Building Positive Relationships
Safety and Security
Most students need a strong sense of comfort and safety from both physical and emotional abuse and criticism in their classrooms. Teachers need to have enough order that students do not intimidate, bully, insult, or overly criticize each other. You achieve this sense of positive order by teaching and developing positive social skills. Students do well when they believe that they can depend on the teacher and their classmates. This comfort is achieved by rules and regulations in the classroom that are sensible and consistently enforced. Teachers build a trusting relationship by helping and encouraging students and by stopping inappropriate behavior, such as racial and gender harassment.
At all ages, students are very sensitive to what they perceive as unequal treatment. When students believe that their teacher favors some students over others, conflict grows in the classroom, and their trust in the teacher declines.
In secondary schools, teachers have more students and therefore often know them less well. Secondary teachers place more emphasis on teaching subject matter, and some tend to place less emphasis on serving as coach, mentor, counselor, or cultural mediator. The lack of opportunity to develop personal relationships and the variety of teacher and student personalities create alienation. Students want to be listened to and respected as human beings with wants, desires, fears, and emotions (Valenzuela, 1999).
Over the years, students need to develop a strong sense of security, and they should have the opportunity to develop a trusting personal relationship with some teachers and students. For some students, the school’s teams, clubs, and student government projects contribute to this important sense of belonging. Each student should encounter at least one teacher or counselor who is interesting and motivating each day. If this does not occur, the school will lose the student. Without positive personal relationships, schools become warehouses for students rather than learning centers.
Teachers and students without a sense of security develop symptoms of stress, anxiety, and alienation. They resist change to a multicultural paradigm. When schools are full of interethnic conflict, bullying, or sexual harassment, the violent environment prevents many students from learning. Human relations lessons and strategies, such as those found in the curriculum The Wonderful World of Difference (B’nai B’rith Antidefamation League, 1996), help to build classrooms where students feel safe and comfortable.
When schools serve students well, students develop a sense of self-worth and competence and come to expect to succeed at classroom and social projects. The curriculum should be planned and presented so that all students succeed each day.
In the primary years, students should learn to read. If they are not successful readers, additional support in the form of increased teacher time, tutors, and special instruction along with a rich variety of reading strategies must be provided so that students learn to love reading and so that they do not fall behind (Slavin, 1998). Learning successful reading skills and acquiring joy and interest in reading contribute to a positive sense of self-worth in school.
A strong relationship exists between poverty (social class) and reading scores (Finn, 1999). Teachers of grades 4 through 8 need to help students to improve their reading. Lessons in history, science, and literature should systematically include high-interest literature, allow students choice, and emphasize skill development.
Upper elementary school students (grades 4–6) and middle school students (grades 6–8) also improve their sense of self-worth by learning to set immediate, accomplishable goals and establishing clear criteria for achieving them. With clear goals and lessons, students can recognize and improve their study and interpersonal skills. Quality literature and guest speakers can regularly present positive lifestyle choices to students.
Students who believe themselves competent become more willing to take risks. They generally feel successful at important tasks and school subjects. Such students are willing to share their ideas and opinions and to recognize the accomplishments of other students. Too often teachers use theories of motivation based on the competitive tendencies in the macroculture and poorly informed teacher folk knowledge about testing, measurement, and grading (Nichols & Berliner, 2007).
Students in supportive environments develop a positive sense of self. Violence, drug use, and alienation among teenagers indicate a struggle for a clear identity. Students bridging two or more cultures and identities may suffer increased stress and conflict as they develop their own identities (Foley, 2001). Literature and lessons about teen conflicts, challenges, and successes offer opportunities for support. Students need to find themselves and recognize their conflicts in the curriculum, and the literature used must include teens from the cultures represented in the classroom. As a consequence of political power, state content standards often are ethnocentric and impede inclusion of diverse literature and authors.
A process of supporting students through asset development has been devised developed by the Search Institute and others (Scales & Leffert, 1999). This approach focuses on building on the students’ strengths, such as energy and creativity. Focusing on strengths can help students develop resiliency to deal with serious problems, such as teen pregnancy, violence, and dropping out of school.
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