Today’s teachers need a repertoire of skills to be able to interact with and help students in meaningful, supportive ways when students seek help. This includes practicing specific attitudes and behaviors when communicating with their students. Building relationships with students requires a series of intentional actions. Let’s look at what is involved to get started.
Helpful Attitudes and Helping Behaviors
When someone is turning to you for help, whether academic or personal, before you ever say anything, there are myriad internal tasks that must be completed to create a helping relationship. These include things related to the state of mind you adopt, one that is distinctly different from that of other relationships, and how you position your body. Then, once you are ready and have decided to be helpful to another person, you engage in a whole set of supporting behaviors.
Attend to the Speaker
First, you must clear your mind of all distractions and focus your concentration directly on the individual in front of you. Give the student your complete and undivided attention. Communicate with your eyes, your facial expressions, your posture, and body position, every part of your being that you are intensely interested in what this person has to say. (Yep, hands off the keyboard!) Beginning teachers often discover, much to their surprise, that this simple act of deliberately attending to another person is often enough to help the person to open up, to give them courage to speak. It is so rare, after all, that we ever have anyone else’s undivided attention.
Accept Students Without Judgment
For children and adolescents to open up and trust you, they must feel that you accept them as people, that you are relatively nonjudgmental and noncritical of them as human beings. This does not at all mean that you accept everything that they might say or do; on the contrary, there may be many things about their behavior that you find unacceptable or inappropriate. The point is that you are able to separate your disapproval of what children are doing from who they are as persons.
This nonjudgmental attitude is even manifest in the way you speak to children. Instead of implying that you dislike them because of what they are doing, you may wish to word admonishments very carefully and sensitively: “Carlos, I don’t like what you’re doing right now, and I need for you to stop and sit down.” It is crucial for Carlos to feel that although you will not tolerate his acting out in class, you still genuinely care for him and accept him as a person.
This may very well be one of the most difficult aspects of helping in general—and of teaching in particular—for acceptance of others requires a great deal of tolerance, sensitivity, and cultural awareness. It means that you are knowledgeable about the diverse backgrounds from which your children originate and that you demonstrate respect for their individual and cultural differences. When you can model this in your own behavior, then you can teach children to be tolerant of one another’s differences.
Postpone Your Own Agenda
The commitment to be helpful to a child means putting your own needs and issues (as well as tasks) aside. It means doing anything and everything in your power to help the child reach his goals (as long as they are constructive). It means separating what is good for you versus what is good for the child, because sometimes these needs do not coincide. With friends or family, it is perfectly fine to express your opinions, but in a helping relationship, you work within the student’s value system, not your own.
Below is a summary for your reference when building relationships with students.
A Checklist of Things to Remember When Talking to Students
Your Nonverbal Behaviors
- Pay attention
- Maintain eye contact
- Communicate interest with face and body
- Express warmth
- Stay clear
- Be nonjudgmental
- Feel accepting
- Act authentically
- Practice compassion
Prove you have heard and understood
Keep your focus on the student
This quality of helping relationships is so difficult to develop that counselors and therapists undergo years of training and supervision. Even so, in your work as a teacher, you are called upon to play a limited role in helping your students with personal issues, mostly listening and supporting, occasionally making referrals to qualified experts. Although it is neither your job nor part of your training to do counseling, you will have numerous opportunities to make a significant impact on students’ lives through the relationships you create with them. Being a teacher involves so much more than imparting wisdom and information; it means being available, accessible, and accepting when students want to talk to you.