They Need Us to Understand Them

A coworker of mine summed up perfectly the issue of classroom management in middle school: “If you treat them like babies, they will act like babies.”  I believe the logic then dictates that if you treat them like adults, then they will become one of your greatest professional assets.

After performing a Google search for, “what makes a great teacher?” an exhausting list of articles from teachers, specialists, and academics pops up.  Interspersed among them is the occasional article where a student survey was performed and analyzed.  The differences between the two types of article are obvious right away.  Almost every teacher or education specialist will point to “high expectations” as the number one important characteristic of great teachers, and I wholeheartedly agree (depending on what is being expected).  When you hold all students to the same high standards to perform, they know where you want them to be and that you expect them to get there without accepting anything less.  However, the number one aspect of a great teacher according to students is the ability to get to know them and make them feel important as individuals.

This isn’t just the students talking.  There is growing evidence that suggests that when students feel that their teachers know them personally (and aren’t afraid to share a little bit of personal information themselves), those students do perform higher in class and on tests.  Dr. Robert Marzano, of the Marzano Research Laboratory, is one of those researchers and an advocate of building relationships with students.  We don’t have to be their friends, but we do need to be the stable people that they trust and value in their lives, and they need to understand that we feel the same about them.

Get to know your students—individually.  Know what they love, what they fear, what they’re interested in, and what bores them.  Get to know their social circles and their styles of interaction.  Get to know their families and how they spend time at home.  This sounds like a lot of work—and it is, initially—but it’s worth it when you realize the benefits that come from it for the rest of the year.  When students feel that they have a positive relationship with their teacher, they will do almost anything for that teacher, including hard work.

These important relationships have taken a slide in priority with the growing focus on standardized testing achievement.  There are more and more teachers who feel that building relationships with their students is a fringe duty that doesn’t compete with building skills.  Not only do these teachers end up seeing the blowback of this assumption with undesirable behavior and even negative impact on achievement, but most teacher evaluations look for the ability of teachers to create environments that are respectful of student differences and abilities.  Taking the time to foster those relationships will cover all of those bases, and it will make you feel great about the things you’re doing for your kids.

Check outthe Maximizing the Middle Sample and Leave Feedback!  You will be helping a fellow educator and keeping an ego in check…both very valuable!


About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

2 Responses to They Need Us to Understand Them

  1. krystalmills says:

    I couldn’t agree more Kris. They need to know that you really do care. It’s important to know that you can’t fake this – they can smell bull a mile away at this age. I spend the first week or so getting to know my kids by doing lots of different activities with them – I’ve come up with a few new ones to try with them next year. Excited! How do I justify using that time and not “teaching” the huge amount of curriculum content? It’s time well spent, as it means WAY less time spent on behavior issues later on. I can’t imagine walking in on that first day and trying to teach my grade sevens real content from the text! “Well I guess we know what she thinks is most important” I can hear their thoughts now. I need them to know that I care about them first, curriculum second. Great post Kris!


  2. Kris Nielsen says:

    Thank you! I appreciate your comments. The post probably seems so basic, but I’m increasingly seeing and hearing about classes where the teacher is so worried about keeping the job and meeting AYP, that they forget why they’re really there. And the kids noticed easily–as you pointed out–and it affects them heavily.

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