Relationships that lead to Respect

(or…how to get teenagers to like you and do their work)

Guest Post by Caty Dearing.  I’m a self-confessed television nerd. If there’s a show on TV, and it’s controversial or entertaining, I’ve probably seen it. My current obsession is with the HBO series

I’m a self-confessed television nerd. If there’s a show on TV, and it’s controversial or entertaining, I’ve probably seen it. My current obsession is with the HBO series Game of Thrones. Being a lover of fantasy series, I thoroughly enjoy watching my favorite characters destroy each other in pursuit of the Iron Throne (or, pretty much, power and authority in general). My favorite of these characters is a young girl named Daenerys. As a child, her father, the king, was killed, and she’s existed in hiding with no money and no supporters, attempting to build a dynasty on nothing but a name and a few dragon eggs. Basically, Daenerys has all odds against her, and must somehow muster up the ability to overcome impossible adversity to succeed.

Isn’t that how we feel sometimes in the classroom? As teachers, it often can seem like we are facing insurmountable odds, competing against social media, music, Netflix, family issues, relationships and pretty much anything else that seems more important than learning about Hamlet or Heathcliff. Armed with our convictions and determination, we war against a world of distractions, trying to motivate students that have absolutely no buy into what we are trying to teach them.

Over the years, I’ve become a huge believer in the idea that relationship is the ace in the deck of cards; it’s absolutely necessary for me to not only build relationships with my kids, but to do so in a way that manifests a desire in them to not only work, but to work HARD. I do this by creating what I call a “tribe” in my classroom. This concept is based out of a great book called Tribes by Seth Godin. By attracting people to want to be around you, a person can create an engaging dynamic that becomes this “cool club” people want to be a part of. Unconsciously, I’ve put this plan into action, and have had great results. Here’s an example:

This year, my students have started calling me “Khaleesi” which, in Game of Thrones, means “mother of dragons.” They refer to themselves as my “dragons,” and in doing so have solidified themselves as members of my “tribe.” My kids believe that we are all in this learning thing together, and embrace difficult concepts with a team-like mentality. It’s wonderful, and having a “tribe” has paved the way for me to actually get to teach without a ton of discipline issues or excuses!

Here are my tips for creating a “tribe” atmosphere in your classroom:


  • Admit when you’re wrong.

At the beginning of every school year, there’s this awkward tension in the room…this waiting period where it seems like my students are feeling me out. Is she crazy? Is she strict? Is she fun? Can I get away with anything I want in here? There is so much power in admitting my mistakes during this time. This year, I accidentally passed out the wrong syllabi on the first day of school (facepalm). I made it this big joke, telling them to “mark your calendars, it’s the only mistake I’ll make all year and thought I’d get it out of the way!” It’s February and they’re still teasing me about it. There’s something about displaying humility that communicates to students, “If you make a mistake in here, it’s okay. No one is going to make you feel like a terrible human if you fail.”


  • Let your students feel like they know you.

If you were to ask my students about my family, they’d probably be able to write a book. I tell my kids stories daily about my three year old daughter. Even students who don’t seem to have any interest in children whatsoever will giggle to themselves when I tell them about how my kid got her head stuck in the back of a chair during dinner (See? That stuff is funny). This idea piggybacks onto the previous one, but the point is that students need to see that we are human beings, with families, interests, and even difficulties. I remember being in college and being taught that we were supposed to “show no fear” and be this rigid authority figure until December, when we can finally let loose a bit. I’ve tried teaching this way and have had zero success. By removing the invisible “teacher vs. student” wall, we create an inclusive and inviting environment where kids feel comfortable sharing about their lives as well. By destroying the barrier, we immediately create an opportunity to make learning meaningful and memorable.


  • Have a sense of humor, and create “inside jokes” with your students.

As an adult, I remember the most unimportant and random stuff. Sometimes, when I am teaching something that I know the kids will have zero interest in, I try to find some way to make them laugh. Last year, when we began “Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe, we spent the first five minutes having a Poe-pun contest. I told them if they could find some funny Poe memes, I’d put one on the board each day we studied him. This was HILARIOUS and the kids would come in each day telling me how they kept looking after school. By remembering the funny, they’ll remember the lesson. We constantly think of funny hashtags for lessons, and I’m not afraid to laugh at myself. It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to have fun. They’ll thank you for it.


  • Sometimes, it’s worth staying after school.

Hands down, the best conversations I’ve ever had with students have happened during tutoring time. A kid will come in asking for help on an essay, and afterwards we will be talking about life, and the word vomit will just start spilling out. In a 45 minute class period, it’s impossible to get to know your students well. After school chats are a great way to figure out why a kid is distracted; maybe it’s their parents’ divorce, or a death in the family, or depression, or anxiety…whatever the case, I then become equipped even more to help them work through it and still keep up their schoolwork. By investing in them after school, I find that students will reciprocate the effort in the classroom. They will try their hardest, because they believe they owe you their best, and that you support their efforts.
To summarize, by focusing on building relationships with my students, I earn their respect. I realize that this technically should already be a given, but we have to be honest with ourselves and understand that, unfortunately, it’s not. By earning my students’ respect, they manifest a desire to prove this to me, over and over again. They show up to class ready to give their best. My “tribe” makes my job so much fun, and my teacher burnout has been replaced by a joyful desire to be at work, and that in itself makes it worth it!


Thank you to Caty Dearing from Frontier High School for her insights.  If you want to follow her blog– check it out.


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