Developing a Relationship with Your Class

This Q&A was adapted with permission from the book Chalk Talk: E-advice from Jonas Chalk, Legendary College Teacher, edited by Donna M. Qualters and Miriam Rosalyn Diamond –


Dear Jonas,

As another term is beginning I’m suffering the usual anticipation anxiety. I am teaching a section of freshman engineering students (although my anxiety is not confined to teaching freshman classes) none of whom I have known previously and none of whom know me – except by hearsay from other students. While typically everything works out fine after I gain the students’ trust and the class becomes responsive and interactive after a couple of weeks, the start is usually tentative and a bit uncomfortable. Any suggestions on how to accelerate the process?

Signed: Anxious


Dear Anxious,

I also suffer from the anxiety of anticipation with every new class of students — freshmen or not, but that’s not a bad thing. I expect that because you are thinking about getting a positive momentum going, you’re probably going to achieve it as you always do. The question is, “How can an instructor speed up the development of that relationship with the new class?” The key here is to understand that while we begin any term by interacting with students, they will invest more effort and have greater expectations for themselves as these interactions mature into a mutually respectful and trusting relationship. That’s just human behavior. This respect and trust, however, must be earned by your actions (and theirs); it is not simply a result of credentials or titles.

So, how do we speed up the development of this relationship? A few years ago my wife, Dusty, and I signed up for the AFS (American Field Service) program and decided to host a young woman from Denmark as she did her senior year at our local high school. Even though we had received a copy of her application materials for the program, as we were about to meet this young woman who would live with us for a year, we were excited but also anxious. The AFS program had some very good suggestions for us. For one thing, they suggested that as soon as we got back to our house, we sit down and talk about expectations (hers and ours). What should Tanja call us? We decided it would be her choice. Tanja suggested “mom” and “dad,” a bit to our surprise. Other questions and expectations were discussed. What would we pay for, and what should she? Was she responsible for doing her own laundry? Was she expected to help with the dishes after dinner and do other chores? Is it our custom to leave the bathroom door open or closed? While talking, we realized that some of both our and her notions and expectations were unanticipated, and we were all more comfortable having clarified them up front.

I believe that this open and honest discussion (actually there were a few) greatly accelerated the formation of a strong relationship that still perseveres today. This same notion is directly transferable to the beginning of a new class. I always begin by introducing myself and include some personal, but not private, information. Students are often surprised to learn that a faculty member actually has a life outside of his subject material. I also ask my students to turn in a copy of their resumes at the next class, adding something personal but not private. Even freshman engineering students will have resumes by now. Instead of collecting resumes, some faculty create a “Student Information Form” and ask about completion of prerequisites, best way to contact students, email addresses, why they chose to take this course, etc.

Then we discuss my expectations, both of them and of myself and most importantly WHY I have these expectations for this class. Many are listed on the syllabus but not all. For example, students can ask and are encouraged to ask questions at any time. I expect a hand to be raised, but it’s OK to say something to get my attention if I don’t see it. I encourage students to work in groups on homework (and what that means), but each has to submit a separate solution. Late homework will not be accepted as I will distribute copies of my solutions (or put them on a website) on the due date. I explain my grading policy (grade on the final exam will be the grade for the course if better than the previous record) and why I have designed it that way. I let my students know that it’s OK to be wrong in trying to answer a question in class and that I have not had a student yet who has gotten all the answers. I make it clear that I will always try to be on time for class, and if not I apologize. I expect them to do the same. I promise them that I will always be prepared for class and I expect the same from them. I expect them to review the assigned reading material (but not necessarily understand) prior to class because they will at least be familiar with terms, symbols and what I am trying to accomplish that day. I warn them that they will quickly learn that I enjoy kidding around and that some good-natured repartee is welcomed – nothing too personal though. I want them to understand that while I must set the standards of success in my course, I’ll be there to help if they do their parts. If a student is not sure where she stands at any point in my course, It’s OK to ask. If a student misses a class, it is his responsibility to get the notes from a classmate (arrange in advance if possible), go over them and then come to me with questions. I also ask about their expectations, and we discuss them. Etc..

You are obviously someone who does form a good relationship with your students. I hope my suggestions help you do this a little more quickly.


Quick Tip

Try collecting student resumes or information forms at the beginning of a course and mention appropriate information at appropriate times. If a student worked as a rigger, equilibrium concepts in a physics course would apply. When a student visits your office mentioning that he comes from Naugatuck, CT (or wherever) or that he ran the Boston Marathon does a lot to break the ice.

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