Building strong student relationships is one of the most important parts of our jobs. I’ve had a lot of influencers in that belief, including my admin and coworkers whom I look up to. One teacher specifically got me going right from the get-go!
The summer before I got my first teaching job, my district hosted a new teacher orientation as many districts do. Teachers from a few schools came and spoke about a variety of topics (which I’m sure were important), but I remember one in particular. A middle school teen leadership teacher, Mo, spoke about building relationships with students and your school community and shared some of the things she does to form and strengthen those relationships. One of her ideas settled with me the most and I have been doing it ever since… student letters.
Happy Students are Teachable Students:
So we all know this to be true, right? Unfortunately, there are days and times where it’s HARD to reach every student and even harder to make them all happy. However, these letters are a game changer. They strengthen student relationships with EVERY kid. They make my students happy. They feel the love, they feel appreciated, and they feel like I care. Oh, and they make me happy, too!
How it works:
Every year, I start my letters sometime in March. This is probably not the best time to start because it always ends up that I’m writing and giving my last letter in the last week of school. In my fourth year doing this, I’m still using this timeframe. I need the months leading up to them to have memorable experiences with my kiddos and know them as well as I can before I go on with the letters. I write a few letters a week when I have the time, and I put my all into it. Sometimes I write, and rewrite, and rewrite again. I try to include one or two positive interactions or experiences from the year and list all of those students positive qualities. This is not always easy, so it forces me to pay better attention to the positive!
I admittedly struggle with 1-2 students letters every single year. This doesn’t make me a bad teacher, or a bad person. It means I intentionally need to look for the good, and I feel so glad when I do. I write the letters, pretty them up by adding some colored cardstock to the back and laminate them. Sometime during my class, I stop everyone from what they’re doing and I announce: “I need to tell someone something.”
Those MAGIC little words:
People, you would think I said I was taking them all to Disney. The excited chatter, the smiles, the energy radiating when I say that (taken directly from Mo I have to add) is amazing. They all want to guess who’s getting the letter, and they are always so encouraging and happy for the student who gets it. I ask that student to come up to the front of the room (if they want to of course). I usually put my arm around their shoulder, and I read the letter to the class. It usually starts with something like.. “I feel so incredibly lucky to…” or “I just want you to know that I…” In the past three years, even my most shy kiddos want to come up to the front. You know your students best, and should, of course, change how you present them if you’d like!
Student-centered, Student loved:
This light appears when that child realizes you took the time to notice and remember these great qualities and memories. It makes them feel appreciated, noticed and loved. I usually have a few parents emailing me to thank me. I’ve had parents tell me their child hung the letter right next to their bed and still talk about how important it is to them. THIS. is what matters.
I am departmentalized, but I only write letters for my homeroom class. This year, that will be 24 students. Give yourself time, find the positive. For me, this means stepping out of my comfort zone every year. Some students are easy to connect with and our relationships have been strong all year. For others, sometimes I am a little uncomfortable, but I know these letters make my relationships that much stronger with my students, and usually their families too.
Sometimes, these letters are not easy. Every year, I am working on letters well into the night so I can finish them along with answering emails, going to meetings, taking data, administering state tests, planning and grading. However, it is just that important to me.
If you do something similar to build student relationships, I would love to hear about it in the comments! If you’re wanting to start this and need any guidance, please reach out!