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Teacher-Student Relationships Matter

With attention to self-care and support from leaders, teachers can build strong relationships with students, whether in person or online
Teacher smiling at student

Effective teachers form authentic, caring relationships with their students. In the best of times, forming these relationships can be a challenge; in a post-pandemic world, where many teachers are engaging with students remotely, building relationships can feel impossible. Fortunately, says trained counselor and educator Megan Marcus, educators can learn the skills necessary to build strong relationships, both in person and online.

Marcus is the founder of FuelEd, a Houston-based nonprofit committed to teaching these skills to educators around the country. By providing teachers with access to one-on-one counseling, group workshops, and educator training, FuelEd hopes to close what it perceives to be a gap in educator preparation: the space between what an educator is expected to do — build strong, secure relationships with students, families, and coworkers — and the level of social and emotional support educators actually receive. Inspired by Marcus’ background in human psychology, Fuel Ed leads with the belief that teachers cannot effectively care for their students unless they care for themselves first.   

“Just one relationship with a caregiver throughout a lifespan can actually change the brain’s development, heal trauma, and promote learning. Educators have the potential to utilize this power. Many do organically, through naturally forming secure relationships. But we could do so much more if educators were equipped with the skills and self-awareness to systematically do this work,” explains Marcus.

Here, Marcus offers four steps educators can take to promote emotional intelligence and build relationship-driven schools, both in-person and online.

1. Learn the science behind strong relationships.

Research shows that the way a person relates to caregivers early in life can impact that person’s relationships later on. For example, explains Marcus, “if you had insecure relationships in your childhood, you’re more likely to build relationships with others that aren’t secure.” The good news? Once identified, a person’s relationship patterns can change. That means educators can learn the skills behind secure relationship-building — and they can teach them. This gives educators the opportunity to, within their daily interactions, strengthen the ways their students relate to others throughout life.

2. Embrace the power of empathic listening.

Empathic listening means listening to what a student has to say — a student’s “strong emotions and painful experiences,” says Marcus — and not responding. No reassuring, no offering advice. Just listening. While deceptively simple, this type of listening can help a student build self-regulation skills. That’s because it kicks off a powerful interpersonal cycle. “Someone comes to you, they share their feelings, and instead of jumping in to problem solve, you listen. That’s very trust-building. Now, not only is this person calmer and better able to solve their own problems, but they want to come back to you again, share more. And the more you can learn about them and their needs, the more you, as the administrator and the teacher, can be respond to their needs,” explains Marcus.

“Just one relationship with a caregiver throughout a lifespan can actually change the brain’s development, heal trauma, and promote learning. ... We could do so much more if educators were equipped with the skills and self-awareness to systematically do this work.”

Empathic listening, she adds, can also help school leaders build stronger, more positive relationships with staff.

To make space for empathic listening, educators can prioritize opportunities for one-on-one connections in scheduled check-ins or drop-in office hours. Since this type of listening can take place in person, on Zoom, or over the phone, this is a skill that all educators, no matter their learning modality, can use to form more secure relationships.

3. Practice genuine vulnerability.

Often, educators feel restrained by the need to exert authority in a space, so they refrain from sharing their genuine frustrations or emotions. This hinders the development of secure attachments, says Marcus, and limits the social-emotional culture of a school. Instead, she suggests, educators should share their experiences directly. Once one person shows vulnerability, another person will open up. Only then can secure relationships blossom.

This practice fuels student-teacher relationships, but it is also key to creating an over-arching culture of safety in a school. “The more that principals can model empathy and self-awareness, the more they can share their journey with teachers and be vulnerable, the more it’s going to encourage educators to engage in the work,” says Marcus.

If you are educating in person, you can practice sharing personal details in informal exchanges with both students and colleagues. If you are educating online, Marcus says, you can use virtual opportunities, like introductory videos, pet cameos, or Zoom dance parties, to introduce your personality to your school community.   

4. Provide educators with opportunities to do their own healing.

Teaching is, at its core, interpersonal work. It requires high levels of emotional intelligence. When educators approach the work unprepared for its social-emotional load, says Marcus, relationships suffer. Her advice? Give educators access to spaces and resources where they can do their own introspection and healing. When teachers are invited to engage in the therapeutic process of unpacking their personal stories and triggers, it can lead to social-emotional growth. The more that educators are able to improve their own social-emotional intelligence, the more students will be able to learn and feel safe.

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