Focusing on the relationships

I’m feeling a bit punchy tonight as I write this. You might find it preachy, confronting or self indulgent. Be warned. The most eloquent and uplifting writing about good teaching that I’ve read is by Francis Su: ‘Lesson of Grace in Teaching‘. You should probably read that instead.

Damn straight. For me, building relationships with students is what turns bearable teaching experiences into enjoyable and deeply fulfilling ones. Here are five of my teaching pillars.

Learn. Their. Names. So you teach a course with hundreds of students? You might not be able to learn them all, but you can learn some of them. Learn the names of all the students in your tutorial classes. Ask them when they come to your office hours. You can lead with ‘I’m sorry but I’ve forgotten your name.’ Don’t just learn the names of the high-achievers or the ‘trouble-makers’. Work hard to get the pronunciation right for all names. Ask students what they’d like to be called. ‘Ben’ is different than ‘Benjamin’; ‘Jenny’ is different than ‘Jennifer’. Ask it on a Getting To Know You form in the first week of class. I make learning names one of my highest priorities in the first two weeks of class. Students notice. It’s a good start to our relationship.

Show interest in their non-academic side. You don’t need to pretend to understand sport or care about the latest reality TV show, but you can say ‘that’s cool’ or ‘sounds like you enjoyed that’, or whatever response signals genuine interest. (Even if you aren’t really interested ;).) Plus, it helps with learning their names. My Getting To Know You form asks them to tell me something interesting about them, then I make sure to mention it when they bring their form to me. I connect it to my own experience, either in my head or in conversation, as a way to learn their name. That one item isn’t meant to define them, but it is a good starting point to, well, get to know them. I find out the most interesting things. I learn about pets, travel, hobbies, languages and weird body functions :shock:. The quietest girl in class loves rollercoaster rides, or horror movies; the coolest boy in class tells me how excited he is to be dating his best friend. They have talents well beyond my maths walls; they are singers, debaters, musicians, sporting champions — football, athletics, lawn bowls, stick-fighting (I didn’t even know that was a thing).

Care about their well-being. I’m not talking about knowing all the details of illnesses, relationship upheavals and deaths in the family. Respect their privacy and their distress. Gently inquire if they don’t look well or seem overly anxious. Accommodate as much as you can, even if it’s not ‘fair’ to other students. (What’s fair, anyway?)  Remind them that they are more than their academic transcripts. Refer them to support services for issues you aren’t equipped to handle. Make the appointment for them if needed. The best change I made to my Getting To Know You form was including ‘Is there anything you really want me to know about you at this stage?’ (I ‘stole’ this from Sam Shah’s ‘Getting To Know You‘ form.) I was taken aback, and then honoured, that they would share deeply personal information in the first class with someone they barely knew. I could offer support and direction to professional services from the beginning.

Show them respect. Ask before writing in their notebook or sharing their thinking with others. Deliver when you say you will. Apologise when you inevitably fuck that up. Keep private matters they share with you in confidence. Take care with feedback you write on quizzes or off-hand comments that you make — seemingly innocuous remarks can crush confidence. Recognise that university students are adults with jobs, families, bills, relationships, childcare issues, housing insecurity, cultural expectations on them that you might not understand, and other competing demands. They might walk into class late, or need to take a call in the middle. They might miss deadlines. If it’s not disrespectful or disruptive, you can extend them that courtesy. But call out bad behaviour. Don’t let them disrespect their classmates or you.

Treat them as equals. There are things that you can teach them; that’s why you’re the teacher. But there is plenty that you can learn from them. They know a whole lot more than you about a whole bunch of things. They’ll also teach you a lot about being a better teacher. Value their mathematical ideas, just as you would value those of a colleague. Show them you make mistakes. That you struggle. Model authentic behaviour of working mathematically. It will help them become better mathematicians.

This isn’t everything, I’m sure, but I’ve used 800 words when I could have just said ‘treat them how you’d want to be treated’. If you got to here, thanks for indulging me.

5 thoughts on “Focusing on the relationships

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  1. Reading right to the end was certainly not indulging you. This stuff is important. It’s THE most important thing. Not least because they’ll forgive you all sorts of teaching mistakes if they know you care. But if they think you don’t care then every little mistake will be damning.


  2. That is a very good point. Showing you care in the ‘good times’ when it’s not hard makes it easier to get through the ‘bad times’ together.


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