Building Relationships in the “Edges”

I have a confession. I VOLUNTEER for recess duty every school year. Cue the bulging eyes and shaking heads, but I must admit it is one of my favorite parts of the day. In this fifteen minute window, I can be outside building rapport with kids and connecting with them in ways that have nothing to do (directly) with curriculum. Recently, while supervising the blacktop area of our playground, I started thinking of all the things I truly feel lucky to witness during this short span of time. Picture one kickball game, 2 basketball games and 3 tetherball courts and you’ll have a pretty good snapshot of fifth grade recess in all its glory. I get to watch how kids play, problem solve, use social skills, handle friendship nuances/social status and develop or hone talents not cultivated in the classroom. If I didn’t have this time in the “edges,” outside the confines of the classroom in those small moments, I wonder what opportunities I would miss?

A bevy of research exists on the importance of building trust and rapport with students and the vital role this plays in developing relationships that lead to increased engagement, creativity, thinking and academic performance. Author and former English teacher, Zaretta Hammond, talks extensively about these topics in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain. She describes the trust-building process as one that cannot be expedited because “feeling connected grows slowly and requires time for people to get to know each other” (77). Hammond goes on to explain that developing rapport is this slow burn process that helps “dependent learners avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with feeling lost and unsupported in school” (81). Time spent in classrooms is one place to do this kind of work but it is not enough to build the foundation for lasting, meaningful relationships. Where can this extra time be found? The “edges.” Those small day-to-day interactions in the hallways, at recess, in the cafeteria, walking to the bus lanes after school, waiting with kids in the parent pick up line and the list goes on. Kids deserve a chance. A chance for teachers to see them through a different set of eyes than the single story of their classroom.   

Teachers are busy. I get it. But that’s not a free pass to quit students when they display behaviors that are less than desirable. How dare we give up when we are asking students to continue to show up day after day? Let’s face it. Every improper response from a student is one that you should be teaching. Where this teaching occurs is entirely up to you. Sometimes to find a way in… have to look out. Here are a few tips to build those relationships in the “edges.”

Do what you say you are going to do. For most kids, this is a deal breaker and a quick way to diminish trust and rapport. Keep your promises. Be true to your word. Follow through. Eat lunch with that student you promised you would eat lunch with even if you need a break. Go outside and shoot hoops with the kid you promised you would play basketball with even if it’s freezing. If you said you were going to do something…find a way to make it happen. Bottom line.    

Be vulnerable. Let your guard down a bit. Give yourself permission to be seen as human. Admit when you make mistakes. Share your fears. By now, most of the kids (and teachers) at my school know I have a paralyzing fear of dogs. True story. This tiny bit of truth has spawned more authentic conversations than I can count on both hands.

Commit to authentic listening. Sounds simple, but it isn’t always what happens in classrooms on the regular. Set aside time for attentive listening across all parts of your day. It shows you care and respect students and their contributions. Don’t just listen to respond. Listen to become better for your students.

Become a “kid watcher.” Allow yourself time to breathe. Step out of the role of constant monitor and into the role of watcher. This takes practice and ongoing commitment. If it seems daunting with a class of 26 students, start small. Choose 2-4 students and a system of taking notes that works for you. Use sticky notes, index cards or Google Keep. Keep it simple. It doesn’t need to be fancy; it just needs to happen.

Embed social and emotional skills. At every opportunity, make an effort to weave in meet and greet skills, turn taking, problem solving, empathetic listening, and communicating nonverbally. An easy and fun way to do this is to make time to play as a class. Get outside. Join your students during PE class. Play some board games. Never underestimate the power of a heated game of SORRY! as a catalyst in strengthening social-emotional skills.

Tell your story. For better or worse, everyone has a story. Find a way to work yours into interactions with kids. Share your interests. Talk about what you were like as a student. Discuss your favorite subjects. Confess your struggles. An impromptu conversation about writer’s notebooks with a group of fifth grade students as they were lining up for lunch had me sharing how I craft ideas. It gave me the opportunity to show them my writer’s notebook and the less-than-perfect way that I record my thoughts. This three minute chat generated an open invitation to their classroom during notebook sharing time.

Read aloud to a class other than your own. Make it strategic. Do you want to connect with or learn more about siblings? Read to their class. Do you want to meet kids that are moving up to your grade level next year? Read to their class. Do you want to develop a vertical relationship with another teacher? Yep, you guessed it. Read to their class. I could go for days extolling the virtues about the power of connecting through stories.

Be damn nice to kids. All of them. Every single day. This is important.

Find YOUR edge.