Positive Relationships & a Safer Classroom

Element Partner Activity cards

One of my favorite times of the year (other than early June, when I attend the AP Chemistry Reading) is late August, which marks the beginning of the school year in Albemarle County, Virginia. I have been teaching high school chemistry for 20 years, and I absolutely love my job. There are many reasons for me to look forward to a new school year. For one, I get to meet a new group of students who haven’t heard all of my bad science puns (e.g., I’m sorry I dropped that beaker of potassium chlorate. It was an oxidant.)

I would like to share my thoughts about positive relationships as well as some of the activities that I do on the first day of school to make connections with my students. If your school year has already begun, remember that it’s never too late to reflect on ways to improve classroom climate. A teacher can hold a class meeting at any point during the year to talk with students about what’s working and what isn’t.
 

No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship. 

                ~ James Comer

 

Teacher-Student

There have been many articles written on the importance of establishing positive teacher-student relationships.1-3 In Rita Pierson’s popular TED talk, she mentions this quote from James Comer.

“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

On the first day of school, I use a get-to-know-you activity that involves a little chemistry information. It helps me to send the message to my students that they are important members of our classroom community. Before class starts, I print out a copy of the “Element Partners” sheet* and cut it up into small cards. See Figure 1. Each card has either the name of an element or the description of that element. I make sure that each card is paired with its match and that the number of cards is equal to the number of students in the class. (If I have an odd number of students, I add one more card to the total and join in as a participant.) I ask each student to pick one of the cards at random. Then I tell them to walk around the room and find their partner. A student who has a card with the name of an element tries to find the student with the matching element description (and vice versa). Students can usually find their partners on their own, but I walk among them and listen to their conversations, in case anyone needs me to verify their matches.

Teacher Tip: This method for assigning small groups randomly can be used to introduce new content or to review things they have already learned. A few examples of information that could be written on the cards include stoichiometry calculations, electron configurations, or chemical formulas. This activity is flexible and can be used to divide the class into groups of 2, 3, or 4. It’s much more interesting to hear students discussing chemistry content as they get sorted into groups than to hear them “count off” one number at a time.

 

           Figure 1 - Sample set of cards for Element Partners Activity.

 

Once each student has found his/her partner, the two of them sit next to each other and fill out the “Student Information Sheet”* together. I ask them to write clearly, because I will be reading their papers later to learn more about them. I remind them that anything written on these sheets should be information that they feel comfortable sharing with the rest of the class. Instead of asking students to talk about themselves, I ask each student to introduce his/her partner to the class by reading the information on the sheet. I start with “Team Hydrogen” and then call on the other groups to share, proceeding in order of atomic number. To minimize some of the stress associated with public speaking, I allow them to remain seated if they prefer. I ask them to use a clear, loud voice so that everyone can hear what they’re saying.

Teacher Tip: One of the reasons that I prefer to have each student introduce his/her partner to the class is that I can avoid the risk of mispronouncing someone’s name on the first day of class.

I take pictures of my students on the first day. Some students might find this annoying or embarrassing, but I remind them that these pictures will help me to learn their names more quickly. I also have each student enter their e-mail address into a spreadsheet on my computer. I know that many teachers use the Remind app to send out text messages, but I prefer to I use e-mail to communicate with my students throughout the year.
 

 

The next thing I do is to show students a lab safety video. I highlight various features of the classroom that are related to lab safety.

The discussion of lab safety leads right into our next activity: the “SDS Inquiry Challenge” from Flinn Scientific. The first part is a demo in which I add tap water to what appears to be an empty Erlenmeyer flask. Then I proceed to light the liquid in the flask on fire. Wait! How can this be? Is water really flammable? I try to convince them that water contains hydrogen, which is a flammable gas. However, most students won’t accept this explanation and know that this must be a trick. They are curious and want to know how I did it. I tell them that prior to starting the demo, I had added about 2 mL of a mysterious liquid to the flask. Then I show them the Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for ethylene dichloride, hexanes, and isopropyl alcohol. Students have to use the SDS information to identify the mysterious liquid and justify their answer.

The links to the teacher guide and the video for the SDS Inquiry Challenge are listed below.

 

On the second day of class, before I start teaching chemistry content, I give my students a short “quiz” (just for fun). I ask them to take out a sheet of paper and number it from 1 to X (where X = the number of students in the class). This quiz consists of a series of facts about each student. The student information comes directly from the sheets that they filled out on the first day. It’s fun to watch them guess the identity of each student as I display each fact on the board.

In addition to teacher-student relationships, there are two other examples of positive interactions that are worth mentioning.

Student-Student

Creating a positive environment can be beneficial when students work in small groups. Cooperative learning activities provide students with the opportunity to have discussions and compare different strategies for solving a problem. They can help each other to clarify their understanding of the material. By asking conceptual questions and using the strategy of peer instruction (popularized by Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur), I can encourage students to explain their thinking and justify their answers. Peer instruction, think-pair-share, or jigsaw activities can help students to reach those little “aha” moments as they make sense of their learning. Teachers may find it helpful to model the sort of behaviors that they want their students to demonstrate during group work by displaying respect, courtesy, and active listening when interacting with students.

Teacher-Teacher

Depending on the availability of other chemistry teachers in the same school division, a chemistry teacher may find it challenging to find colleagues with whom to share ideas. Developing positive relationships with other teachers is very important, especially for those who are just starting out in their careers. Fortunately, these interactions don’t have to be face-to-face. Teachers can join professional organizations such as the American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Conferences such as the ACS National and Regional Meetings and the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education (BCCE)** are great ways for teachers to get connected and learn from each other. Chemistry teachers can also have discussions and share ideas with colleagues on Facebook and Twitter. Of course there is ChemEd X, which is a valuable resource for teachers.

Conclusion

Bill Daggett (of the International Center for Leadership in Education) has a philosophy of education that focuses on three basic principles: rigor, relevance and relationships. (I may choose to discuss rigor and relevance in another blog post.) Establishing positive teacher-student relationships is important for creating a sense of community and belonging. I use humor, science demonstrations, and engaging hands-on activities to help students enjoy the process of learning chemistry. I want them to be curious and ask lots of questions. I remind them that it’s okay to make mistakes, and I encourage them to focus on self-improvement. I show students that I respect them, I value their contributions to class, and I care about their success. Learning chemistry can be challenging, and it may require lots of time and effort for some students to grasp certain concepts. If I have established a positive classroom climate, then my students are more likely to do the work required to be successful.

Even though relationships are important in education, they are not the only thing that a teacher needs to think about in order to be effective. Good teaching involves making important decisions about what to teach, how to teach, and how to determine if students have learned it. (I may choose to share my ideas about curriculum, instruction, and assessment in another blog post.) The main reason that I care about making connections with students is that I don’t want to fall into the trap of being that frustrated teacher who complains, “I did my job. I taught it. My students just didn’t learn it.”

Resources

(1) Edwards, Sarah and Nancy A. Edick. “Culturally Responsive Teaching For Significant Relationships.” Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education, vol. 7, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-18.

(2) Boynton, Mark and Christine Boynton. “Developing Positive Teacher-Student Relations.” The Educator’s Guide to Preventing and Solving Discipline Problems. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.

(3) Cornelius-White, Jeffrey. “Learner-Centered Teacher-Student Relationships Are Effective: A Meta-Analysis” Review of Educational Research. vol. 77, no. 1, 2007, pp. 113-143

 

*The “Element Partners” sheet and the “Student Information Sheet” have been included in the Supporting Information below.

**If you are considering attending BCCE 2020, you can register to receive notifications at https://bcce2020.org.