1. Connection before content

HeadsUp! Did you know “Strong teacher student relationships shape the way children think and act in school” (Evidence Based Teaching)

It’s the beginning of another year, a time where the energy is electric, there is both nervous anticipation and genuine excitement about the year ahead. The students are rapt to see each other, meet their new teacher and get their year underway. Eager footsteps run into the gym (even after you’ve said walk ten times!!) to start their first PE lesson, just as excited/anxious as them you say good morning, looking around and thinking - shit… I actually don’t know many of the students in this class…

Surely we’ve all been there? And with week 1 right around the corner, many of us are about to be placed in that exact situation.

What I wanted to write about first off was relationship building and how I go about forming relationships with the students in my classes. I’m certainly no expert on the matter - but when I look back on how I first started, I think I could’ve done better and feel something like this may have helped me.

I’m going to throw it back a little to when I first started my teaching, back in 2016. That’s right, it was only recently, and from that some people may think ‘why is this bloke writing a blog when he’s barely been in the profession..?’, but that’s a story for another time.

I remember questioning my choice to be a PE teacher on multiple occasions within the first few months of taking the job - even though it was something I’d always dreamt of becoming. I remember students coming into the gym and having no real idea who they were, students becoming frustrated within lessons or getting upset and not knowing how to connect with that student because I didn’t know what made them tick. I wondered ‘what am I doing wrong?’. Now when I reflect on that, I was probably trying too hard to be a ‘teacher’ and not giving enough attention to forming relationships with individuals within the class.

I became jealous of the rapport classroom teachers had with their students. To me, it literally felt like I was a babysitter once a week to kids I barely knew while the classroom teacher got stuff done - and this is no reflection on the culture of the school, but how I felt as the students came to PE and I didn’t know them.

Funny though how time moves on and feelings change. As I sit here ready to commence 2019, I’m so thankful for my position. I now see that as a PE teacher you have so many opportunities to build relationships with your students, and the best part is, these can be built over many years as we often don't need to say goodbye at years end unless we teach Year 6 students. We actually have a position (as PE specific teachers or Specialist in general) to build relationships over years that could potentially be the envy of classroom teachers - not that this is any motivation or incentive as we all know that the best way to work with students is in a collaborative nature.

Over the years of working within the field teaching and coaching, the importance of relationships has always been highlighted. Starting with my work overseas at the International Sports Training Camp, where the campers were the focus of all decisions made. During orientation (staff training) for the camp, the Camp Director would do a demonstration on the importance of putting the kids first. With numerous sized rocks sitting on a table and one single, empty jar, he would fill the jar with all the rocks. The largest rocks had to go first, if these rocks didn’t go first, then they would not fit in the jar. The large rocks would go in, followed by the other, smaller rocks, that would fill the gaps around the larger ones. I cannot remember the exact story and what all the rocks symbolized, but what sticks in my mind is that the largest rocks, which were referred to as ‘the kids’ - had to go first. So throughout the summer the focus was always on ‘putting the big rocks first’ - in other words, the kids come first, they’re the most important thing. If you're ever with me and you hear me refer to the ‘big rocks’, that’s the students.

Similarly, over the past few years, I have attended the ACHPERVIC conference at Monash University and have been fortunate enough to listen to Mark Collard speak about the importance of ‘connection before content’. How we need to establish positive relationships with the students we are working with in order to get the very best results. I couldn't agree more with this approach and will often use games from https://www.playmeo.com/ at the beginning of the year to help form connections.

If you need ideas on games that help build relationships, jump on the Playmeo webpage and use some of the games, you won’t regret it!

Furthermore, here are a few other ways I try and build positive relationships with the students that I teach. Some of these, or all of them, may be common sense to some of you, but hopefully I can share an idea or two and help someone out there in the teaching world.

  1. Join in and have fun - being a PE teacher gives us the unique opportunity to join in and play games with the students. At the beginning of the year I’ll give students ‘Free Play’ time, in which they can choose a piece of equipment and simply play with it while music plays. This presents the perfect opportunity to start establishing relationships and having fun - it’s amazing how quickly having fun can break down a students anxiousness to chat to their new teacher. Not only is it beneficial for the teacher, but it gives students the opportunity to play with others in the class and begin forming their relationships. Don’t stop there - I’m not saying join in for the entire lessons, because you’ll miss teaching moments - but there are definitely times that you can jump in and enjoy an activity with the class.

  2. Be yourself - you may have heard the saying “Don’t smile until easter.” This is the biggest load of rubbish you’ll hear. Be yourself and greet the students with a smile and a high five. Alternatively, have an option of different greetings students can choose and let them decide how you’ll greet each other. I’m not sure where this started but it’s been shared on Facebook and Twitter a lot - I’ve created my own one that is available to download for free on TpT. I’ve also seen videos of Andy Hair where he makes up handshakes with those that enter the gym on the spot. Be creative! The students will love it.

  3. Ask questions and actually listen to the answer. Simple. Ask and Listen. Listen to the students when they tell stories or ask what they are interested in. Sitting and chatting while the kids eat their lunch is the perfect time, or as you walk to your gym or playing area, have a ‘walk and talk time’. A time in which students can chat to each other about a specific topic or weekend highlights. (I had a very chatty Year 4 class last year on a Monday morning, ‘walk and talk’ time was great, we’d walk a lap of our oval on the way in to the gym so the students could catch up and spill all the news prior to getting to the gym. They would actually ask to do it when I’d arrive to their classroom).

  4. Use the roll to your benefit - as you go through the roll, make it interactive. Eg. When I say your name, tell me your favourite Sport/Colour/Animal/Ice cream flavour/Season/Sports team/Music/Hobby/Game/Subject, etc. I love doing this, but had to draw the line at ‘tell us your favourite joke’, we lost half a lesson.

  5. Take time out to play in the yard at Snack and Lunch Time. Last year I declared myself Beyblade Champion and 4-square champion of the school. I was far from it, but the kids love having the opportunity to verse you in something that they choose and seeing you in a relaxed environment. Even eat your lunch outside - crazy idea I know, eating out ‘there’ with the feral kids, but it will help build relationships.

  6. Relax. I know when I first started I was too focused on being the ‘teacher’ and didn’t have time to have a laugh with the kids. “Stand in line. No talking. Follow me” and I’d march my battalion off into battle. This wasn’t me, and thankfully I changed my approach. Now walks to gym are filled with follow the leader, walk and talk and coming soon - lower level Parkour fun. It’s this approach that has me earning the nickname ‘Mr Silly’ from Preps every year. (3 years in and every year the Preps come out with it).

  7. Give them time. I jumped the gun when I started and was impatient. The relationships will form, but like everything, they take time and can’t be forced.

  8. Show that you care. Take the time to listen to students if they are down, hurt or want to chat. Even if they’re misbehaving - there is often a reason as to why they are acting that way. Take the time to find out.

  9. Do what works for you. Some of these things may work, some of them may not. You may have your own things already - of which I’d love to hear! Be yourself and do what works for you.

I’m not sure if this helps anyone out there, or if it’s just me reminding and reassuring myself that week 1 isn’t so scary and that when it rolls around I’ll be absolutely a-okay.

Relationships are integral to having a successful lesson. I’m not saying that teachers need to be best friends with students, but building positive relationships will go a long way and this is how I approach that. If you give any of these things a go, or have your own little approaches to building relationships, please share. There are some amazing ideas out there and not for one second do I think I’m an expert, I just wanted to share my approach thus far and how I got there.