Relationship building in teaching – an experience

I recently had a student challenge a classroom rule.

It wasn’t a major classroom rule, and the student didn’t make a big deal of it. In fact he may not even have known he was doing it, but from my perspective I needed to reaffirm the rules to clarify the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. After all, a predictable environment is beneficial for us teachers to perform our job effectively. For me it’s always a chance to build or strengthen a relationship with a student.

The incursion, drinking water in a lab, might seem harmless enough but it is part of our health and safety code in the school; there is no eating or drinking in any of the labs as there is a chance of contamination occurring to the food/drink. The first student to do it simply got a reminded of the rule and was given a chance to step outside the door, take a drink, and return to their seat. There was no issue there.

It was the second student, that took a drink of water immediately after I made a point of the rule, that I had a problem with. I had a suspicion that the incursion was deliberate, and the student was testing the boundaries of my class rules. I also felt that maintaining these boundaries would mean that he would respect me, and hence trust me, more.

At the time I let the incursion slide, until the students were given some classwork to do and then approached him reminding him of the rule and what he had done. The response; “I forgot, sir”. Honestly I was dubious about whether he was telling the truth, but I prefer to take my students at their word and treat them as mature adults (even if my teacher spidey-sense tells me otherwise). I repeated the rule, how I had corrected another students thirty seconds before he took a drink, and how I had suggested a fair alternative to ensure students could remain hydrated despite the rule (which was in place for their safety). As a teacher, I’d be quite assertive in these instances. So there’s always a possibility of a student not liking how I clarify issues. In this instance I believe he was onboard with everything and there was no further issue that could develop from how I handled it. It seemed like my instinct was correct; he needed to see that I could take charge of the situation and deal with him assertively and fairly.

But you never really know with teenagers! I’d have to monitor the situation.

Generally speaking boys work best with teachers they have a relationship with. If the student likes a teacher then it’s more likely that he’ll do work for you. As I said, I believe that the issue was handled well and I felt both parties were equally respected by the outcome. But I needed to monitor what was going to happen in the next few classes to see if the relationship was strengthened or weakened, and then take steps towards building on that or adjusting my approach. It’s a constant balance between monitoring our interactions, adjusting my approach, and maintaining the boundaries and dynamics of our relationship.

Over the next few classes the student engaged well with the classwork, asked more questions than in previous weeks, and also sought help and clarification on some of the calculation questions. All positive signs. All signs that a student-teacher relationship was building that will allow him room for growth in my class.

It is early days still. I’ll continue to monitor his engagement, concentration, and completed work over the next few weeks, continually making adjustments in how we interact until I’m confident that he realises I’m there to support him and his learning. But this is a massive win for me right now! My goal is to bring the students to a point where they can learn without me, but they first need to know that I’m there should they need any help. And this student appears to be on the road to understanding that.

In closing I’d like to say that I’ve had many more failures in this regard than successes. I’ve learned from all of them, and have apologised for a fair few of mishandled situations. But right now it’s nice to revel in a positive step forward.