What comes to your mind when you hear the word “leader”? Do images of a tall man with a commanding presence surface in your mind? That’s what we see in our presidents, CEOs, and supervisors, right? However, the Greek word for “leader” (or for “rule”) defines leadership as having a respectable character through which you can influence others by your example.
We probably all read that definition and agree that it sounds like the best way to build respectable rapport with your students, but it’s easier said than done.
I’m a five-foot-one, twenty-nine-year-old, Black woman who still has the features of a nineteen-year-old. (Some people say seventeen.) I don’t have a domineering stature, and I don’t have a booming voice. My disposition is also more on the “nice” side (sometimes *wink wink*). All of this to say, I’m not your stereotypical authority figure!
It’s tempting to be nice to get students to comply. It is even easier to try to excessively relate to them in order to get them on your side.
For young teachers, we want to be liked by our students. I’ve been known to joke around too much with them to the point where I’m now distracted and distracting from the lesson. However much I want my students to like my instruction, my classroom, and me, I constantly remind myself that it is my job, above all else, to teach them character and content. It’s important to have rapport with my students, but generating good relationships shouldn’t be confused with acting like I’m their peer. There still need to be clear boundaries so that they realize that I’m there to guide and lead them. (And love them and crack them up at the same time.) With that being said, I’ve gathered three things to keep in mind while building respectable rapport with our students.
#1: Be Humble
This year, I went from teaching middle school in the Bronx, New York to teaching high school in Camden, New Jersey. One thing about my students is that they will call out what they see. This has helped me in my teaching though sometimes it can be very humbling. Their observations help hold me accountable to being the teacher-leader that I am. Their accountability along with the understanding that we have in the classroom—that their feedback is important to me—helps me keep that teacher-leader boundary. For example, if I’m speaking to them in a tone that is irritated and unkind, they tell me, and I adjust. When I do this, I set an example for them of how to be respectful and how to implement feedback. Many of us may have had experiences with authority figures that live by the motto “Do as I say, not as I do” but in teaching, especially teaching our Black and brown children, hypocrisy does not cut it.
#2: Be Frank
“Ms. Fullard, let me tell you how…”
Have your students ever come to you with a phrase like that? While it is important to be approachable and a trust-worthy confidante, there are some topics that are off limits with my students. Have I held to this perfectly? Absolutely not! But when I sense that line is being crossed, I am very blunt with my students. I tell them clearly, “I don’t want to know that,” or “I don’t need to know that.” Or when they ask me an inappropriate question, I tell them simply, “Mind ya business.” This helps them to understand that the lines of communication are open between us, but there is still an off-limit conversation boundary that is maintained. There is no need to be mean, but consistency and straightforwardness with these areas are good for students’ understanding of boundaries.
#3: Remember You’re the Adult
I’ve had students say all types of things to me. I’ve also gone back and forth with students when they are being disrespectful. I’ve even said unkind and disrespectful things to students that I regret. In these moments, I forgot that I was the adult.
Our students are growing, developing, and sometimes deeply traumatized individuals. Their prefrontal cortex is still developing. Their brains are distracted from too much social media, and they are probably “hangry” half of the time. They simply lack self-control. As adults, we are responsible for remaining in control of ourselves. We are responsible for setting the tone in the classroom. If a student curses at me and I decide to curse back, that is setting the expectation that this is how adults act. Our example screams louder than our voices and has a lasting impact and influence on our kids. Even in those heated moments, we must remember that our behavior models the standard of behavior in our classrooms.
Teaching has a way of bringing out the child in me, but if I’m not mindful, it will bring out the childish me. Education grants us the opportunity and responsibility of being role models for our students. Humility, honesty, and composure are all behaviors that can help maintain respectful rapport with your students while you give them an example to emulate as a teacher-leader.