Q: I’m not normal. I’m very bad at relating to people. That’s OK. I’m comfortable living on my own. I’m a loner. I’m honestly not interested in friends. They don’t do anything for me. I say hello to my coworkers and answer their questions, but the whole time I’m thinking “please go away.” I often try to avoid them. That’s all fine by me. The problem is that while I like teaching math, I feel the same way about my students. I want them to learn what I teach, not talk to me. Parents complain to the principal that I’m cold and can’t connect with anyone. I know that and accept it. The students still learn. My principal wants me to work on this, but that’s like asking me to speak Taushiro (an all but extinct language). Not only is this something I don’t want to do, it’s something I can’t do. I don’t want you to diagnose me like everyone else, or tell me to find a new job — what I need right now is a formula for relating to my students. Can you break it down for me?
A: Your question poses an interesting challenge: Is it possible to operationalize relatability? You may not feel an emotional bond with your students, but you can help them feel connected to you. Here are five concrete steps you can take to boost your relatability:
- Spend five to ten minutes per week talking individually with each one of your students. During that time, don’t look at a screen or pause to answer another student’s question. Researchers have found that children thrive on short bursts of undivided attention, not big blocks delivered occasionally. I recently spoke to Julie Morgenstern, author of Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out The Best In Your Child (Holt, 2018). She told me that the time you spend behind the scenes grading papers or planning lessons is largely invisible to your students, even if they appreciate it. The time you spend teaching kids is visible but feels different to them than time spent relating. She explains, “Teaching is about your agenda. You’re naming the topics.” When you relate, you become the student of the child. So, during that five-minute period, really enter their world. Ask them questions that make them feel like the expert. Here’s a sample line of questioning: “What’s your favorite activity outside of school? Do you think I would like it? What do you like most about that activity?” Before you meet with a student, plan and practice your questions so it feels natural. Try to ask logical follow-up questions. If they tell you they love to play baseball, for instance, ask them about their favorite team. Write down what they tell you and refer to your notes before you meet with them again. They will feel a stronger connection if you remember their hobbies and interests.
- Work on your body language. Try to look students in the eye. If that’s difficult for you, train yourself to look for the color of their eyes. The idea is not to stare, but to periodically meet their gaze. Look straight at them when you ask your question, look away briefly while they think of an answer, then re-establish eye contact when they answer. Your body should be turned toward theirs, and you want to be about three feet apart. Mirror their body language and expression. If they smile or nod, reciprocate the gesture.
- Use email to your advantage. If you’re struggling to connect with parents, ask your department chair or an administrator to help you write a weekly email to parents summarizing what you’re doing in class. Your colleagues can help you strike the right tone. Regular, relaxed communication will help you change your image. Also, the more you practice writing in a natural style, the more that tone will carry over to your real-life interactions.
- Pick a role model. This can be anyone in your building who you admire for their ability to relate to others. If you’re not sure who would be a good choice, ask someone who supervises you for suggestions. Then ask the designated role model for permission to study them. Watch them as they teach and take note of how they interact with students. Write down phrases they use that seem effective and test them out.
- Read, watch, and observe. It doesn’t matter if you read historical fiction, romance novels, or biographies, as long as characters are part of the story. Watch movies, TV shows and talk shows, too, paying close attention to people’s dialogue and body language. Think about their motivations. When you’re at the grocery store or in a crowd, observe how other people interact with one another. How do they enter a conversation? How do they find common ground? How long do they hold a glance before looking away? How long is a typical casual conversation? Keep a journal where you log your observations. The ability to relate can be learned, but you won’t learn how if you shy away from opportunities to interact. Approach all interpersonal exchanges like an anthropologist. You’ll get better with practice, and you may even start to dislike it less.
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