There has been a lot of research on the importance of relationship building and its impact on learning. Studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that when students experience a supportive relationship of mutual respect with their teacher they are more engaged in their learning. A study was conducted by German researcher named Liselotte Anhert and her colleagues to see if friendly supportive pre-school teachers had an impact on the academic performance of their students. Their research provided evidence that students with supportive teacher relationships did better than those who did not have them. In the online journal Parenting Science an article titled, Student-teacher relationships: Does it really matter if students and teachers like each other? © 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.
“To test this, the researchers have taken photographs of all the children’s teachers. And just before being given a new problem to solve, each child is shown her teacher’s face. The image appears only for a split second, a time span so brief the kids aren’t even aware of what they’ve seen. It’s subliminal. But it has an effect, because the kids who have close, affectionate teacher relationships – as opposed to distant ones — end up solving many problems faster (Ahnert et al 2012).”
The German researchers followed the students into their early primary learning years and found other interesting connections between the relationship and hormone fluctuation related to stress levels. Students with better relationships experienced less fluctuation. The power that a relationship between a teacher and student can have on a student is extremely important because it can impact future learning in addition to what goes on during the year they spend in the same classroom.
“Then there are the big, longitudinal studies, studies showing that kids who experience supportive student-teacher relationships in the early years develop fewer behavior problems years later, and show more engagement in the classroom”
In the book titled A Focus on Hope: Fifty Resilient Students Speak, the authors Erik E. Morales and Frances K. Trotman state that the aspect of a teacher that has the most impact on making a significant difference in the life of their students is that they made their student feel special.
“The students constantly talked of feeling uplifted and separated from their peers in a positive sense. As if they had special talents and abilities within them.”
At the Teach.com website I found an article titled Teachers Care. The author makes several points about the overall importance of relationship building. One statement resonated with me, it said,
“Also, students feel better about themselves if they feel that a teacher has taken a genuine interest in them; they are motivated, and stronger self-assurance can make it easier for the student to challenge themselves academically. “
The article contained the following quote from a former student about the teacher who made a difference in her life:
“Every student would get a birthday card for their birthday…that small gesture meant so much to us.” — Valerie Penales
In a New York Times piece called, On Facebook, Telling Teachers How Much They Mean, a researcher from Columbia University named Jaqueline Ancess stated,
“The most powerful factor in transforming students is a relationship with a caring teacher who a kid feels particularly connected to.”
The article focused on a trend of students using FaceBook as a way to find and thank the special teachers in their lives. One student’s post was
“They [teachers] make you feel that you were so important in their lives — it makes everything worthwhile.” — Mr. Jacobowitz
So this information only confirms what most teachers already knew, students need to feel a sense of connection and belonging in a class to take the risks necessary for true learning to occur at its maximum level. To make a difference in a student’s life a teacher needs to go above and beyond. They need to demonstrate a sincere interest in the student. What I wonder though is what impact could my relationship with my students have on their learning after they have moved onto the next grade and beyond.
Teaching is such an emotionally bizarre world where I feel every September I adopt 24 children who are 6 or 7 years old. I spend the year learning who they are and sharing with them who I am. We grow closer as the weeks become months. Soon they are accidentally calling me Dad when their comfort level reminds them of what they feel when they are home. You hear teachers all the time refer to their students as “My Kids”. Then one day in mid to late June they leave and in my case they go to another building the following year. Unless we cross paths in town there are some I never see again. We go from this intensely close relationship to nothing as the buses pull away on the last day of school.
Over the years I have tried overcome this separation through multiple avenues and tactics. For instance, on the night before the first day of school every year I send an email to every student I have ever had wishing them good luck in the upcoming year. I always remind them of the wonderful memories of second grade and that I will always be proud of them and believe in them to achieve success in the new school year that starts the next day. I have carefully maintained email addresses in order to be able to do this simple gesture and use the emails at other times as well. Here is a copy of one of the emails I sent this past year right before Labor Day.
“Dear Former 2nd Graders,
Tomorrow you start a brand new year in 9th grade! I can’t believe you are Freshmen in High School. It seems like yesterday we were reading The Cricket in Times Square together with Chester Cricket and Tucker Mouse. .I want to wish you a great ans successful year. I have complete faith that you are capable of great things. I want you to know that no matter what I believe in you. Always remember you can always come back and visit my little students and me in room 213. I would be so proud to see you read to them. Have fun, study hard, and be true to yourself.
Your Second Grade Teacher,
Another important message I like to send to my former students is similar to the first example. I email all of them the night before the standardized testing kicks in for each grade level. Once again I tell them not to stress over the tests, to remember their favorite day in 2nd grade if they start to experience stress during the test taking. I always remind them that they already make me proud regardless of the outcomes of those tests but they must try their best in order to maintain that pride. Parents and students often respond to these emails about the impact they have had. A common email response is that as the parent reads the email to their child a big smile came across their face. I want my students to know they are still important to me even though they are no longer in my class. My relationship with them was real and it did not end when they left it just stopped being active. When I look at the pictures of former students I immediately think of their personalities and fondly recall some of the antics. Here are some examples of the emails I have sent and received.
“Thank you for the great year in second grade. I’m having a great time
in fourth grade, but second grade was still the best!
PS. I’m getting straight A’s.”
“Thank you so much!! You are the most dedicated teacher I know!! We love
Michele and the XXXXX kids:)”
Sent from my iPhone
> On Mar 1, 2015, at 1:04 PM, Michael Dunlea <firstname.lastname@example.org>
“Hello Mr. Dunlea,
Just wanted to thank you for taking the time to send this email to Anna.
It brought a big smile to her face 🙂 She was so nervous about the test and we were worried about her self confidence. I think she needed this email. She really did like hearing from you!
You are such a sweet, thoughtful man and we continue to feel blessed that
you were her teacher!! Please say hello to Ms. Tomlinson for us. We miss
The final example of how I try to maintain an impact on my former students is when they graduate 6th grade 4 years after they have left my class. My district is pre-K – 6th and students attend a different district from the rest of middle and high school. Over the years I maintain picture files of each student. This takes some time to do but in just about an hour or two a year I can keep up with the tradition. As the sixth grade prepares to graduate I send them a video montage that shows each of them age over the years in addition to some group photographs of the classmates together. The response is tremendous and my families always comment that they respect and appreciate how I have stayed in contact with their children. I became a teacher to make a difference in my students’ lives. In order to do that I want them to remember how I made them feel in addition to what they learned. I value my students and their families and that does not end in June. Here is a few examples of the graduation gifts that I have made over the years.
Until formal research is conducted I will not know if the impact of what I am doing is affecting learning but I have been told by students and parents that being made aware that someone still cares about you is a big deal no matter how old you get. Some side benefits to all of this has been students coming back to visit as Ambassadors to visit with my current students. I have had students come back and present on the changes the next year will present. Often just reading to the class has become a great way for former students to reconnect and feel good about how far they have gone. For 9 years I have worked with students who have learning disabilities and some who return have overcome huge challenges and want to show me. This year I had a little boy in 4th grade who has had some challenges come back and read and present to the class on how to handle bullies. His mother accompanied him and the two of us were beaming with pride as he sat and took questions from my 2nd graders. His confidence was through the roof. The only way my students knew it was okay to come back and visit was because I told them it was.