know that students can transform themselves beyond measure in a biological year of growing up. And sometimes it’s just time that is required.

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