In the beginning weeks of class, respond to each student individually. I find that students need the special attention as they are feeling their way in a new learning environment; moreover, I have seen clear evidence that these personal responses lay the foundation for healthy student-teacher relationships.
Use appropriate “feelings” phrases when students are experiencing personal issues such as death of family members, personal illness, or financial crises. Students appreciate hearing phrases like “I’m sorry for your loss”, “I’m hoping for a positive change in your situation”, or “I care about your situation”. Upon using these kinds of phrases, students always express how much the words mean to them.
Reach out to students you haven’t heard from with words suggesting that they are missed. Often students go “MIA” without telling their professors. Once they return, I’ve been known to say things like “we’ve missed seeing you in class”, “so happy you’re back with us”, or “it hasn’t been the same without you”. Invariably, I will get a note back expressing their appreciation.
When students appear to be stressed or anxious, allow yourself to become transparent. I’ve discovered that the revelation of my own stressful situations serves as a source of encouragement to students. For example, on several occasions, single mothers have shared their difficulties in balancing responsibilities related to schoolwork, children, and parents. In each case, once I reveal my story of working on my dissertation as a single parent and taking care of my mother, I notice a remarkable difference in the students’ overall willingness to move forward.
Mix in humor with challenging concepts and assignments. Very often, higher education students carry an overarching expectation that everything associated with learning must always be rigid and serious; however, I often take the liberty of inserting humor to soften the intensity of some of the more challenging assignments. For example, when introducing students to concepts about APA rules, I post a silly song called the APA Blues. The students find themselves singing along laughing at the lyrics, and as a result, the humor works to dismantle some of the uneasiness that may exist around the topic.