Essential Solutions 2-MIN. READ

Building a Strong Student Community

By: Dr. Janie Brown 12/19/2023
Learn how to build trust in the classroom by creating a student community.
Two middle school students collaborate on a mathematics assignment.

As a middle school math teacher, I have 75–80 students. But every year, I take the time to get to know each of them personally. In his book, The First Days of School, Harry Wong emphasizes how important it is for teachers to do this because relationships have a direct impact on learning. 

From day one, I observe and listen to my students with the intent of understanding, not responding. I gauge the room to see who’s tense, who’s disengaged, who’s sitting next to who—the first week of school, I put myself out there.

Create an Open Dialogue

I break the ice by sharing my “why.” Why did I become a teacher? What drives me? And I allow myself to become vulnerable. I tell my students how my mother was 15 years old when she had me. I tell them about challenging homelife growing up, and I can tell by their faces that some of them are dealing with something similar. I talk about how when I was a student, my teachers saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. They became my family. And I tell them that I became a teacher to help kids like me see their potential. It’s how I create an open gateway of communication with my students.

Then I ask them their why. Why do they want to be successful in this class? Why do they want to graduate from high school? Why do they matter? I ask them to talk to a partner for five minutes and get to know each other. I circle the classroom and listen. I point out similarities—who’s shy, who doesn’t like to work in groups, who’s a natural leader. Who’s writing things down? Who’s listening? The dialogue between my students isn’t always easy. They might share hurtful stuff, and some are reluctant to open up. That’s when I bring my voice down, get on their level, and reassure them. One boy wanted to graduate from high school to make his grandmother proud. Another wanted his sisters to be able to depend on him. By recognizing my students’ fears, anxieties, circumstances, dreams, and motivations, I begin to build emotional bridges with them and create mutual trust.

Encourage Interaction

Once I’ve established a safe space in my classroom, I provide opportunities for students to interact, collaborate, and mentor each other. There are many ways to do this, but I’ve found these strategies helpful:

  • Turn and talk. Giving students a chance to “turn and talk” to a partner throughout the year and put their thoughts into words helps solidify learning and builds confidence in understanding. In my math class, we don’t focus on just getting the right answer. I encourage my students to practice their problem-solving thought processes with a peer. 

  • Student peer tutoring. You can learn a lot by observing your students. I look at those who are paying attention, give them a leadership role, and pair them with someone who is not yet engaged. By pairing the leader with the less engaged student, the leader becomes a mentor who can explain concepts in a different way than I can, and the learner becomes more engaged. It’s empowering to watch my students evolve and bring out the best in each other when working with a peer. 

  • Tap into teacher peers. Your fellow educators have endless ideas to help you make sure you have a successful year. As teachers, we are alone in the classroom a lot, and we all need to lean on each other. As someone who’s been teaching for a while, I share what I’ve learned with new teachers. Engaging in professional learning sessions, mentoring programs, and collaborating ensure a stable support system for both new and seasoned teachers.

Building a trusting student community is not an overnight process. It requires patience, nurturing, and genuine care. Ups and downs are part of this journey, and each experience presents an opportunity to learn, adapt, and improve. Being a teacher is about acknowledging struggles, celebrating victories, maintaining consistency, and continually moving forward. While my journey may vary from yours, it’s important to remember that we’re not alone in this profession. Community plays a significant role in our success as educators and in our students’ growth, which is ultimately what matters most.

Want more from Janie? Listen to this episode of the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.