Post 13 – Are You Buddies w/ Your Students?

Our first prompt of the new semester:

How well do you get to know your students?
What do you to establish both personal connections and boundaries?

The school I’m at now prioritizes teacher-student relationships a fair bit more than previous schools I’ve worked in or visited.  We’re on the first name basis with students, we have a school-wide 3-day relationship-building retreat, and advisory is much more than just a homeroom to take attendance.  Relationships aren’t just things that are talked about, but the culture of the school actually creates those opportunities to foster relationships.


In my previous school, I taught 5th grade for three years.  It was a Title 1 school and each year I had a small handful of fairly challenging students, and being that it was my first years teaching, I’d say that learning to build relationships (particularly with those challenging students) was key to survival.  If the challenging students felt you didn’t like them or care, they’d have no problem making your life miserable and making it near impossible to teach.  The students I found the most challenging were the ones that I just never really was able to develop that connection with (and that can happen to both new and seasoned teachers).

While I wasn’t on the first name basis with students at that school, I tried to do things in my class that would allow for students to share their interests not just with me, but with their peers as well.  In my second year of teaching, at the students’ request, I made the 10 minutes before lunch a sharing time; students could sign up to share whatever they wanted.  Some shared their art, some showed a funny YouTube video, some performed songs, some performed dances, and some did magic tricks.  It was something they looked forward to everyday.  I think it communicated to them that I not only cared about their academics, but that I was interested in hearing them share the things they were interested in.  That was a large part of developing those relationships.

During recess in those days, I really tried to make it a point to play games with the students instead of just sort of hanging back and chatting with the the other teachers.  There’s a lot of bonding that happens when you play games.  I often played football with some of the boys (I think I may have been hampering some of those relationships on days where I was throwing terrible passes to the students and causing our team to lose), I played 4-square, I swung on the swings, I hung on the monkey bars; I tried to meet the students on their turf.

I also used to do lunch-bunch where I’d invite a couple of students to eat lunch in the classroom on Fridays.  I avoided just inviting the ‘good’ kids as it was probably my more challenging students who needed a little bit more of that attention.  In my third year, I told them that I’d invite two students that I noticed don’t generally spend time together and the three of us would have lunch together and just chat.  It worked out pretty well.  I was pretty mindful of who I paired up; I avoided pairing up kids that I knew actively didn’t really get along…I wasn’t trying to turn this time into a therapy session.  I mainly paired kids that ran in different circles.


As I came to Headwaters, I was able to actually continue to do a lot of similar things.  In advisory, student-led days looked a lot like the sharing time.  I was doing PE a few times a week during my first year at Headwaters and that was huge in really getting to know students in the entire middle school.  A whole different side of me comes out when I’m playing dodgeball with a bunch of 7th graders that doesn’t come out when I’m teaching them about the distributive property (and a whole different side of them does as well).  Getting to see and experience various aspects of each other’s personalities really helps to build those relationships.

I noticed that when I came to middle school, I was actually able to develop different kinds of relationships w/ these older students; their senses of humor were beginning to mature and the depth of conversation was on a different level than it could be with 5th graders.  I felt a little more at home with the middle schoolers.  Lunch-bunch had now turned into advisory lunches where I’d go eat lunch at a nearby restaurant w/ my advisory and just hang out.

What I try to keep in mind when I’m interacting with students is to just talk to them like they’re adults, even if they’re in early elementary school.  I don’t mean in the vocabulary that I use but more so in my tone and demeanor.  I also really try to listen well, particularly if a student is sharing a struggle they’re having.  Marriage has taught me well that people generally just want to be heard and unsolicited advice  is usually the last thing that’s needed.


That said, I also remember in my teacher training how they stressed that you’re not there to be the students’ friend; you’re there to their teacher and a positive adult role model in their life.  I think I’d mostly agree with that.  I do think there are strong elements of friendship present in my relationships with my students, but I think the heart of the ‘you are not there to be their friend’ message is that you shouldn’t work so hard to get them to like you; students can see right through that and it’s pretty off-putting (not just in a teacher but really anyone you come across who is just working really hard to make sure they don’t upset you).  Students lose respect for the adults in their lives who are more concerned about being liked than sticking to their word…even if it means you have to follow through with a punishment.

In regards to maintaining boundaries, I don’t share my phone number or personal social media with any students, nor do I follow any students on Instagram or Facebook.  I feel YouTube is a little bit different.  I share my channel openly with students, particularly since I make a lot of educational videos and many of my students are in those videos, but also because I want to support students who make YouTube content.  It also serves as a way for me to model appropriate social media behavior when I’m commenting on student videos.  Another plus is having a visible presence on some of their YouTube channels could deter some cyber bullying as a student may be less inclined to leave a mean comment if they see that I commented on that video as well.  The only YouTube channel I didn’t really do that with was one student’s makeup and teen-girl fashion channel; thought that’d be kind of weird.

By Thom H Gibson

I help middle school STEM teachers create meaningful & memorable experiences for their students. Teacher, podcaster, YouTuber. Two-time teacher of the year

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