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How to Build Mutually Respectful Relationships With Students From Day 1

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Teacher and student high five in a classroom.
 (Jacob Wackerhausen/ iStock)

Excerpted from Real Talk About Classroom Management: 57 Best Practices That Work and Show You Believe in Your Students, Second Edition (Revised and Updated Edition) by Serena Pariser. Copyright (c) 2024 by Corwin Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

Does Amazon sell respect? It seems like some teachers have it from their students and some do not. How do those successful teachers do it? Let me start by saying if the students respect and like you as a person, your job will be a lot easier. Unlike a boss who doesn’t like an employee, you can’t fire a student. You can spend your entire year trying to fix a fractured relationship that is broken due to lack of respect. Here are some guidelines to help earn the respect of your students (not an easy task):

First: You are part of the class. It’s not you versus the class.

Is your goal to get the kids to listen to you or to help each of them succeed? Think hard about this. Do you have the same goals in mind? Now, you may be thinking, “Yes, but how do I help them succeed if they don’t even listen when I am talking?” You’re not the only one who’s been on the verge of tears. I soon learned that when there is a battle in the classroom (you versus them), they can and will overpower you. They outnumber you. Scary thought, right? The secret is that you can’t let them know that. That’s the difference between an unsuccessful teacher and a successful one. Successful teachers know this and work with their students. Unsuccessful teachers seem to fall into the trap of testing their power, using a loud voice to try to overpower. Power struggles rarely work in the long run. It leads to intimidation, which isn’t an ideal learning environment. Yes, I’ve been overpowered. I’ve had students walk out of my classroom, curse in my face and laugh when I discipline them. It’s not a pleasant situation when a student or whole class shows disrespect. It’s also hard to earn respect back once it’s lost. However, once the students trust — yes, trust — that you have their interests in mind, they will let their guard down and get ready for the educational journey. They will want you to lead them. They will ask you what they are going to learn today.

They will give up the fight because they realize you are both on the same side. How do you do this? You don’t tell them, you show them that you have their interests in mind by using the following tips.

Focus on your goal.

Know that whatever you focus on is what will thrive in the classroom. If you focus on negative behaviors, that is what will thrive. If you focus on classroom rules, students will learn those rules, but when will they learn content? My advice is to always have your lesson prepared. Focus on the learning. Show students that learning is always the first priority. That is your job. If you want them to take seriously their job as a student, do your job by being prepared to teach. If you focus on your lesson plan, you will feel confident and the rest will follow suit.

Let students know you believe in their success.

Tell your students that you believe in their success. Do you think they will rise to the occasion if you challenge them? Here’s a secret: If you believe in them and tell them so, they will believe in themselves. If you don’t believe that your students will succeed, they won’t believe either. For example, say


“Nathan, I really want you to do well today. How can I help you with that?” instead of, “Nathan, you have an F in my class, don’t you want to get a good grade? Why can’t you behave?”

Both statements show Nathan that he is accountable for his behavior. The first statement, however, shows him you believe in his success and it is his choice how he behaves. You are rooting for him, yet he has agency. The second statement puts a student on the defensive, which rarely works. Be smart with your words and work on the relationship. The way you communicate makes a big difference in how your words are received by the students.

Be the teacher you are.

This seems like a simple statement, but I have always found it profound. Be your best self inside your classroom. What excites you that you can use in the classroom to accelerate learning? Use your personality strengths in your teaching. Do you love acting? Then use it in your teaching. Are you a great artist but feel insecure teaching math? Draw out some math problems! Do you love playing the piano? Why don’t you play to the students as they are working? Your strengths are one of the biggest assets to your classroom. I love being silly and playful in life, but for many years I tried to run a very serious classroom because I was afraid of doing anything different as a new teacher. Once I brought my silly side to the learning, my students’ test scores jumped, the students were happier, and I was a happier teacher. We know there are still serious times in the classroom, but we also know when we can laugh together. Weave your personality into the lesson. If you are a golf-loving science teacher, why not bring in your nine irons on the day you teach force? If you do this, you are much more likely to be a better and “real”—as the students like to say—teacher.

Work on your weaknesses.

In addition to using your strengths to become a “real” person in the students’ eyes, you have to be willing to work on your weaknesses if that is what the students need. Let them know you learned how to do this specifically for them. You are a student as well. Think of yourself as a caretaker. This is the work you have to do outside of school hours (or during your prep if you’re super efficient). This is what your students need. Say two inexperienced teachers are discussing groupwork. One teacher says, “Groupwork is just not my thing. It’s easier to just have them work independently.” The second teacher says, “I know groupwork is better for the students but I also know this is my weak spot. I’m going to learn how to do it.” Which teacher do you think the students will respect more and will have more prepared, engaging lessons?

Use discipline sparingly.

If you discipline, do so for a specific purpose and tell students why. They will respect your authority and admire that you rarely have to use your power. Anger or disappointment can be effective only if used very rarely. Anger used often is completely ineffective. Discipline once, within the first two months of school, and only after you have taught the structures of your classroom. This establishes boundaries. Students need you to be stern when they cross your boundaries. For example, you could address your class with, “Do you remember the classroom agreements we discussed? Do we need something added to address side conversations? I want to make sure we’re on the same page. If there’s a misunderstanding, I can certainly address that. I know you’re not trying to be malicious, but you are in fact breaking an agreement.” Learn to pick and choose your battles. I always asked myself, Is this affecting the learning of the whole class? If the answer is yes, it is your job to correct the behavior. If the answer is no, do not stop the classroom for just one student. It’s not fair to the other students, unless you are using it as a teachable moment.

According to one metastudy, teachers who have strong relationships with their students have 31 percent fewer behavioral issues in their classrooms. This statistic has a huge impact on the amount of learning that goes on in the classroom and the amount of quality teaching that happens, as well as on your general well-being. Building a mutually respectful relationship with a student starts the minute they know you know their name and you use it often when speaking with them. Strong relationships with students don’t happen by chance. They happen through the way we decide, consciously or unconsciously, to interact with students from Day 1.


Serena Pariser is the best-selling author of several professional books for educators. She taught English language arts for many years, primarily in San Diego, California, and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pariser has experience working with most grades and was honored as Teacher of the Year at Gompers Preparatory Academy in San Diego. She served as assistant director of field experience at the University of San Diego, where she taught graduate and undergraduate classes for teachers in training. In addition, Pariser was selected to be a national evaluator for Schools of Character.

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