Building Relationships with Honest and Open Letters to Students

I want every child to know that when they walk in my room they are seen as an individual, a child, and as a valued member of our community. Creating this environment takes time and begins on day one of the school year.

Like most teachers I was profoundly impacted by a former teacher who inspired me to go into the field of education. My third grade teacher had a way of showing us she cared about us as individuals. She routinely asked us about our lives and took time to actually listen to our responses. I can’t tell what learned in third grade, but I can tell you how she made me feel: safe, loved, and respected.

As a fifth grade teacher my top priority is instilling those same core feelings in my students. I want every child to know that when they walk in my room they are seen as an individual, a child, and as a valued member of our community. Creating this environment takes time and begins on day one of the school year. For the past eight years my first day of school has consisted of a letter writing activity that sets the tone for the year to come.

 

The letter is written the night before school begins. I take the time to reflect on how I am feeling and I write an honest and open letter, never reusing the previous year’s letter. I have shared my fears (like last year when my son was beginning kindergarten), my joys (pregnancies, accomplishments, summer vacations, etc.), and my hopes for the year. After reading the letter I ask my students to take time to respond by telling me how they feel at that very moment. I want to know what they’re excited about, if there’s something concerning them, or just something I should know. 

The truth is when kids feel safe, loved, and respected you don’t need a lot of rules because kids rise to your expectations.

Over the past eight years my letters have varied in content but they have never varied in tone or in purpose. I want my new fifth graders, who are looking at me with equal parts excitement and fear of a new school year, to know that for the next 180 days they are in the hands of someone who already loves them and can’t wait to get to know who they are. 

What I have found is that students are always eager to open up to me in their responses because they sense my genuine desire to get to know them. Students have told me about recent deaths in their families, fears of social dynamics changing based on their peers in the class, divorces at home, and so much more. These letters provide me with a glimpse into their character, their lives, as well as their writing abilities- all on day one!

I encourage all teachers to take time to begin the year by setting the tone for the relationships you hope to foster. The truth is when kids feel safe, loved, and respected you don’t need a lot of rules because kids rise to your expectations. Take time this September to remember why we’re all in this profession: for the kids! When relationships come first, everyone succeeds. 

Stephanie Cardoso is entering her 13th year as a teacher in Edison, NJ. Stephanie's passion is for forming bonds that transcend the classroom. As the 2015 NJ State Teacher of the Year Finalist and the 2015 Middlesex County Teacher of the Year, Stephanie uses her passion for teacher leadership and forming student relationships to help encourage other teachers to reach all of their students on a personal level.