Building Positive Relationships

Each year as the school year draws to a close we are forced to say goodbye to those faces we have grown so attached to.  Those last few days of school are tough because, as teachers, we commit to individuals.  We commit to relationships.   We open the school year by establishing a positive rapport with our students, and we spend the year nurturing a relationship built on honesty, trust, and mutual respect. Without a positive relationship no real learning can take place, and the roots of these positive relationships begin on the first days of school.   But, the middle school student is different in every way from their elementary and high school counterparts.  Therefore, what works for an elementary student will earn scoffs from that middle school child.   What enamors a high-schooler may strike fear into those in the middle grades.  So, how do you go about building relationships with that unique middle school student?

Teaching middle school means you have to be a little awkward.  You have to be willing to laugh at yourself, make jokes that nobody else finds funny, and be a goof at the drop of a hat.  That description embodies everything I do in the classroom.  While maintaining very high expectations for student achievement, I like to laugh, make up songs “on the fly,” and make the corny jokes that get my students to laugh.  Caught somewhere in-between wanting the security of elementary school and the independence of high school, these students strive to find themselves and who they are more than anything else.  This persona is not a “show;” it is who I am and I have found it helps students feel comfortable, confident (after all, if I am goofy and awkward how they can be any worse?), and develop a sense of belonging.

I start the year with learning about my students.  I seek out their interests and hobbies and express an interest.  I find a place to store this information (mentally) and draw upon it routinely to show that I care — because I do — and to show students that they “belong.”   On the first day of school I allow students the opportunity to anonymously ask me question about my life.  They write down their question on a slip of paper and they can leave it nameless if they choose.  They can ask anything they want to know about me!  This brings me down to earth, shows students that I too am a real person, gives students a chance to learn about my interests and hobbies, and helps the students see me as approachable and easy to talk to.  While some fear this will draw many unwarranted (or embarrassing) questions, over my nine years of doing this activity I have not had one question I did not feel comfortable answering (TIP:  If you did receive a question that “crossed the line” you can easily cover it up by playing off the question as one you already answered and just skip it!).

As someone who taught in a really "tough" school, and being a math teacher on top of that, I always felt like I had the odds stacked against me. I didn't grow up the way my students did. I grew up in a solid home, surrounded by love in a nurturing environment. I was involved in activities, went on family vacations and didn't know what it felt like to be alone, scared or in danger. During my first two years in the classroom, I had a really hard time building relationships with my students. I didn't understand them, and honestly, I was afraid of some of them. I shut myself down and decided to play the "bad cop" role. I thought I would demand their respect, rather than earn it. Needless to say, that didn't work.

During my third year in the Middle School classroom, I took a different approach. I looked past my students circumstances and looked into their hearts. I had a student who was a behavior problem. She was angry and down right nasty. I found out she had lost her mother years ago and was still lashing out over that. I lost my own mom when I was 20 to breast cancer and while I didn't share that with my students, I shared it with her. Suddenly, she relaxed in my classroom. She knew I understood. She knew I was angry too. She knew I was there for her. I had another student who had just been released from jail for armed robbery. Turns out, he LOVED math. I didn't focus on what he had done or who he was outside of my classroom. I tugged at his strengths in my room and while he may have had issues in other classes, he never did in mine. I let my students know I cared about them, while still having rules and expectations. My students were not my friend, but they didn't "fear" me either. They respected me and my rules and I respected what they were bringing to my classroom each day... the good and the bad.

I may be 36, but all of my students would back me up when I say that I certainly don't act like it.  I know when to put on my "Serious Teaching Hat" and when to relax, be silly, and laugh.  It is a delicate balance and there are times when I will literally jump from being serious, to silly, and right back to serious within a matter of seconds - and my students quickly learn to hang on and expect the wild ride.

To me, the strongest, best relationships are those built around common interests.  While I would never condone being "friends" with a middle school student, I definitely believe that they need to know that you are still relevant, no matter what your age is.  I am not suggesting that you start wearing your jeans sagging with your cap backwards, but it's important for your students to know that you aren't completely out of touch with their world.  And in middle school, their world is EVERYTHING (at least in their heads)!
I do my best to infuse current music trends into my lessons, utilize technology that they are interested in, watch the movies they are talking about, read the books they are reading.  It's all about connecting with them on their level.  To take it another step, consider attending extra-curricular activities that they are involved in.  You would not believe the lasting impact it can have with a student when they look out into the bleachers, audience, or crowd and see YOU - their teacher?!?!  It always freaks them out at first - almost a state of shock- but they will never forget it.  And I promise you, that student will work harder for you and be more invested in you and your class because you made the extra effort to be invested in their life and what is important to them.  I've dragged my two daughters to countless middle school athletic events, choir concerts, band concerts, plays, performances, and Little League baseball games.  And the next class day, I give those students a quick shout-out in class.  It's the simple things that mean the most.

The best part about making these connections is not only the strong relationships that you are building with your students, but the strong content that your students will retain because it means something to them and is relevant in their world.       


  1. What a wonderful post! I think you're all right on by stressing the importance of connecting with middle schoolers. In fact, I think telling my students how much I care for them, letting them know that I love my job, attending after school activities, and even saying really good things about each of them when they're not in the room (that's the fastest way to get your message shared with that student) is the first step to great instruction. Once my students know that I love them, they're far more willing to meet the high standards I have for them. Bravo on sharing such great insight!

  2. I couldn't agree more with Mr. G's advice! Getting to really know your students in paramount.