How to Build Relationships with Students that Have a Lasting Impact
By Amanda Schaffer, Former Teacher
I have a note from a student that I have kept for over a decade now. She handed it to me the day I left teaching students and shifted to teaching teachers instead. It reads, “Please don’t go, if it’s about the money, I’ll give you my allowance.”
I didn’t leave the classroom for money, much in the same way as I didn’t enter the classroom for it either. But the sentiment was so very precious to me. It broke my heart to leave my students. I got to loop with my students, so I didn’t just teach them for one year only, I taught them four years in a row. So when I left that class, I had been with them three years already and would miss their fourth and final year in the program.
It was such a difficult decision. But I knew that I wanted to help other teachers build the relationships I had built with so many students over the years. And to do that I would have to leave my singular classroom and trade it in for many classrooms.
When I left the classroom, I began providing professional development for teachers, administrators, and educational professionals. I traveled all over the United States meeting teachers and learning about how they teach. I did eventually return to working with students so that I could try my skills at virtual teaching before officially moving to only professional learning. Through my sixteen years in brick-and-mortar and then, virtual teaching, I learned so many lessons from my students and I bring those lessons into the work I do today as the Manager of Online Professional Learning at McGraw Hill. I often reflect on how I built relationships with students that had such a lasting impact. Here are a few ways I did that:
- Give your students handwritten notes whenever possible. I used to write every single student a handwritten note a minimum of three times a year. I would welcome them to my classroom, celebrate their accomplishments, and wish them well at the end of the year all through handwritten, individualized notes. I learned this from my mother, and I know writing handwritten notes made a huge difference in my ability to build relationships with my students.
- Share your favorite quotes with them. Write them on your walls and bulletin boards and use them as you provide feedback to students. One of my favorite quotes, from Marianne Williamson, says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?” I shared this with so many classes over the years. Later I watched students utilize this quote in their college essays and then eventually in their college graduation announcements.
- Visit classrooms outside your own. (I cannot stress this one enough!) Visit classrooms in other schools, districts, cities, and states. Never miss an opportunity to see education in a variety of spaces both physical and virtual and beyond the walls of your own world if you can. Seeing classrooms outside your own provides you with perspective and awareness and better equips you to meet your students’ needs.
- Listen to what your students tell you both with their words and their actions. Teenage brains are fraught with hormones and develop at a rapid speed. Sometimes they communicate with their words, sometimes they communicate with their actions. Connecting with them requires listening to both.
- Teach your students about their brains. I attended a professional learning conference once and learned a little about brain science — how teenage brains are developing and how that development impacts their learning. I decided to share that information with my students. Not only were they on the edge of their seats for the entire lesson, but they were truly fascinated by the information. And learning about their brains helped them make connections to why they made the choices they made at school.
- Ask them what matters to them and really listen to their answers. Support them in their activities as much as you can. I can still clearly see my middle school math teacher in the audience at all of my musicals and plays, cheering me on. Her support left such an impact on me that even thirty years later I still remember her being there for me. And your students will remember you too.
In my classroom, I wasn’t just a teacher to a bunch of students. I truly cared about my students. I cared about who they had been, who they were becoming, and who they would one day be. I built those strong relationships with my students, and it made all the difference in their learning.
Relationships allowed me to encourage students to take Advanced Placement classes that they thought were out of their reach, relationships help me push my students to achieve college realities they thought were only dreams. Building relationships with my students made me a stronger teacher and a better human. And on the really difficult days, it sustained me. Being able to encourage, empower, and inspire teachers so that they can be this kind of teacher is the very best part of my current work.
Teachers impact students in so many powerful ways. The greatest relationships lead not just to positive student outcomes but to lasting connections that continue to remind students who they are and who they can become. Empowering teachers to reach every student is the goal of the work I am privileged to do. Rita Pierson, one of the greatest educators of our time said, “every student deserves a champion.” How can you be a champion for your students today so they can be the champions of their own tomorrow?
Amanda Schaffer has been an educator for over 19 years. She has worked as a middle school, high school and higher ed teacher. She graduated in 2003 with a Bachelors in Education from the University of Central Florida and later, graduated from Nova Southeastern with a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction. Amanda spent 7 years in the K-12 classroom and then moved on to spend the last 12 years in professional learning and higher education. As the Online Professional Learning Manager at McGraw Hill she enjoys supporting her team of Product Mangers and Solution developers who create strategies and tools for teachers to implement in their classroom across all portfolios and platforms.