Building Relationships with Students

Laurie Friedman

Shaking Hands

“All change happens through human relationships.” This is a central value of the social work profession, embedded in our Code of Ethics and weaved through our curriculum. The importance of relationships has been an integral component in my effectiveness as a therapist, a manager, and, currently, an educator. Students come to us with a myriad of personal, professional, and educational experiences, skills, and goals. Developing relationships with students allows us to know our students as human beings who have responsibilities and experiences outside our classrooms with thoughts and emotions that are connected to how they learn in our classrooms. Relationships increase our ability to support students’ learning and remind us of the joys of teaching as we forge deeper connections with fellow humans. Ingraham and colleagues (2018) found that the relationships between students and faculty is a fundamental factor in students’ success in undergraduate nursing programs.

Investing in relationships takes purposeful effort, the first of which is creating a supportive environment where students feel valued and respected. Granitz, Koernig and Harich’s (2009) conceptual model of faculty-student rapport consists of approachability, caring and shared ideas/values. More specifically, I have found this means sharing aspects of my own life outside of the classroom, including my interests, commitments, and mistakes. We can forget how intimidating our titles, with a plethora of letters after our names, can appear to students. Reminding students we were once in their seats–that we, too, have personal lives–is central to developing relationships that facilitate shared learning. Smith (2015) notes he found balancing sharing aspects of his personal life enhanced his effectiveness as a teacher.

Gremler and Gwinner (2000) note we develop rapport with students when we establish personal connections and share enjoyable interactions. Following are more specific suggestions we can integrate into our on-campus and online classes.

Start at the beginning

We never get a second chance to make a first impression, which speaks to the importance of our communication with students prior to the first class session.

  • Embed a 3-4 minute introductory video within our course Canvas site. These videos can include information on how to address us, why we enjoy teaching this class, tips for success, and a bit of personal information about our interests and hobbies outside of academia. The videos decrease student anxiety about the course and assist them in seeing us as approachable.
  • Send a welcome email to students at least one week before the start of class that invites students to contribute to the course syllabus and share information on challenges they are facing (i.e. caregiving responsibilities for family members, physical/mental health concerns, upcoming personal commitments) and how we may be able to support them. These invitations signal we are cognizant that they have lives outside the classroom which often impact their learning, and that learning is a social, communal experience. Using inclusive language signifies that all students are welcome in our classrooms.
  • Incorporate aspects of a promising syllabus. The syllabus is our learning contract; its language and tone communicates an invitation to students to join us on a common endeavor over the course of the semester.

First day of class

A quick google search yields an abundance of resources for first day of class activities, for both online and campus based classes. Ice-breakers do just that, breaking down barriers and forcing us to engage with one another. In larger classes, we can use small groups to engage students with each other, and circulate among the groups. I find that ice breakers also yield nuggets of information we can tuck away and, as the semester progresses, we can use these nuggets to demonstrate to students that we care about them and their learning as individuals. Introductory discussion boards on the learning management system, where students respond to a specific prompt, can also facilitate this process. I take notes on students’ interests and review them before each subsequent class as a reminder of what students have told me. This includes notations of who is caring for a mother in chemo, who has experience working in a hospital setting, and who noted she doesn’t know anything about policy. For example, this year a student mentioned in class that she enjoys rock climbing. When I happened to listen to a podcast about adventure-based social work, I made this connection and shared it with her.

Learn Names

Depending on our workload, we may hundreds of students, which can make learning names even more challenging. Yet, knowing our students’ names aids us in making connections between the individual emailing us and the individual participating in our class. Using names signals that we have taken the time to recognize the person as an individual with a unique set of experiences, knowledge, and skills to contribute to our class. Ice breakers that entail students’ sharing their names are helpful on the first day of class. Additionally, I have found using table tents the first few weeks of class to be incredibly helpful, where students write their names on both sides so they, too, can learn each other’s names. Since the table tents are there, I use their names when I call on them in class or invite them to share their name when speaking.

I also make a habit of arriving to class, in person or online, 10 minutes early and remaining present during breaks so that I can have mini-conversations with students. In small or large classes, these individual touch points afford me another opportunity to connect with them individually, which helps in remembering their names. I also have found that making notes about the pronunciation of students’ names, and when their preferred names don’t match what’s on the roster, is integrally important. I keep the sticky note with these notations with my class notes, so they are easily accessible.


Relationships need to be cultivated over time. While we are not our students’ counselors, caring about their learning coincides with caring about them as human beings. Lang (2016) notes that “emotions, attitudes, and other attributes intersect with both teaching and learning” (p. 161). In short, caring matters. Students who sense this are more likely to reach out to us with questions. I’m consistently reminded about how my small actions are meaningful to students and build the foundation for us to have deeper, more honest conversations about their progress and learning. For example, I had a student mention that she was moving from New York to Philadelphia over the summer break. When I asked if she had settled in the following semester, she noted how important this was to her. Another student in an online course commented during class that she was nervous about seeing her first client in counseling, doubting her ability to be a social worker and generally unsettled three weeks into the semester. I followed up with an email and we arranged a 15 minute phone call the following week. I then mailed her some old counseling materials I had sitting in my office. She sent a message thanking me for my time, sharing how useful the materials had been, and specifically noted she appreciated I cared enough to send them.

We teach because we believe in the importance of our disciplines’ content and our students’ abilities to apply the knowledge and skills into their lives outside of our classroom. To support them in this process, it’s integral we remember, our students are human beings, with complex and diverse lives. We need to treat them as such when we teach them.


Granitz, N., Koernig, S., & Harich, K. (2009). Now it’s personal: Antecedents and outcomes of rapport between business faculty and their students. Journal of Marketing Education. 31(1).

Gremlin, D., & Gwinner, K. (2000). Customer-Employee rapport in service relationships. Journal of Service Research. 3(1), p. 82-104.

Ingraham, K., Davidson, S., & Yonge, O. (2018). Student-faculty relationships and its impact on academic outcomes. Nurse Education Today. 71, p. 17-21.

Lang, J. (2016). Small Teaching. Josey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.

Smith, B. (2015). The evolution of my rapport: One professor’s journey to building successful instructor/student relationships. College Teaching, 63(2). P. 35-36.

Laurie Friedman is Assistant Professor of Instruction at Temple’s College of Public Health and a Faculty Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

Public domain image from pxhere.

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