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Wedding vow negotiations were a somewhat contentious business when my English teacher fiance and I, a science educator, prepared to tie the knot back in 2007. After several rounds of spirited revisions, we landed on six promises that have held up well over the years. Number 4 resonates with me especially these days: “We will help stay connected to each other, ourselves and what matters most.”

As students and teachers prepare for in-person instruction this fall, many of us are still experiencing and processing pandemic-related trauma. No doubt our heightened hurts have the potential to escalate conflicts. These conflicts in turn have the potential to provoke harsh discipline — practices like suspension, expulsion, arrests, restraints, seclusion and corporal punishment. But we can find alternative ways to respond to students — if we all work together to stay connected to each other, ourselves and what matters most. Relationship building belongs at the core of educator work.

Relationship building belongs at the core of educator work.

As my now-husband and I have found, a strong connection enables us to better engage and persevere in our relationship. Relationship building can create an inclusive, resilient classroom culture. Here are some ideas for nurturing positive relationships between and among students and educators.

Problem: After isolation, students struggle to connect with others.

Solution: Begin class (or the school day) with a community-building circle. In my classroom, I gather my students in a circle, and we take turns greeting one another. While it’s fine to use a simple “Good morning, Joshua” greeting, consider teaching students how to say “Hello” in a variety of languages. After the greeting, you can do a short inspirational reading, play a short team-building game or pitch an icebreaker question to discuss in small groups. Wrap up with short, clear directions for the next steps of class; for example, “After we return to our assigned seats, I’ll be introducing our lab activity for today.”

Problem: Students compare themselves to others and experience a crisis in confidence.

Solution: During distance learning, most students did their schoolwork in a relative vacuum, with little feedback. As they return to classrooms, they are being inundated by feedback and opportunities to compare themselves with peers. To counteract perceptions that some students are better academically than others, conduct lessons that require a variety of strengths. Such varied instruction is a great way to showcase diverse student talents. A student who struggles to perform in a read-and-write activity, for example, could excel in a class discussion, logic puzzle or hands-on task. 

Problem: Bullying.

Solution: Put-downs, emotional manipulation, microaggressions — these deal-breakers are especially out-of-bounds when we are all extra vulnerable after a painful 18 months.  Ending class with a closing circle can make a big difference. My favorite closing circle, Apologies and Affirmations, is simple and sweet. First, all circle members are given space to spontaneously apologize. For example, “Marta, I’m sorry I took your pencil without asking.” Hold the space for no more than one minute — it’s okay if no one apologizes. Then, open the floor for affirmations. For example, “LaQuan, I appreciate how you helped me understand problem number 8 during work time.” For a shorter, more structured approach, draw two names at the start of class. Let these students know that they will need to give affirmations to each other at the end of class and that they are responsible for noticing something good about each other before the closing circle. In the circle at the end of the class, the two students can share their affirmations publicly.

Problem: Students aren’t engaged by the learning activities.

Solution: Find something that is engaging and start your lesson with that. It might take a few days or weeks to figure out what’s engaging for your students. I once taught a class of students who loved looking at real estate, so we started class by checking out Zillow together. Weird, but it worked. Maybe your class loves “either/or” debates (morning or night?, cake or pie?, Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman?), one-minute mysteries or competitive cooking shows. Allow five minutes of fun at the beginning or middle of your lesson to keep students alert and interested.  Eventually, you will be able to connect anything to your learning objective! 

We all need to do our part to stay connected to each other, ourselves and what matters most.  Scheduling that is devoted to community-building time is essential as we return from distance learning and summer break — and enter a new and unpredictable phase of the pandemic. More learning will happen for everyone when we take the time to slow down, see each other and move forward inclusively.

Megan Olivia Hall, the 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, chairs the science department and develops anti-racist social-emotional curricula at Open World Learning Community in Saint Paul Public Schools. She is the author of the book “Awesome Kitchen Science Experiments for Kids” and holds a Ph.D. in learning, instruction and innovation from Walden University.

This story about teacher-student relationship building was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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