Building Blocks of B2S: Week 2: Building Relationships

I'm joining up with Mrs. D's Corner this week for the Building Blocks of B2S (Back to School).  I was a little late to the party last week, but I'm jumping in on week 2 for "building relationships."

Teachers have major shoes to fill, so to speak.  Chris Lehmann said, "People send us their most precious resource; they send us their kids every day... Short of, like, a brain surgeon, I can't think of a profession where people are placing greater trust in the professionals than teaching...and it is our job to be worthy."  What great truth there is in that statement, and we must rise to the call of being worthy.

One profound indicator, in my opinion, of a person's worthiness is the way he or she treats other people.  Not just those who can do something for them, not just those from whom they will get something in the future.  What do you do when you think no one is watching?  Do you help others?  Do you belittle those who you perceive are "beneath" you?  Do you use your power and influence to hurt others or to build others up?  Do you stay away from, make fun of, or refuse to communicate with people who are different than you?

Perhaps I am uniquely blessed because the parents with whom I work everyday revere teachers.  They believe that educators are to be some of the most respected individuals in the entire world.  My students' parents consistently communicate that to me, whether it be verbally or nonverbally, through the respect they demonstrate when we meet.  Parents of English learners know the adversity that exists in the other parts of the world, and they are exceedingly grateful for the help, the care, and the time you put into your job.

Since we are taking some time to think about building relationships this week, I wanted to give you some helpful information about building relationships with your EL students and their families.  
I'm writing about five things below that I think you'll find useful if you have students learning English as a another language in your classroom this year.

In the United States, we have become a culture obsessed with technology, and we are quite literally connected to our social media at all times.  There's nothing inherently wrong with technology and social media; in fact, I use our class Facebook page as a major tool for communicating with my students' families.  However, if we allow it to separate us from the humanity of those students and families with whom we work, we should re-examine our core beliefs about relationships and about technology.

I have seen professionals in parent-teacher conferences checking their emails or replying to texts in the middle of the conference.  Few things can be so disrespectful to families from other cultures.  Perhaps we in the U.S. have been around it so long now that we don't give it much thought, but it does communicate a degree of disrespect and disinterest.  By attending to your phone rather than the person or people in front of you, you're communicating, "You're not as important as this email/text/Facebook feed."  Other cultures tend to be very relationship-centered and thus value the presence of those with whom they're meeting.  That text or message or phone call can wait for another 15 minutes.  Attend to those who are in front of you; give them your undivided attention for that span.  If it absolutely cannot wait, then excuse yourself from the meeting so as not to be insensitive.

Eye contact can be a big deal, when talking about students and their families.  Our U.S. culture tells us that looking someone directly in the eye is a sign of attention and intense interest.  We perceive that someone who does not look us in the eye is being deceptive or withholding information.  But other cultures don't assign the same values to eye contact that we do.

In other countries, it is sometimes disrespectful to look at someone in the eye.  Students from these cultures may not look at you because you are so very respected, not because they are disrespecting you.  This is important to remember when handling classroom management issues.  We generally expect students to look us in the eye when communicating (either when we or they are speaking), but they may feel uncomfortable doing so if their home culture tells them it is disrespectful to do so.  This can be an issue sometimes too when male students have female teachers.

We know that more communication happens non-verbally than verbally.  That can be a huge strategy to use to one's advantage when working with EL students and their families.  Some cultures shake hands, as in common in the United States, whereas some cultures tend to express salutations through a hug and kiss on the cheek.  Still other cultures bow or nod, and some cultures are highly spatially aware/sensitive, and prefer to maintain more space/distance between people.  My best suggestion is to watch carefully the interactions between children and their parents, as well as the parents toward you.  You can learn so much by observing with attention and then mimicking back to them the salutations they are comfortable expressing.  This is a learned habit, so go easy on yourself if you forget.  But challenge yourself to be aware and to create a comfortable environment for your ELs and their families by being a chameleon of sorts.

Back to school means mounds and mounds of paperwork.  Remember that this is a daunting task for a native English speaker, much less for someone who doesn't speak or read/write in English.  There are times when families bring their own translators, but we are obligated to provide for them as many communications in their own language as is possible.  (If you teach in Alabama, you already have access to a great service that provides paperwork already translated in many languages.  Go to Transact to set up a free account!  This is something our state provides for all Alabama teachers.)

The point is that it may take significantly more energy, and thus more time, to complete this paperwork.  Offer to help them complete it as best you can.  Cut out the "fluff" paperwork (you know, the cute get to know you papers that we all want to do), and narrow it down to the essentials.  Fill out the parts you know on behalf of your students' families; many of it is repetitive anyway.

If paperwork is sent home and it doesn't come back, don't assume it's because it isn't valued or respected.  It could be that they truly don't understand its importance, cannot read it to know what it is, do not know if it is supposed to come back, or they may be trying to make arrangements with someone who can translate it for them if it isn't in their home language.  All these factors can slow down the return process, so just relax, and try to find out what the obstacle is.  Maybe it's something your ESL teacher can even help with!

Many teachers are nervous about having students with whom they feel they can't communicate.  But students learn quickly, and families are appreciative.  Don't be intimidated.  Use it as an opportunity to grow.  Enjoy the journey together!

Don't forget to head back over to Mrs. D's Corner to check out all the other tips on building relationships too. 


  1. I'm lucky, like you, to have parents who respect me as a teacher and the profession. I've not always had that, and it can really make teaching tough!

    Thanks so much for linking up and sharing your advice on building relationships!


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