How To Build Rapport with TeensAug 24, 2021
Ever wonder what it’s like working with teenagers? When I tell people that I am a middle school teacher, most people have the response along the lines of “Teenagers scare the living **** out of me!” (And no, they are NOT quoting My Chemical Romance). As a middle school teacher, I have SO many people say this to me! I have to laugh, because teenagers are by far one of the best age groups to work with (and trust me, I have taught K through 12th grade!) If you find yourself as one of these people who are scared of (or simply do not like) teaching teenagers-- I want to ask you: Why do you think this?
Let me begin this blog post by breaking down some stereotypes. Stereotype 1: Teenagers are practically adults. This is FALSE! Teenagers are NOT adults (yet). Sure they can speak their mind more, but that’s the BEST part! They are learning to become more independent in their thoughts and actions. While in many ways these individuals are becoming adults (and should thus be given more responsibility and trust from adults) we know that brain development at this age is still FAR from done, so guidance and nurturing is still needed (even if it is at a distance now).
Teenagers need to know we care. They are beginning to see the cracks in society, in the systems around them. We are still their caretakers when they are with us. They want to know that we are here to support them, and NEED to know that, along with us, there are SO many other supports out there (it is important to note here that you are NOT the only support system for these students and should not think that way).
I also believe that adults are so scared of teenagers because, to be frank, they KNOW that teenagers can smell bulls**t from a mile away. If you don’t act like you care about your students, then they will KNOW that you don’t, no matter what you say. Unlike children (who can also sense this) teenagers will actually CALL you out on this, too, which can be uncomfortable for adults.
Teenagers also begin to challenge authority and rules at this age. While this is an appropriate stage in development and something that should be celebrated and channeled into a positive avenue, many adults feel that they need to “shut this down,” for various reasons rather than encourage freedom of thinking and thinking critically about systems, rules, and other practices that are in place.
Ultimately, rapport building with teenagers (and I would argue, with anybody) comes down to the small details. Below, I will list 3 strategies that I use when building authentic rapport with my students at the beginning of the year. This is not an exhaustive list, but a few takeaways that I have found extraordinarily help me within my classroom:
- You have to WANT to have authentic relationships with students for the right reasons.
- You must be willing to actually take an interest in and show this on multiple levels.
- It won’t happen overnight, and a little goes a long way.
First and foremost, you really have to WANT to have authentic relationships with your students for the right reasons. I still remember one of my favorite students from last year breathing a sigh of relief when I told him I wasn’t going to do traditional icebreakers in class. “Thank GOD,” he said, “I hate those things. Those things are always fake. They force me to try to get to know you when I don’t know you yet. I hate it.” Authenticity takes time. If you want to fix/repair relationships so that students will listen to you better (and for that reason only) your students will be able to tell that your relationship and rapport building is self-serving.
Relationships go both ways. Getting to know your students and connecting with them will help enrich your life and make you a better teacher just as much as it will help students learn and thrive in your classroom. Once you assess your reasons for wanting to work on and develop your relationships with your students, now you can move onto actually creating an environment where your rapport building can thrive.
If we want our students to know that we care and that we earnestly want to develop a relationship with them, it means that this notion doesn’t just stop with our words. If we tell our students “everyone is welcome here,” and then say “I am here if you need anything,” but 1) do not create an environment where students feel comfortable doing so and 2) do not actively show an interest in them when they do open up, we are not actively showing that we care.
Showing that we care starts with the first day. How are you addressing “behaviors,” (and how are you viewing them)? How are you creating classroom expectations? If these practices are restorative and student-centered (and this means involving students in the process) we are showing them that we care not just with our actions, but with our words as well. We are showing them that we respect their view points and thoughts enough to allow them to have a say in our classroom community. We are showing them that we can give them our attention and time while listening to them.
If we ask our students how they are, but then proceed to respond to an email while they talk to us, yell at another student or otherwise let interruptions happen that could wait until after the student spoke to us, we are showing our students that their opinion/statement/feelings are less important. How would you feel if your principal typed away at their computer when you came to them about an issue that was important to you? Respect for our students is huge at creating rapport, and rapport building is the key to a successful and thriving classroom community. Giving students undivided attention, even for just a few minutes at a time, will make a huge difference in your relationships.
I would be remiss to not say that addressing systemic issues such as racism, homophobia, ableism, etc. in the classroom is also important for creating a safe space where all students feel protected and that they are accepted in the classroom. Showing, speaking, and researching ways to ensure that we are actively showing that these things are not tolerated in our classrooms is on us. It is just not enough anymore to say “hate has no place here,” we have to actively address it in our classrooms and not be afraid to say or do the wrong thing. The wrong thing to do is to NOT speak up. Continue to research ways that you can address your biases and learn to address situations like this if you are still uncertain, but do not use uncertainty as an excuse to not address these instances when they occur in your classroom.
The biggest takeaway for building rapport with teens is the obvious, but it’s true: it takes time, and it happens in small ways. It will not happen overnight, and it will be in all of the little moments throughout your day.
One of the ways I really enjoyed building rapport with my students last year was allowing students to talk with me (and their peers) for 2-3 minutes at the beginning of class by asking them a “question of the day.” I started slowly, by asking “What is your favorite dessert ever?” or “What is an activity you enjoy doing?” and “What is your favorite show/music/movie that you watch often?” Then, I slowly built on the questions as I got to know my students. I began asking questions like “What is something that brings you joy?” and “When you start to feel anxious, what is something that helps you feel better?” Finally, I stay away from questions like “What is something you did this weekend/break?” as these types of questions can stir up uncomfortable feelings in some students. Instead, I ask questions like, “What is something that you did recently that inspired you/made you happy?” This is more open-ended and can include any and all things. These little moments--one, two, three minutes a day--really add up over time.
Eventually, my students and I have established a trusting, respectful relationship that is mutually beneficial for both of us. Our classroom is somewhere where they feel safe to learn and question things, and I also can learn from them and receive honest feedback on activities and lessons.
You can't rush something authentic, and in the same way that fast food is great for a quick meal, it never really makes you feel great afterwards. The same can be said for relationships. Trying to rush a relationship with teenagers through inauthentic icebreakers and not viewing your relationship as mutually beneficial and a two-way street can lead to disaster. However, like that nice, homemade meal from your favorite restaurant, things that take more time are well worth the wait.