Some of my most valuable teaching experiences did not take place in a classroom, or in a lab or even on a campus. I actually gained much of my teaching experience from coaching functional fitness at a CrossFit gym as an undergraduate. While content delivered was dissimilar to horticulture, I became a better public speaker, learned how to effectively communicate to a broad audience and learned how to build positive relationship with the audience. Of the aforementioned acquired skills, the latter seems to be often overlooked in pedagogy: how do we foster positive relationships with our students?

First, why is a good student-instructor relationship beneficial? In “Small Changes in Teaching: The Minutes Before Class” (The Chronicle of Higher Education), James Lang shares the student-response after a colleague took the time to build relationships with her students throughout the semester: “Students were more talkative in discussions. The atmosphere in class took on a more positive, productive tone, and she felt more connected to her students — even the ones who normally liked to hide out in the back row.” Personally, in addition to improved student engagement, I’ve noticed that I have fewer honor code violations when I am more conscious about maintaining a good rapport with my students. I think most would agree that as long as the relationship is ethically sound, a good instructor-student connection can facilitate learning.

Second, how can we develop and maintain these positive relationships with students? The method I’ve adopted for my classes is derived from a coaching technique we used at the gym called “off-the-floor coaching” (similar to the method described by Lang’s colleague). At the gym, “off-the-floor coaching” normally takes place the 10 mins before and after coaching a class, and we use this time to get to know clients. Doing so builds client-trust and enables the coach to tailor the workout to the needs of the client. Likewise, in the classroom, I’ll spend the five minutes before class to chat with students (I should note that I only have 10-15 students). The conversation normally relates to the course, but not always. Regardless of the topic, the small talk makes me seem more approachable, and students seem to feel more comfortable asking and answering questions.

My question to you is this: do you have any experiences outside of the classroom that has made you a better teacher? What, specifically, did you learn that you have integrated into the classroom?