Throughout my career, I’ve held many titles. I’ve been a reading specialist, a special education teacher, and an English teacher, among others. No matter what my job was called, one of the most important things I did every day was to try to build relationships with students. Especially since the pandemic, teachers have been encouraged to build rapport with their students as schools have placed greater focus on social and emotional learning (SEL).
Students with disabilities often require more frequent check-ins. Whether it’s because they need reassurance that they are doing their work correctly, have a tendency to drift off track, or just need an extra pat on the back here and there, the connection is important to their success.
While their individualized education plans (IEPs) will often spell this out explicitly, I have found that these lighter, more frequent touchpoints are a great way to build relationships with students–trusting, supportive relationships regardless of their abilities. Here’s how it works:
Getting to know your students
Take some time at the beginning of the year to get to know your students, and don’t be afraid to let them get to know you.
Students who struggle with disabilities, especially in high school, have been struggling for a long time, and it’s still really hard. It’s not from lack of intervention or effort on their part. They have some challenge that interferes with how they learn, and that makes school difficult. They’ve been trying their best for years, and it hasn’t gotten them out of special reading classes or eliminated their need for an IEP. Sometimes that can make students seem unmotivated or uninterested in trying their hardest.
Instead of just going through the motions and giving them a “get to know you” survey, give them a little bit of yourself. Tell them about a way that you struggled in school. When I was in school, I wasn’t particularly quick at picking up new math concepts or doing mental math. I required numerous examples and always used scratch paper. When I went to college, I found that I had to make adjustments to my note taking and studying time in order to transition to the additional rigor. I can’t be in their shoes. I don’t have a disability, but I can relate because I was a kid too, and school wasn’t always so easy.
Building rapport through quick, positive check-ins
In addition to sharing stories of your own challenges, showing up for your students in small ways every day can have a huge impact.
Every year I have a handful of students who have trouble getting motivated at the beginning of the day. We can’t all be morning people! A number of years ago I began using an app, Remind, that lets me send text messages without knowing my students’ phone numbers or revealing my own. I gave students the option to opt in and created a texting group that I called “Early Risers.”
Each day at 7:00 AM I would send out an inspirational quote or other message to the group to help get them started. On Monday, it might be as simple as, “I know you’ve had a long weekend, but let’s get this week started off strong!” I could schedule the texts ahead of time, too, so I could set up messages for the upcoming week all at once. These could be simple reminders such as “we are in the library” or “don’t forget that your paper is due.”
Text messaging is a nice way to let students know you’re thinking about them, and if you use a service that lets you schedule them, you can become a brief, positive presence in their lives when they need support most. That’s true even if it’s early in the morning when they are struggling to wake up and you’re flying around getting ready for the day.
Text messages can also be a great way to follow up with students if you missed an opportunity to congratulate them on a great job during class. Some days I have a million things going on and it feels like I’m making one decision after another. At times like that, I will sometimes have a delayed reaction and realize after my students leave, “Wow, they did a great job today and I didn’t say anything about it.” With text messaging, it’s easy to send out a note that says, “You all worked really hard today! Have a great weekend!”
It’s important not to send too many texts and to make sure the texts aren’t stressful. As teachers, our students are always on our minds, so I find that every time I pick up something to read or sit down to watch a TV program, I see something relevant to class and feel the urge to send a note. It’s nice to be able to send them out on the weekends or evenings, but if you do that too often, students may begin to feel like they are never able to escape school. I make sure not to overwhelm them with the number of texts I send, and I make sure that most of them are not about stressful things like homework.
At the end of the year when I receive feedback from students, they always talk about how much they like the text messages. They often seem a little surprised to receive them, even though they signed up for them.
Sometimes students’ families will want to get into the group texts to see what they are all about and I’m happy to add them. Remind lets me set up as many groups as I like. I think with younger students in particular, family groups would be useful, but I have only used it to communicate directly with students and let their families join those groups if they are interested.
How connecting and building relationships with students pays off
Many years ago, Brett Kopf, cofounder and board member of Remind, was a student of mine. I met him when he was a sophomore. I’m still friends with Brett, and I even keep in touch with his mom after all these years!
Having that family support as a teacher is incredibly important. When a student’s family is behind the relationship they develop with their teacher, it’s so much easier to support their student as they prepare to do amazing things in the world.
No matter how hard you work to build a relationship with students, they aren’t all going to go on to start companies that will find their way into your classroom or even keep in touch years later. But if they see you trying every day, it will have an impact.
A few years ago, I had a strong student who was conscientious about turning everything in on time. She happened to be in a class with many students who often needed support with motivation. During Teacher Appreciation Week, she gave me a thank you note that told me that even though some students didn’t always pay attention, she appreciated that I tried every single day.
Students are learning from their teachers all the time, even when we aren’t trying to teach or interact with them directly. Keep reaching out to students in small ways, every single day. You never know who you’ll reach.