The crux of every classroom is the relationships built between students and teachers. It is a conversation we need to keep talking about in education, because it affects every part of teaching.

ToY Sig

My first day as a student teacher, the staff gathered for a meeting and the principal began with showing Rita Pierson’s TED Talk, “Every Child Deserves a Champion.” In the video, Rita starts by quoting George Washington Carver (“All learning is understanding relationships.”) and James Comer (“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”).

The entire talk was powerful, but the part that stood out most was that building relationships is making a human connection that is valuable and important in the context of learning.

Relationship building was always effortless for me growing up. It drew me into the teaching profession. In the middle of my first year of teaching, however, I found out how easy it was to neglect relationship building, no matter how naturally it came.

During that first year, my student E.J. and I were walking to the conference room to meet his mom, the principal and a support staff member for his annual case conference. I kept catching E.J. staring at me. He was a quieter seventh-grader in a large, rowdy class.  

I finally had to ask: “E.J., why do you keep looking at me like that? Is something wrong?”

He studied me. “No. I’ve never really looked at you before, like actually seen you.”

I reflect on this instance often. He was humanizing me.

I was a 22-year-old trying to stay afloat and constantly stressed out about whether or not my students were actually learning anything. I was desperately trying to find a classroom management strategy that would work for E.J.’s group. I realized in all this hullabaloo that I wasn’t actually seeing him either. He was the student. I was the teacher.

E.J. wasn’t even a challenging student, but he was clearly one with whom I needed to build a relationship. It isn’t just the troubled students that we must connect with, but building relationships with all students is important.

In the midst of all the things a teacher has on his or her plate, this is easier said than done. It can be easy to lose sight of whether you are making genuine connections with your students in a way that facilitates learning.

I believe effective classroom management, high-level learning and student engagement rely on positive student-teacher relationships. Building the right relationship with a student can let you know how to identify their behavioral and learning triggers, or how to effectively talk a student down from a highly emotional situation or conflict. The student will trust you and you find yourself trusting them and yourself. It will likely feel safer for both individuals involved and eliminate potential power struggles for control that can be a roadblock between productive teacher and student interactions.

I see strengthening relationships and humanizing my students as a starting point for me to begin to address something like a mental health obstacle that a student may be facing.

It has taken me longer than I want to admit to recognize that many times in the past I’ve taken things personally when a student was lashing out or being defiant. However, when I learned how to put it all in perspective, my perceptions of scenarios shifted.

According to a National Institutes of Health study, one in two children have a mood or behavioral disorder, or substance addiction by the age of 18 — more statistics in the plethora of numbers emphasizing a mental health crisis among our youth. I saw it daily amongst my sixth-graders, but in trying to “manage” or “control” the wrong things, I was missing a lot.

It has become clear to me that if I want to promote high expectations of academic skills, I need to do the same with behavior skills. I found that if I have the proper foundation and perspective because I’ve taken the time to build a relationship with a student, it is easier to not take things personally or make improper assumptions as to why the student is acting out. Instead, I can attempt to address the real or underlying problem head-on which, in the end, facilitates learning and bolsters academic skills.

There isn’t a magic formula to building relationships. It can truly be a beautiful struggle. Every student is different. It takes time, intentionality and consistency.

Even though it is important to connect with all students, our focus may drift toward the students who we most need to connect with and, of course, those are the hardest relationships to build. It is in this frustration that we find ourselves resorting to managing behaviors in a reactive rather than a proactive way. Interestingly, I have also found that these students are also the ones that already possess independence, grit and resilience. They just haven’t been shown how to harness those qualities to excel in an educational setting.

It is beautiful to see and feel the positive impact that comes from building what is often a hard fought and difficult relationship to create.