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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

If You Build It...

By Jon Harper — May 01, 2014 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Jon Harper, who is currently the vice principal of Choptank Elementary School located in Cambridge, Maryland.

Anyone with children knows how hectic the morning routine can be, even on the best days. One of the most difficult parts of our morning routine is when we say goodbye to our children...especially when those children are under four. Children under four don’t always understand that parents have to go to work.

One day last week my three year old son woke up in a bad mood. He was convinced that at that moment he woke, I was taking him to school. I usually do take him to school, but it happened to be a day in which I had an early meeting and my wife was taking him to preschool. That’s when the whining that only children under three are capable of, began. Over and over he whined, “Daddy’s taking me to school!”

When it was time for me to leave I feared the worst. So...we decided that I would sneak out without saying goodbye. It does prevent meltdowns, but I hate leaving without saying goodbye. The hugs and kisses are as much a part of my morning routine as they are for my children. Doing my best ninja, I was almost out the front door... when my son busted me.

Uh oh! But something amazing happened. Instead of the drama that I had envisioned, he simply said, “Daddy hug.”

No drama.

No fuss.

No tears.

My three year old son was capable of much more than I had given him credit for. The reassurance and bond that my son and I had built over three years helped him to feel safe and secure in a moment that may have otherwise been stressful.

I think we can provide the same for many of our students. Many of our students already have reasons not to trust adults. They have been let down so often by the time they reach our door that they are no longer able to trust.

And so we must build it.

Brick by brick.

Until we have a solid foundation upon which a mutually trusting relationship can be cultivated.

Why Aren’t Relationships Being Built?

But where do we find the time to build this trust and foster these relationships when there is so much else to do? In their article Reluctant Teachers, Reluctant Learners, Landsman, Moore and Simmons discuss this very topic. They voice the concern that many teachers have, but also go on to explain why relationship-building is crucial to making connections:

Many teachers, worrying about the curriculum they have to cover, don’t want to lose instructional days by laying the groundwork for building community. Yet these relationships can actually make it easier to cover the curriculum efficiently because students feel invested in the classroom. The time required to develop relationships with students may be substantial. However, without this time, the reluctant learner may never become engaged in learning (Landsman, Moore & Simmons, 2008).

How and Why This Should Change?

Once you close your door, and enter that classroom that you call home for eight hours a day, you must make a choice. How much time are you willing to spend building relationships with your students? It will not be easy, and in the beginning it will take much more give than take. But I believe that in order to be great you have to be willing to open up, even when if it may be a little bit uncomfortable.

I genuinely believe that our ability to connect with the students we see every day is directly related to how much we are willing to share and give of ourselves. We must be willing to do this if we expect to make the connections we work so hard to achieve each and every day.

We spend hours and hours trying to improve our craft. We read books, we take classes and we attend countless professional development sessions. What about spending more time building relationships and earning trust?

In his seminal work, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek explains how oxytocin is the chemical in our brain that allows us to feel safe. He explains that

The more time we spend with someone, the more we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable around them. As we learn to trust them and earn their trust in return, the more oxytocin flows. In time, as if by magic, we will realize that we have developed a deep bond with this person. The madness and spontaneity of the dopamine hit is replaced by a more relaxed, more stable, more long-term oxytocin-driven relationship. A vastly more valuable state if we have to rely on someone to help us do things and protect us when we’re weak. My favorite definition of love is giving someone the power to destroy us and trusting they won’t use it (Sinek, pp. 49-50, 2013).

Next Steps

So as you near the end of another school year just remember, it’s never too late to start building relationships with your students. Start by letting them in. Your gains will be immeasurable and I think you’ll even have fun in the process.

Here are some ways you can start tomorrow:

  • Bring in something from your past (old class photo)
  • Share a mistake you’ve recently made (keep it simple, but real)
  • Teach them something they didn’t know about you (what’s on your playlist?)
  • Apologize when you’re wrong (this is a must)
  • Spend time with them in a different setting (lunch, sporting event, etc.)
  • Let them see you laugh (why wouldn’t you?)

Connect with Jon on Twitter.


Landsman, J., Moore, T. & Simmons, R. (2008). Reluctant Teachers, Reluctant Learners. Educational Leadership.

Sinek, S. (2013). Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull It Together and Others Don’t. Penguin Group; New York, NY.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.