3 Ways to Foster Strong Student Relationships

Jed Stefanowicz, a human being I am lucky enough to call my colleague, encouraged me to write a post a few years ago as it had been a while since I had written.  Like any new teacher, I was wrapping my head around exactly what it was I was doing.  Like any new teacher, I was open to possibilities, collaboration, and learning from those who have been there.  This takes dedication and a whole lot of time.

There comes a point, however, when you realize the moments you’ve experienced are too good to keep to yourself.  It’s these moments that I’m not only grateful for but that keep me running back to Wilson Middle School every single day.  

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not exactly new.  During the time of this post, I was about to turn forty and in my fifteenth year of education.  After twelve years in the same district, however, in many ways, I felt new.  To be completely honest, middle school scared me.  Many of these kids I stretch my neck to look up to which is quite different than bending down to engage with eager-eyed kindergartners.  I knew deep down, however, I would be okay.  As a “new” teacher, versus the twenty-five-year-old version of myself, I had the confidence to welcome uncertainty and build an experience with students.  And whenever my nerves start to escalate, I remind myself that I am in Natick.

I came to this district hungry to hear what my new leaders would offer and I decided to eat it up.  It was loud and clear on those opening days that social-emotional learning would be a huge priority.  In fact, Natick’s hashtag is #relationshipsmatter.  I made a conscious decision to make #relationshipsmatter a reality in the classroom and beyond.  This has proven to be imperfect and amazing.


3 ways to foster strong relationships in the classroom: 


“You’re Here!” Survey

My position is interesting in that I’m able to do some coaching, which I love, and I’m also a specialist.  Seeing hundreds of students for short periods of time isn’t exactly throwing myself back in the classroom, but I certainly feel like I’m back in the game.  (What an opportunity to be able to support teachers even more!)  Connecting to students has always been a priority and I was even more determined to make it happen.  I knew it would be challenging especially with over thirty seventh graders in both of my Tech Lit classes.  Reminding myself of the potential for creativity when under constraints, I began to brainstorm.

Motivated by #relationshipsmatter and inspired by ideas from George Couros as well as Chris Basile, a former colleague, I created a quick Google Form called “You’re Here!” The idea was that my students would complete this survey every time they walked in.  I had no idea what would happen, but in true “new” teacher fashion, I went for it.  The title was hugely significant.  It’s important for me to share a message with students that their presence matters every single day.


School Form


Because of this survey, I’ve been able to attend and support student events as some kids are simply excited to share what’s going on in their lives.  Because of this survey, I have been able to say something as simple as “I hope you feel better, ” “Are you okay?”  and “How can I help?”  I’ve even been able to yell with excitement, “I’m thrilled you feel amazing!  Thank you for your continued enthusiasm when you come through this door!”  Because of this survey, I have reached out to my colleagues.  This has allowed me to build stronger relationships with them, which we all know is invaluable. 

Because of this survey I’ve been able to apologize.  I admit I don’t catch every response before conversations spark.  We are a busy crew, which makes it fun, but it’s also a workout!  And with the pressure of time combined with putting our hearts into lessons we hope will inspire, it’s easy to fall into the trap of frustration when we see those who appear unmotivated.  Yet when students are brave enough to admit they’re not ready to learn,  it changes the focus and it certainly changes the approach. 

Because of sharing this survey on Twitter, a teacher in California responded: 

We have completed the survey the last two days. As a result, I have learned that some of my quietest scholars love coming to school! I also learned that one woke up freezing, so a blanket is headed his way. I would have never known this if I didn't do the survey! Thank you!   -Crystal Hil

I don’t encourage waiting yet there were admittedly a couple of times when fifteen minutes went by and there it was, “I’m not ready to learn and I need some help.”  Although our instinct might be to try to fix everything before class ends, the pivotal moment in my experience happens when we slow down and say, “I’m so sorry I missed this.  What can I do?”  Even if there are no immediate answers, I’ve discovered that this moment can change everything.  This moment can increase student motivation, trust, and confidence.  This moment can show students that they matter and most certainly that #relationshipsmatter. 


Moment of Awesome 

When I began my Natick journey, I also decided to make a strong commitment to encouraging every student to shine and build empathy with each other.  Once again, I knew this would be challenging for my largest classes I would only see once or twice a week this fall.  When Anna Nolin, our superintendent, spoke to the new teachers that August, I remember her asking us to bring every part of ourselves to the classroom; our past experiences, our gifts, and our passions.  Sharing students’ strengths and passions will always be a part of who I am so somehow I was going to bring it.

It occurred to me in September that sharing who I was was key.  In fact, I didn’t stop there. Inspired by Fulton Middle School, I wanted to connect to who I was in junior high.  So one day after school I went to the band room and videoed myself playing the drums.  My beats were far from perfect, but the idea of showing my video was. If I could share something about myself beyond my Pecha Kucha intro (and what a blast that was!), just maybe my seventh graders would take the same kind of risk.


Posted on Instagram and Twitter to let students, families, and colleagues know I was thrilled to reconnect with my middle school years.


I shared the video and the very next class launched “Moment of Awesome.”  It could be a minute of anything.  A video of students doing something they’re proud of, something they’re passionate about, or they could get up in from of the class and speak.  I wasn’t shocked to find that most wanted to quietly share a video, but I was thrilled to see the emails start coming in.  We soon knew that we had a black belt among us, talented gymnasts and cheerleaders, expert coders, musicians, skiers, and more.



That same year, I previewed a video a student had emailed.  Her very first Youtube video included her hands dancing gracefully and beautifully along the keys of a piano.  Before I clicked play, I couldn’t help but think about how this student’s video would be an incredible example of digital leadership.  I was pumped and still am.  When the piece was over, however, all I could do was sit at my kitchen table and cry.  The sound was magical and I knew it would be even more magical the next morning.

Students are filled with mind-blowing talents and ache to share what matters to them.  When we take the opportunity to highlight them in front of their peers, a whole new level of respect takes over the room. We are not simply teachers and students in those moments and those that follow. We are human beings and our #relationshipsmatter.


Weekly Instagram Video

This may seem simple, but it’s been powerful for sure!  I created an Instagram account to highlight learning from each week.  My Instagram page, “Mrs.bartleynps,” was in many ways inspired from Social LEADia by Jennifer Casa-Todd.  It would definitely live on my webpage embedded for families to view, which I was thrilled about.  Yet I was also genuinely curious to see how my seventh and eighth graders, many of whom are on social media, would react.  I wanted to reach students beyond the classroom in a way that was real for them.  I also wanted to play a more realistic role in encouraging digital leadership among all of us.

More than anything else, I wanted students to know that they are worth showing up for.  To help make this message clear, I make it a point to capture their learning in every class with my phone.  I began using Quik to create “Moments from the Week” and I post them every Friday.  I don’t get a hundred views and nor do I expect to, but students look forward to the videos and they look for themselves.  They want to be noticed.  They want to be known.  #relationshipsmatter

My first fall back in middle school was an adventure.  I wouldn’t change it for anything.  The world needs us to keep going and every second we try to impact our young leaders is worth it.  Some days I am literally running, but one thing is for sure; I continuously find myself overwhelmed by awesome.  In fact, sometimes awesome is so overwhelming it takes months to write about it.  #Relationshipsmatter now more than ever and I am proud to be in a place that lives this message every day.

About the Author: 

Nili Bartley is currently a technology teacher and digital learning and innovation coach in Natick, MA. After an eleven-year adventure in the classroom, Nili’s technology integration role at the elementary level for the next three years pushed her to see the importance of a thriving culture and led her to write “Lead Beyond Your Title: Creating Change in School from Any Role.”  Nili continues to grow as a teacher and coach after taking the leap to middle school and as a MassCUE Committee Member and Champion, BrainPOP Certified Educator, and enthusiastic presenter, she is committed to sharing her passions beyond the school community and is always excited to connect with other educators. 


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