Building Blocks That Matter: Forming Positive Relationships with Students and Families
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, July/August 2023 Issue
By Eric Gaestel
“Tries hard, but finds the subject difficult.” A statement that was often printed on my report card as a kid.
I came to school fully ready to learn, but still I struggled to keep up with my peers academically. Even though I was so young, my mind was consumed by thoughts of my perceived lack of ability to succeed and this deeply affected my self-esteem. Once a young person becomes convinced that they will never be successful, no amount of academic remediation will help.
What did help was having teachers who took the time to get to know me and understand where I was coming from, and who chose to be a positive influence on my school experience. Teachers like Mr. Prail, my 8th grade social studies teacher, not only inspired me as a student, but also influenced my decision to become a middle school teacher. In fact, what he did is exactly what I strive to do now: form positive relationships with my students.
Take an Interest
Mr. Prail taught me the importance of showing up when it matters most. He would always attend our sporting events, chorus concerts, dance recitals, and drama performances. Every single time I caught a glimpse of him in the audience, my face would instantly light up. Simply by being there and showing support for his students, I learned from Mr. Prail how a small gesture that leaves a large impression on a young person is always worth your time.
Now, as a teacher myself, I always make the effort to show up for my own students. I love cheering on my 8th graders at their after-school events, and, as I have discovered, these events are also prime opportunities to meet parents in a relaxed, casual environment. These early, less formal interactions are a great way to make a good first impression that will start the school year off on the right foot.
“Five on Friday”
Another technique I have for winning over parents is called “Five on Friday,” which I was introduced to by one of my graduate school professors, Dr. Jeremy Hilburn. I have used this strategy since my first year as a teacher, and it remains one of the most successful methods I can share to help other educators build a solid foundation with students and their families.
At the beginning of the school year, every Friday after class I call the parents of five students on my roster until I’ve reached every family. When the parents answer their phones, I greet them enthusiastically and inform them that I have the pleasure of being their child’s English Language Arts teacher for the year.
I let them know that I have carefully reviewed their child’s past grades and spoken with their previous teachers, and I could not be more excited to have them in my class. During every conversation, I also take carefully crafted notes, making sure to highlight any specific details I may need in future conversations.
Many times, parents only hear from the teacher when there is a problem to discuss. Not contacting a family until you are experiencing a behavioural or academic issue with a student can spoil any hope of forming a good relationship with that family. But if you take the time to make a positive first contact with every parent at the very beginning of the school year, you will be far better received should you need to make a negative call later.
The 2021–2022 school year offered a wonderful example of just how indispensable that positive first contact can be. This particular school year was a little bit different than previous ones. Returning to the classroom for full-time in-person instruction after the upheaval of the pandemic was a challenging transition for everyone and, normally, I would have met each child in person prior to utilizing the “Five on Friday” strategy. But since this year would be the first that many parents and students would be experiencing middle school in person, I wanted to ensure all parties that they were in good hands.
My decision to make those positive first contacts paid off when I later needed to make a phone call home that was not so positive. One of my students was having great difficulty readjusting to attending classes in person. From insubordination to engaging in physical altercations with fellow students, this young person needed a hard reset to successfully reach the end of the school year. I took out my “Five on Friday” notebook and reviewed the notes that I had taken during my initial contact with the child’s parent back in August, then dialed their number.
The subsequent conversation proved to be a very meaningful one. Since I had already spoken with the parent earlier in the year, they were familiar with who I was and knew right away that I was calling with good intentions. I was able to kindly, yet directly, explain what the issues were and the three of us—myself, the parent, and the child—came up with a plan to get things back on track.
A Proper Foundation
Every student is on a unique learning journey. Sometimes a student’s inability to see their own potential can lead to behavioural issues which, arguably, are a cry for help. What I believe, however, is that when the same student recognizes that their teacher genuinely supports them, it helps foster the mindset necessary for success.
For my classroom, I focus on creating a safe and positive environment where my students can feel comfortable taking their time, letting their guards down, and allowing themselves to try, fail, reassess, and ultimately, succeed. This teaches my students that they can accomplish anything, and, most importantly, that I believe in them.
As I sit in my current 8th grade classroom, I cannot help but reflect on how I arrived here and be thankful for all the kind, caring, and supportive adults who had such a profound effect on the trajectory of my professional and personal life.
Many of those who influenced me most were teachers who took the time to intentionally, thoughtfully, and selflessly form positive and meaningful relationships with me. As they showed me, and as I am reminded every day with my own students, teachers can make a huge difference in the life of a child if we take the time to get to know them and allow them to know us, as well.
Eric Gaestel is a teacher at McClintock Middle School in Charlotte, NC. He provides mentorship to new and beginning teachers through McClintock’s teacher support program, offering them guidance and support as they navigate their first years as educators.