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Building Relationships in the Opening Days of School

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “What to Do in Week One?” by Rick Wormeli in Educational Leadership, September 2016 (Vol. 74, #1, p. 10-15),
In this article in Educational Leadership, consultant Rick Wormeli remembers how hard he worked as a middle-school teacher to learn the names of all 185 new students in the days right after Labor Day.
“It was the first leg of the year’s journey in relationship building,” he says. “[A]ll of us feel honored when others whom we respect think our names are worth remembering. In that simple act, we make a connection.” Wormeli has several other suggestions for the opening weeks of every school year:
• Make sure students feel safe and know they belong. “Once students feel sure these needs are met, they’ll dive into learning,” says Wormeli. Some key steps: Teachers laughing at their own mistakes and modeling how to handle them constructively; not ridiculing students’ questions, however silly they may seem; removing “all sarcasm from our comments, realizing that the sting of even a small, tossed-away remark can leave a lasting scar;” not assuming that students understand the idioms and references we use; not taking students’ inappropriate comments or reactions personally (“That doesn’t sound like you, Matthew. What’s really going on?”); giving students specific feedback on their work and a chance to improve it; affirming risk-taking and welcoming participation, however imperfect, in class discussions; asking students to explain their thinking and affirming what’s right; and when students say they don’t know, trying this line: “Pretend that you did know the answer – what words would come out of your mouth?”
• Be yourself. “Students detest duplicity in their teachers,” says Wormeli. “The first few weeks should provide consistent proof of personal authenticity… We are sad at sad moments and happy at happy moments. We don’t embrace students’ cultural likes and dislikes just to be more accepted by them. We share our unique interests – a favorite sport or book; how much we liked Legos as a child; our dream of going into space someday; our fondness for summer camp, bike touring, and pecan pie; and a little about our families and our deep commitments to them.”
• Know your students well. Wormeli recommends that teacher teams glean from students, over the course of the year, information on key areas that affect learning and keep them in a secure database in the guidance office:
- Socioeconomic status
- Family dynamics
- Nationality
- Transiency rate
- Parents’ jobs
- Students’ home responsibilities
- After-school work schedule
- Previous school experiences
- Religious affiliation
- English language learner status
- Technology access and proficiency
- Personal interests – sports, music, movies, TV, movies, books, hobbies
- Physical health and maturity
- Behavior and discipline concerns
- Social-emotional learning strengths and challenges
- Existence of an IEP
- Challenges such as Tourette syndrome, Asperger syndrome, ADHD
- Vision and hearing problems
- Gifted/advanced learner status
- LGBT identity and transitions
- Leadership qualities
- Multiple intelligences
- Myers-Briggs personality profile
In addition, Wormeli suggests asking parents at the beginning of the year, “In a million words or less, tell me about your child.” He’s found that this open-ended invitation garners better information than conventional parent surveys.
A related strategy is asking students, “Write a letter from your parent to the teacher describing you.” This approach is surprisingly effective – some sample responses: “If it’s important to remember, please write it on the board or screen. Otherwise, Jerry doesn’t think it’s important.” “It drives Carla crazy when there’s nothing creative, so don’t be boring.” And “Lena finds sweat stains under teachers’ armpits revolting, so please keep them dry or don’t raise your arms.”
Another idea: ask students to write on a card everything that helps them learn – perhaps using high-contrast colors on dry-erase boards, speaking more slowly, allowing students to drink water or juice in class, identifying online tutorials, and making homework interesting.
Wormeli also recommends doing something like hiking up a mountain together. “Witnessing our students outside normal classroom and school contexts reveals something close to their true selves,” he says. “It’s gold.” Similarly, working with students in a club, sport, or extracurricular activity builds esprit de corps and strong relationships.
• Practice empathy. Wormeli finds the following techniques helpful for better understanding students’ minds and souls:
- Make home visits and observe students’ roles in their families;
- Sit at students’ desks and see the classroom from their point of view;
- Ask students to explain their thinking verbally, in writing, or by teaching a classmate;
- Really try to see why students don’t understand what you think you’ve taught effectively;
- Attend to students’ essential human needs – hydration, movement, nutrition, light, fresh air, sightlines, tools;
- Avoid overgeneralizing about students (for example, ignoring the great diversity of ELLs) and avoid the tendency to make a minority group member the spokesperson for his or her group.

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