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Finding New Ways to Build Student Relationships Built on Trust
It all began when I started to meet students one-on-one in breakout rooms during the pandemic. I wanted to “become more in touch with the mental health of some students.” I am fortunate to teach many of my students throughout their entire four-year high school career. This affords me the luxury of getting to know them on a deeper level than many teachers. But, like many others, I lost a bit of the relationships I once had in the virtual realms.
Once we moved back to in-person learning, I made it my mission to meet with each student privately one-on-one to try and get to know them in the same way. For the most part, my returning students were open and more willing to share. But I needed a way to break through to my freshmen or to those that I did not quite get to know as well during remote learning. I also needed to find a more private way for us to meet without leaving students alone and unattended in classrooms. I needed to find a new way to continue to build student relationships built on trust.
I use the Canvas Learning Management System in my high school courses. This system allowed me to make an assignment that only I, as the teacher, was able to view. Thus, “A Safe Space, a Safe Place” was born.
A Safe Space, A Safe Place Assignment Prompt
This classroom is a safe place, a safe space, and I am your trusted adult. This will be a place that will be provided weekly for you to voice things that are on your mind. It can be about school, the pandemic, or life in general. BUT, remember that I am a mandated reporter, which means that I am required by law to report a particular category or type of abuse, illegal activity, or self harm (even the suspicion or potential of). That being said, sometimes it is good to have a place to vent, journal, or just feel heard. Make sure to let me know if you want me to just read it or if you would like a response. I may not have advice, but I can be a silent ear to listen.
This assignment was not mandatory and was open for an entire week (including weekends). This assignment was also not built to be a replacement for other effective ways of showing my students that I genuinely care. I encouraged the students by giving them samples of anonymous topics that came up from the few that were taking advantage of the space: feeling overwhelmed by school, disappointed in a broken relationship, frustrated with overbearing parents, or just wanting a place to “rant” without feeling like someone would judge them. Slowly but surely, the participants began to move from a handful per class to a dozen in each class.
Then I decided to take a chance and do an experiment. I made one week mandatory. Now I knew this was a risk, so I gave them samples of saying things as simple as “Everything is going fine” or “I will be so happy when summer finally gets here.” I expected to get some less vulnerable responses like this from students who might be reluctant to share. But I was completely taken aback at the number of students who, for the first time, used the space the way it was intended. I had nearly three-quarters of the class telling me about their mental health, their relationships, and their lives in general. There were so many that I had a hard time keeping up. My handful per class quickly turned into over half of each class that wrote on a weekly basis. As a teacher, I value my students’ feedback. So asked all my students, including those who only completed the one-time mandatory assignment, to complete a reflection on the assignment."High school has been extremely tough on us teenagers, so for us to have the ability to talk about our feelings without being judged is like a sigh of relief…" A Safe Space, A Safe Place Click To Tweet
Reflection on A Safe Space, A Place Assignment Prompt
Do you feel like it is indeed a virtual (online) safe space? Is it helpful? Why or why not? Do you think other teachers should have a similar one as well? Why or why not? Does it depend on the teacher? Would you like an anonymous way to talk to teachers, the health center, or the administration about issues you are going through regarding mental health or life in general? If so, how would we, as trusted adults, be there for you but also be able to handle mandated reporter issues?
Again, the well thought-out responses made me well up with pride.
I feel like the safe space assignments are super helpful, especially for those who have no other way of expressing their emotions. High school has been extremely tough on us teenagers, so for us to have the ability to talk about our feelings without being judged is like a sigh of relief…Teachers cannot expect to gain a student's trust if they are not kind to their students. It does not matter how strict you are or how much homework you assign; it's the way their attitudes are towards their students. If there is a situation involving reporting an issue, I believe it is best to converse with the student first before mentioning their struggles with anyone else. Make the student feel safe, especially if this is the first time for them to express their emotions! - Anonymous Senior
Yes, it does depend on the teacher. I'm not giving any specific names, but there are some teachers who can't build trust with their students. Some students may trust one teacher over another. - Anonymous Junior
I've never met another teacher who had this sort of assignment thing where people can share their feelings and such, but I think that would be a good idea for other teachers to have one...I feel like everyone just needs a place to talk and say what they need to say so that's cool. I think maybe listening to what we have to say, if we ask for advice then you as a trusted adult can give us advice or if we just want somewhere to talk but no response then you should respect their choice. - Anonymous Sophomore
It does depend on the teacher because some teachers are very ‘judgy'… A piece of advice would be to keep saying in the instructions what can't be said to you as a mandated reporter.
- Anonymous Freshman
These responses gave me insight into the effectiveness of this assignment. It showed me that even if the students did not use it all of the time, it gave them comfort knowing it was available to them. This reflection also made me understand how important it is to check in with the students and make sure I was providing them with ways to build better relationships and have a sense of community in my classroom.
Reflecting on this assignment brings to mind a quote from the Greek philosopher, Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
As teachers, we must find ways to actually listen to our students. No matter the subject being taught, the rigor of the curriculum, or the beauty of the lesson plan, a lack of a relationship with a student can make what we are trying to teach them go in one ear and out the other. I can hear many teachers saying, “I am not here to make friends.” But are we not here to get the student to actually learn? Wouldn’t a student be more able to learn if they felt that a teacher actually cared for them and was willing to listen? How different would our own schooling have been if we had such relationships with our own teachers growing up?
This type of assignment is not meant to be a statement of what all teachers should be doing to gain the trust of students. As another student stated, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable with just any teacher.” But it is another tool teachers can use in our effort to find new ways to build student relationships built on trust.
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