Relationship Building

Should You Care What Your Students Think? (Ep. 065)

Andrew goes on a couple epic rants, and Tim succinctly drops some truth as the guys talk about student engagement, and whether we should care what our students think of us. Listen as they cover ideas about why art teachers are so good at building relationships with their students (6:00), some outside-the-box ways to connect with your kids and the importance of shared experiences (13:15), and the conversations you can and should be having with your students (21:00). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host Andrew McCormick. A few weeks back Tim and I went on an epic journey through the exciting world of drawing. Remarkably, the notes back from listeners were pretty positive. People were actually digging the longer format. Get ready for a really long on, then, as I get really ranty and a little bit long winded about how we as art teachers build relationships with our students. It should be a natural for all teachers, but art teachers are especially good at this. It’s so important to do for the success of your program and the success of your students. We went really long with this one and we’re going to jump right into the interview with Tim right now. All right, Tim, Thanks for joining, man. How’re you doing?

Tim: I am doing well. How are you?

Andrew: I’m doing great, man. Hey, listen, last week you brought Shannon Bell on and you were, you guys were talking about getting kids to buy into your program. That they have to want to be there to have that kind of success. Why do you think it is so important to get buy in? Why is that so important?

Tim: I think kids are more willing to do the work. They’re more willing to listen. They’re more willing to do everything if they’re engaged, if they’re enjoying what they’re doing when they come to the classroom. You need to create that culture that values kids, but values hard work. When they feel like they’re a part of that then they really are willing to put in the effort that it takes to become successful with art, and they’re willing to put in the time. If you want to have a successful program, you need kids to be doing that and if you create the right culture that develops that, then I think that’s what you’re looking for. That’s what you need to do.

Andrew: Right. And I mean, we’ve talked before, I mean, we don’t have the luxury as art teachers to, outside of maybe an elementary program, which could also be cut. I mean, at the secondary level we don’t have the luxury of having kids have to take your class. I mean, at some point you’ve got to have kids be excited about taking your class and see the successes that other kids are having and want to enroll in and enlist in that class. When I think about getting student buy in, I actually think immediately of relationship building.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: I think that that’s super important whether it comes to building your program or having a successful program, or even creating a positive classroom environment or school culture. I want to talk a little bit about building relationships. That’s the gist of the entire podcast that we’re going to do. I know that this is a weird tangent. Actually, I should warn you up the top, man, I’m going to probably rant on every question, I’m going to rant for three or four minutes and then I’m going to turn it over to you for a simple question.

Tim: Okay. I’ll try and be succinct and give you the time you need.

Andrew: Yeah, okay. Yeah. You can counter balance me. Yeah. I know one of the staples of a job interview that a lot of people will ask is, “How important is it that your students like you?” I understand what that question is getting at. They’re trying to suss out your overall approach, your classroom management, the classroom environment that you create. Are you going to be too loose and try to be popular and fun or are you going to be on the flip side, too harsh and demand respect but then lose student’s desire to work with you and relationship building because you’re too strict? Number one, I want to ask you … This is a four parter, practically.

Tim: Okay.

Andrew: I want to ask you, how would you answer that likable question? How important is it for you to be liked?

Tim: Honestly, for me it’s not that important. I’m not out there seeking student approval. I’m not worried whether they like me or not. But, I think that if you are successful as a teacher, I think that if you are developing the right kind of environment and the right type of classroom culture, then kids are naturally going to like you. They’re going to feel welcome. They’re going to feel like they belong. They’re going to feel like you care about them. If you’re doing those things right, and those are the important things that you should be doing to be a quality teacher and I think the natural growth from that is that kids are going to like you. The natural consequence is they’re going to respect what you’re doing. They’re going to buy into that classroom culture and that environment. I don’t think we need to be out there seeking approval, but if you’re doing things right, it’s going to come.

Andrew: Yeah. And I think that’s always been my answer, too. I think there’s that falsehood that they try to get you to step into which is like, pick one of the two. It’s like, actually, of course it’s important that my students respect me, but you can have a classroom environment where your students do respect you and also like you at the same time. Like you said, if you’re just a decent human being and doing things the right way, it’ll all come together. You can have it both ways, right?

Tim: Yeah, exactly. Like I said, if you’re doing things right that’s going to come naturally.

Andrew: Right. Man, I don’t want to confess too much here, but recently my school district has had some school wide issues and actually some pretty heavy stuff that we don’t need to get into too much. But, it got me thinking that I do think that the art room is a natural place where a lot of students feel free to be themselves and stuff comes out. I want to ask you, I mean, why do you think this is? I mean, is there something to the very nature of the way that art teachers are that make us better at building these relationships with students?

Tim: I don’t know if it’s art teachers as much as it is the art classroom or the art studio, necessarily. Because, we’re spending so much time expressing ourselves. We’re spending so much time getting these ideas out and I think it’s just a natural fit. Kids feel more relaxed when they come into their classroom. They feel more of that open environment where they can be themselves. I think a lot of that’s just naturally going to come out.

The way we format our class, the way we give our kids work time, just the way we deal with all of our subject matter is very different from everything else that’s going on in school. Because if you’re in history class, if you’re in math class it looks so much different and there’s not a lot of space and there’s not a lot of time for kids to be themselves. When they come into the art room, and like I said, they can express themselves, there’s more time to talk, there’s more time for you to get to know your students to build those relationships. If you take advantage of that, then, yeah, you are going to be better at building relationships, like I said, just by the nature of what our class and what our classroom looks like.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s well put. I was actually, just today, talking to a fellow art teacher about this. Why does it seem like we get more of the students who come in during our lunch period, or after school or before school to talk to us about not just art stuff, but kind of just life stuff? I had a student tell me today, a couple students actually, they said, “Man, Mr. McCormick, you should be a counselor.” While I take that as a big compliment, I was also like, “No, thank you. I enjoy teaching art too much to then do this nonstop.” We’ll get into maybe the toll that it takes to always be building relationships with all your students.

But, I want to get back to this teacher I was talking to a little bit. She said something that I thought was really, like she put it in a really great way. Most of the classes that our students take at the secondary level, the teachers look at them and they expect that that student has nothing and knows nothing about the subject. They are an empty vessel and they’re going to sit down, be quiet, shut up and I will fill you with knowledge.

Okay, the art teacher looks at a student way, way differently. They look at a kid as filled with interest and life experiences and desires and all this stuff that makes them unique. Then we ask them, “What do you want to do with it?” We almost look at them as a vessel that is filled up and then we ask them to empty it out and then do something with it. I thought that was just a really poetic way to think about our students and how and why an art classroom feels a little bit different.

Tim: Yeah, I think so. And I think that dovetails with the point that I was making how, yeah, art class is just so much different than everything else. When we’re asking kids to bring their interest into the work they’re doing, into the message they’re trying to get across, they feel like their opinions are worthwhile. They feel like their ideas are valued. And they don’t have the opportunity to do that in a lot of other classes.

Andrew: Exactly. Okay, let me go off on this other rant because I actually think we’re agreeing that in the art room I think there’s some inherent reasons why the way that we expect our students to get involved that allows them to be a little bit more free. But, okay, I’m going to digress a little bit. My school district actually put out a survey recently to students that said, “Are there some teachers you feel connected with? Who do you feel like you can talk to?” I got this email from the counselors that said, “Your name came up an awful lot.” And I took that as a compliment. Then the email said, “What can you share with other teachers on how you are able to build relationships?” I was like, “Boy, I don’t know how to tell other people how to build relationships because I don’t know, necessarily, what it is that I am doing that makes students feel like that they can trust me and come talk to me.”

I did ask my students, “Why do you feel comfortable talking to me?” It was a weird conversation, but they actually started listing some things, which was really nice, but it got me thinking about this. Do you actually think it’s possible as a teacher who can build relationships well with students to then share with other teachers how to replicate it? I mean, is that possible to do?

Tim: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, the other teachers are never going to be as cool as the art teachers, right? But, we can share a lot of the ideas because I think a lot of the stuff that we do naturally, that’s just the outgrowth of how our classes run is stuff that other teachers can incorporate in the classroom. Like, I always have a goal of talking to each one of my students every day that I see them. You’re not always going to get to that, but if you miss them one day, hit them up the next day. Even if it’s just a hi as they come in, or just a quick question about the weekend or whatever. Just if kids know that you’re noticing them. Then, again, they’re going to feel more comfortable, they’re going to be willing to open up to you. That’s something that translates across subjects.

And I think there are a lot of other teachers outside the art room that are so focused on subject matter, and like you said, filling their kids with knowledge that they don’t take time to tell stories. They don’t take time to share a little bit about themselves. They don’t take time to converse with kids and listen to what kids have to say. Those are the simple ideas that take, what? Two, three minutes out of your class, but can build these amazing relationships. I think other teachers just need to be willing to give up a couple minutes here and there to actually talk. Have authentic conversations, like share something about themselves and when they do that, hey, that’s when kids are going to open up. That’s when those relationships are going to be built. Like I said, we probably do that better than everybody else, but it’s not something that needs to be exclusive to the art room.

Andrew: All right, Tim, those are all really good suggestions. I like the one where you said you’re going to meet with the kid every single day in your classroom. When you have those really big classes it’s tough, but let’s transition into some specific ideas for brainstorming how we build those relationships. I know we both could honestly say an easy one, which is like, get to know your kids. It takes time. That is a great starting point. But I’m wondering if you and I both probably have some things that we do that are maybe a little unusual, or maybe outside the box ways that we can say that we build those relationships.

Tim: Yeah, I mean I think there’s stuff out there and I’m sure you’re like this, but I always just do weird and crazy stuff with kids. And I’ve written a lot of articles about our under water photo shoot and our paint fights and all sorts of just crazy stuff. You don’t need to go level 10 with the craziness, but I think those kinds of shared experiences between you and your kids or even just your students working with each other collaboratively or just going through a really cool project together really starts to build that community and starts to build that culture that you’re looking for.

If you can find really cool experiences whether it’s just going outside to draw for a day or coming up with a really cool group project that they all work on together or just anything that gets kids to try out new experiences, try them with their friends or with the other kids in their class. Those sorts of ideas are things that go a really long way, like I said, in building that culture that you’re looking for. It allows kids to feel more comfortable, express themselves. And eventually it comes back to, like you said, just getting to know your kids. If you can facilitate those experiences, I think that goes a long way to building those relationships.

Andrew: Yeah, I think those are really good. The funny thing I was telling you about that email I got and there’s a part of me that’s like, “Gosh, I don’t know what I do.” Then, there were a handful of kids in my classroom at the time, I just said, “Hey, why do you think I build decent relationships with you guys.” They started listing some things and then that got me thinking of some things that I wonder if maybe not everyone does. One of the things that I think I’ve been doing a lot this year, I don’t know, I think I mentioned this to some students that I’m taking a class with, through AOE. I usually have every year a mantra or a tagline of where I think the school year’s going.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: The tagline, the mantra for this year has been, “Release the diva.” Because man, I get real, real, ranty in my classes and I get, I’ll snap and I will just, I’ll wag my finger sometimes because I can get real, real salty, real fast. It’s because I’m finding that I have a whole culture that I’m trying to correct and sort of balease. I had one today. I had a girl show up. I mean, she has a notorious issue for showing up late for class. I’m not just talking a little bit late, I’m talking showing up five minutes left in a 43 minute class. You’re showing up 38 minutes late. Now, I could punish her, and I think punishment is overrated. That’s one of those things that I talk about with my students. That punishment is overrated. I want you to see this as a learning experience.

Instead, I’m talking to this young lady and I’m getting real, real ranty about this culture that I have which is, “Well, it’s not important. It’s just art class. Why are you breathing down my neck? It’s just art class.” That’s when I had to release the diva and the diva came out and I got just real, real salty. I think kids like that. They like seeing that you can be upset or ticked off. Then at the same time sometimes I’ll just have to say, “Hey, I know you guys don’t all deserve that little spiel, that little rant, but I think it’s important that we hear this.”

Sometimes I will even have to walk things back. I will make mistakes, or I will come off too hard or too salty to a kid and I will then apologize. I apologized to another kid today because I’m like, “Man, I feel like I’ve been riding you hard the last three days. But, the reason I’m doing it, I’m not doing it to be a jerk, I just want to see you have success in this class.” I think kids really appreciate that, that you can take a step back and talk to them like here is why I’m doing this, okay? You do that in a moment when you’re not real, real emotional, sometimes and I think that that can help kids understand where you’re coming from. If they know that you have their back and you have their best interest, that builds relationships.

With this young lady who was super late to class, she was being a little defiant, a little disrespectful and I said, “Hold on. Do you want me to be a good teacher right now, or a bad teacher right now?” I have found that that question has been working a lot to get kids to diffuse a little bit and see things from my situation. Because every single time I ask that question they look at me weird and they say, “I want you to be a good teacher.” I say, “Okay, well it means me holding you accountable and talking to you about your behavior or your attitude or the quality of your work. Because if I don’t do those things I am being a bad teacher.” And I think that they understand that. Okay, I’ve been talking for five minutes right now and I’m sorry. But I’ve got one more thing I’ve got to say.

Tim: Okay.

Andrew: This has served me well over the 12 years I’ve been teaching. I am very serious about not being serious and I make fun of myself all the time. I will be the butt of my own jokes. I will laugh, I will dance, do stupid things because I’m trying to create an environment where the students understand that we’re in this together. I’m trying to erode that power structure of I have all the authority and you’re my underlings and you’ll do what I say. When they know that I can joke at myself and I can have fun at my own expense, it allows them to put down their guard and their defenses a little bit. I think that that has worked really, really well. That’s why I call myself a diva sometimes. That’s why I listen to Kesha almost at least once a week, if not more because it’s like sometimes you’ve just got to be a little zany and a little funny in the classroom.

Tim: Yeah. My theory has always been you can do that without listening to Kesha, but I think it’s worthwhile to, yeah, let yourself make mistakes, let yourself be real. Just be who you are. Be authentic. Let your personality show through and kids respect that, they value that and it’s a huge part of creating the culture you want.

Andrew: Man, and that’s the other thing that came up. I’m sorry to keep talking about these specifics, but the kids said, “You allow us to have real talk, real conversations.” Maybe we’re going to skew past PG-13 into R rated, I won’t get too explicit here, but this year I have had more conversations about sex, drugs, rock and roll with my kids than I’ve ever had. As a teacher of teenagers, right? Adolescents, older kids, you can not shy away from those things because if they don’t feel that they can, that they’re going to get in trouble for the slightest mention of things that teenagers have been doing since the dawn of time, well, where else are they going to get real adult feedback on that stuff, right?

When I hear a kid talk about who did what over the weekend with whom or go in trouble for doing this and that, I don’t squash that conversation right away. Now, I tell them, “I want this conversation to be had at a modest volume.” And I get into that conversation right away. Now, some people might, “That’s eaves dropping.” Or, “You’re putting yourself in that conversation.” Would you rather have a group of teenagers talking about all of this stuff with nothing but teenagers and all of the stupid misconceptions and preconceived dumb ideas that they might have? Or, do you want a grownup involved in that conversation saying, “You know what? Maybe you should not have done that. I don’t think that you’re a horrible person for making that mistake, but can we learn something from that mistake?”

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew: I think that’s what kids understand is that I will allow them to make a crap ton of mistakes. I don’t hold it against them. I don’t pass judgment on them and come the next day I’ve already forgotten all the mistakes that they made and it’s a clean slate. Because I think when kids walk through that door of every classroom that they have, they want to be listened to, and they want to be loved. I think every teacher needs to provide that for their kids. That’s why when I looked at that email I was like, “Man, this is pretty common sense. Just be there for your kids.” I agree with you, I think sometimes we get teachers who are so in love with their content or think that the content comes first that they forget about some of the needs that their students have and some of the relationships that you have to build to even get to that content.

Tim: Yeah. I think so. And, I think, I don’t know. Going back to some of the more adult conversations that happen in your room. When I was first teaching at the high school level, I was really scared of those conversations going on in my room. I used to quash those things immediately. Then, I remember talking to another new teacher who was super nervous about answering a kids question about something or other and she told them to, “You need to ask a trusted adult about that.” I’m like, “You are the trusted adult.” A lot of kids don’t have anyone to talk to about that kind of stuff. Yeah, it’s definitely a fine line as far as what you can and what you should talk about. But, kids need guidance and I’m not afraid to step into those conversations if you feel like it can serve a greater good. I think we’re on the same page there.

Andrew: Yeah, I think, which is, I mean, they do. They need guidance. I see my kids making so many mistakes and they don’t have someone to process it with. It’s like I don’t go searching out any of this stuff. Believe you, me, I want to come to work every day and have all of my classes super studious and super into their art work, but man, when stuff arises I have to handle it because if by not handling it and not addressing it in a grownup way you’re just adding fuel to the fire.

Tim: Yeah. Yup.

Andrew: Okay. We can talk about all of this stuff forever, but I want to switch gears just a little bit. Let’s say you are a super empath. You just, kids confess to you all the time. You have great relationships with your students. You have great relationships with all your students. They’re coming in for lunch and after school. Do you ever worry that it takes a toll on us? I mean, we, who are these big hearted people, do kids take advantage of us? Do we feel drained by the end of the day? Can you talk a little bit about maybe some downsides of this?

Tim: Yeah, I don’t think that kids are trying to take advantage of us. I honestly don’t think they know any better. They’re coming to you because they trust you, because they like you but absolutely it can drain you. I am not a people person. I don’t love hanging out with a bunch of kids in my spare time, but it’s something they need. They obviously need that attention. They obviously need that adult in their life. Maybe it is a sacrifice for you and it can be draining, but I think it’s worthwhile. I mean, everyone of us got into teaching because we like kids, because we want to work with kids, and that’s just another opportunity to do that. Even if it does wear you out, even if it does exhaust you, even if it does drain you, I think every one of us can agree that it’s worthwhile.

Andrew: It’s totally worthwhile. I’ve been saying this a lot to my students the last couple weeks. There can be two things simultaneously true at the same time that one would think was mutually exclusive. I had to tell a couple of my classes this. It’s like, you all are frustrating the heck out of me right now. And you are driving me crazy and I am on you to try to act better and make better work. And I might come across as angry right now, and I am frustrated, but I also love you to death, right?

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew: Two things can be true at the same time. Yes, it can take a toll on us, but yes we still have to do it because if we don’t do it, what is the other option? Then you’re like that teacher who’s like, “Go talk to someone you trust.” What if they don’t have a lot of those people? Then you’re just sending this message to this student that these feelings or these worries, concerns are not something that you can talk about and you just missed out on a golden opportunity to build a relationship with this kid. Here’s the thing with building relationships, I know sometimes people might look at it as squishy and mushy. You know what? If you can build a relationship with a kid right off the bat, there’s not then a whole lot of stuff that you need to do to make sure that that relationship sticks. You know what I mean?

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew: If you can put in a little front loading at the beginning, build a good relationship with the kid, it’s not like you need to have a Dr. Phil come to Jesus meeting with that kid every single day of the week. It’s like you’ve proven to that kid that you’re someone that they can confide in. You’ve built a good relationship. And once you’ve done that, you can have that student do such greater things. You can push them to greater heights than you can a student that you do not have a relationship with, right? In the long run, building these things upfront really goes towards even better quality of work. More students involved in your program. It’s like a win-win-win situation.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. I think all of those points that you made, I mean it shows how essential that relationship building is. I don’t think it’s something that anybody can or should dismiss because, I mean, it’s the right thing to do as a teacher. And if you want your program to be successful, you need that culture and you need kids to have a good relationship with the teacher.

Andrew: Yeah. Okay, let’s get you out of here on this because I’m just ranting your ear off here. I’m just talking at you now. I’m on my high horse, here. I would say that most art teachers are your naturally creative, zany, empathetic spirits, right? But every once in a while we bump into art teachers who maybe are not the most charismatic or people person type of teachers. I wonder about those teachers who feel like relationship building does not come naturally to them. What advice would you give to an art teacher like that? I mean, as they listen to this podcast and they hear us talking about being this open hearted person, do they just have to fake it till they make it? Do they have to find another teacher in the building who has those traits and model some of their classroom management strategies after that person?

Tim: I would not suggest that, honestly. I think it really is about being authentic, being yourself. Even if building relationships doesn’t come naturally to you, you still need to have conversations with your kids. You still need to talk to them. You still need to encourage them. You still need to ask them about their interest in themselves just for what you’re creating in the art room. I think just in the course of teaching, in the course of developing ideas, doing projects, those ideas are going to come out. Just let those conversations happen. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, like I said, in the course of your teaching, you’re going to be able to build relationships. That’s one of the beauties of art class because what we do is something that naturally builds those relationships. Like I said, even if you’re struggling with it, just let those conversations happen and eventually you’re going to be on the path to getting where you need to go with relationship building.

Andrew: Andrew M.: Yeah, that’s well put, man. I think for those people, you have to be authentic. That was a red herring type of question there. No one would advise someone to fake it till they make it. Students can smell inauthentic people, right? They can smell when you’re being inauthentic.

Tim: Absolutely.

Andrew: Some people might build relationships quickly. Like, I just got a new student with five weeks left of school and I’m like, “Seriously?” I’m like, okay, let’s take it as it is. Let’s make the best of the situation. After the first day she told me, “You’re my all time favorite teacher.”

Tim: Oh my god.

Andrew: Andrew M.: It’s like, “You’ve known me for 43 minutes. Either you’re lying or you’ve had nothing but not great teachers in your life. How can you say that?” I’m joking a little bit because I do think for some people it does come naturally, and I do think for people who it doesn’t, be true to yourself and it will just take a little bit longer. Then, like you said, because of the nature of art, it will eventually come around.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely.

Andrew: All right, man. Thanks for coming on. I really enjoyed this talk. Thanks for letting me release the diva here a little bit. I appreciate it.

Tim: Yeah. It’s good to listen to you rant for a while.

Andrew: Andrew M.: All right, take care man. Bye.

Tim: All right, we’ll talk to you later.

Andrew: That was a really long one. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I really appreciate the audience as I rant to Tim a little bit there. Make sure you take some time the last few weeks of the school year and still try to build and maintain those relationships. Tell your classes that you’re excited to see them come back next year even if maybe you’re stretching the truth a little bit with a few of those students. Build those relationships and the rest will all come really easily after that.

Art Ed Radio is developed and produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. We’ve had a pretty tough week here at my school district. We’re actually dealing with the loss of a student. I just want to take a little bit of time here to tell you all, all you teachers out there that your job is so important. And that your students are super important. They might drive us crazy from time to time and they may disappoint us sometimes with their youthful indiscretions and poor judgment, but let them know every day that they are safe, and that they are loved in your classroom. All right, guys, thank you for listening.



Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.