by Aria Brennan, AmeriCorps member serving on the MFS Investment Management team with McCormack Middle School
Positive relationships with students are what make our service as AmeriCorps members possible. It’s a real challenge to get students engaged in English homework or attendance planning without mutual trust and respect. Here are some best practices I've learned when building relationships with my students over the first half of the school year.
1. Find out what interests your students. Everyone has something they get excited about. One of my students loves nothing more than to discuss zombie apocalypse survival strategies, while another is fascinated by different types of rocks. A student’s interests may not fall within your area of expertise, but often they will still be happy to discuss their favorite topics with you if you are ready to listen.
2. Ask about their day, and give them space to talk (or sometimes, vent). Since I serve in a middle school, there are plenty of transition times. I always try to use those moments to check in with students and ask how they’re doing. They appreciate having someone take the time to listen to them. As a bonus, this lets you know ahead of time which students are having a rough day and might need more support during the upcoming class period.
3. Share what interests you. Even though my 7th-graders don’t always show it, students look up to the AmeriCorps members in their classrooms. When a student expresses interest in something you say, you can use it as an opportunity to build that relationship. Even topics that might ordinarily seem boring to students can become exciting if you’re excited about it. For example, one of my students asked me about the difference between a centipede and a millipede one day. Although invertebrate taxonomy isn’t usually a topic middle schoolers love, it’s something I find fascinating, so I started sharing some things I’d learned in college biology. Soon, other students were asking questions and wanted to join the conversation. My excitement about the subject was enough to get my students invested in it, too.
4. Acknowledge that they are people with lives outside school. When asking a student why they don’t have their homework or were absent yesterday, keep in mind that there are many potential reasons. Be open to helping students find ways to fit their schoolwork into their lives, because trying to force them to plan their lives around their schoolwork is often a recipe for frustration. When you do your best to see the world from your students’ perspective, they recognize that you’re on their side, and just might listen to what you have to say.
5. Notice the positive; appreciate often. It’s easy to remember to correct the student out of their seat and running around the classroom, but it’s equally important to appreciate them when they do the right thing. Not only does it lead students to see you as a kind and supportive adult, but it also allows them to feel more positively about themselves.