Teacher assisting student with a project

One of the most common questions I get as an instructional coach is, “How do we build the culture for PBL?” This is certainly an open-ended question, and one that someone could write an entire book about. I think what many teachers are really asking is, “How do I start?” With the beginning of the new school year buzzing all over the country, what better time to talk about ways to get started?

I believe it starts with the way you bring yourself to the classroom and to your students – on day one, and every single day afterwards. I think it’s worth reflecting on what you’ve done in the past and how you might like to use some of the ideas below to bring more of yourself to the classroom, in intentional ways, in order to create the type of trusting relationships that will be needed to maximize the learning ahead.

Building relationships with students starts with how they see you. You don’t need every student to necessarily like you (though, I’d shoot for it) - but they do need to feel safe with you, trust you, and respect you. That’s no short order, but the good news is that it is possible. One of the best ways to start to is to be authentically yourself with students.

What Parts of Yourself to Share

My advice is to choose a few parts of yourself to share with students: interests, hobbies, things or people that have shaped you. Of course, they should be appropriate for students, and sincere parts of your identity. Be intentional about how much to share and how you can incorporate little ways to connect your interests to the life lessons students will be learning throughout the year, about working together, communication, determination, recovering from failure, etc. These personal parts of you can become touchstones for students, ways for them to relate to you, as well as launch or solidify the learning of those important skills.

On the first day of school, I show my students genuine parts of myself. They learn about and see pictures of my family and I brag a little about my adorable kids. They find out that I have a twin sister who also teaches in the district, and I caution them that we still like to switch classes sometimes. I tell my students that I love them, and that I’ll always listen to them. They learn about my lifelong interests in soccer and marine biology, and I share that I prefer she/her/hers for pronouns. Over time, they learn that I’m cheesy, I laugh at my own jokes, and that I can hold my own in a dance-off.

Building Relationships

I love to share meaningful parts of who I am with my students and community. It makes me feel connected to them as a whole person, beyond being “just their teacher.” More importantly, this usually opens them up to share important parts of themselves with me and their classmates.

As the year goes on, and we continue to make lasting relationships, I can usually tie whatever skill within collaboration, critical thinking, learning mindset, or professionalism that we are working on to one of these interests of mine – or better yet, theirs – which helps them to contextualize what they’re experiencing and striving for.

Sometimes, I like to look at my teacher-self as a bit of an alter-ego. Her name is Ms. U. She’s authentically me, but, a limited-edition version of myself. She even has her own bitmojis.

It takes practice, a bit of a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, and a lot of reflection and self-care (note the soccer and dance-offs above). But, it has helped me to foster deeper relationships faster with students. And I’ll admit - it’s kind of fun.

Who is your teacher alter-ego?


Want to learn more about PBL? Check out our books.

Kristen Uliasz, National Faculty, Buck Institute for Education
Kristen has been a special education teacher for over a decade, working in elementary