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Forming Positive Relationships

I was fortunate to have a wonderful career as a 10th grade English and Theater teacher for 37 years.  At the beginning of my career, at the tender age of 21, I knew that positive relationships with students inside and outside the classroom were going to be a key to my success as a teacher. As the years progressed, I discovered that a positive teacher relationship with students was also the key to their learning.  I have long believed that students will not learn from someone they do not like.

Creating positive relationships with students is paramount, but sometimes teachers are not sure of just how to approach students. I have some advice that worked for me.

First, students must perceive that the teacher likes them. I greeted students at the door, made small talk with them, lent them lunch money, followed their sports teams, and I told them that I felt lucky to be their teacher!  When beginning a new unit, I did extra research to “hook” their interest, and told them I worked to make fun and interesting lessons for them. Students came to see me between classes, and I made time for students who needed extra help, or those who needed an ear.  These actions showed kids that I cared for them and about them, not just about their grades.  Every teacher can do these things!

In my classes, the rule was “Don’t talk when someone else has the floor.”  That rule included the teacher!  Students appreciated the ability to express themselves, and to have others really listen to their views. The outcome of this respect and listening was always the same –  when kids felt valued, they were willing to work even harder in class.

A teacher should be very clear about the high expectations for the class, and never lessen those expectations, even if students groan and protest.  Most students want to be successful, and by providing clear expectations and good lessons, along with checks for understanding and student input, students will not only meet, but often will exceed the teacher’s expectations.

I enjoyed telling kids that I believed in them, and I encouraged kids to step outside their comfort zones and get involved at school by trying something new. There must be great trust between the student and teacher for kids to respond to such suggestions, but I found that with some encouragement, kids can do wonderful things!  For the last school talent show I directed, the two emcees chosen for the show were both on the autism spectrum. With coaching, patience, hard work, and visual examples, they learned to tell jokes and wait for the laugh, to write clever introductions, and to have the 9th and 10th grade audience eating out of their hands! When I directed the high school musical for years, the show always needed more talent on stage and back stage, and the first place I recruited was my own classes. What an experience to see students the transformation of students who were so shy they could hardly answer a question in class. Suddenly, they were singing in the ensemble of the musical, making new friends, and gaining self-confidence and maturity. I coached girls’ golf, and then boys’ golf for 33 years, and coaching students, helping them to grow and learn, believing in them, and working with them to be their best was so rewarding! With the encouragement of a caring teacher, there are no failures, just stumbles, as the student learns and grows, promoting the growth mindset all teachers want for their students.

Students need to have some ownership of the class to promote class involvement, unity, and cooperation, so they need to have some input.  Sometimes, I gave students options: “We can do this, or we can do that. Let’s discuss it.”  During class discussions, students who were unsure of an answer could ask another student for help. I also wanted students to know every student in the class, so I changed their seats often, forcing them to meet and work with new classmates. (Happy endings – I have many former students who are now married to each other – and they met in my class!)

These seemingly simple suggestions and examples are just a few of the ways that I was able to form positive relationships with my students. I could write a book filled with examples!  My best advice is to be your authentic self.  Let students know that you like them; show that you enjoy teaching;  set high expectations;  listen to students;  respect students; and share your classroom with them. Students know which teachers love teaching.  Share your positive self with students, and you will change their lives, just as they will change yours. Be your best!  Happy teaching!

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The author

Dede Rittman is a 37-year veteran English/ Theater teacher from Pittsburgh, PA, teaching 35 years in the North Allegheny School District, where she also was Varsity Head Boys’ Golf Coach for 33 years, directed the spring musical and talent shows, and contributed to many district initiatives. She was a PA Teacher of the Year semi-finalist in 2011, the year she had to retire when her husband, Scott, was dying from stage four colon cancer. Dede’s book STUDENT TEACHING: THE INSIDE SCOOP FROM A MASTER TEACHER was published in September 2014 and the book has won 8 awards. Nationwide, colleges and universities are using her book, and Dede accepts speaking engagements around the country, with some focusing on education, and some on motivation. She is a guest blogger for educational magazines and was the Co-host of The Total Education Q and A Show, which was heard around the world on 120 stations in 80 countries on Dede gives presentations around the globe on both of her books through and . Dede writes a weekly blog for teacher inspiration at GRADY GETS GLASSES, Dede’s children’s book, just came out in hardcover. The book won Best New Children’s Book 2016 from The Authors’ Zone. Dede has also won two Album of Distinction Awards from Delta Kappa Gamma in 2015 and 2017; the prestigious I AM L.E.E. (Living Education Everyday) Award in 2016; and she was inducted into the North Allegheny Sports Hall of Fame in October of 2017. Dede works very hard on promoting her books and speaking engagements. She enjoys continuing teaching grades kindergarten to college through her books!

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