Decades of research—and conventionally held wisdom—say that positive teacher-student relationships matter. But do you really have to love every student? And what if you don’t?
“We go into [teaching] with the idea that we’re going to love our students, we’re going to be like the teachers in the movies, ... all of the kids are going to be motivated, there’s going to be a soundtrack, it’s going to be amazing,” said Vickie Crockett, a high school English/language arts teacher in Atlanta. “I think we allow ourselves to get boxed into [the idea] that we’re just going to fall magically in love with all of these disparate personalities that come into our classroom.”
But the reality is not quite like the movies. As most teachers can attest, some students are challenging. They might be disruptive, or disengaged, or even rude. Some might genuinely dislike their teacher for reasons outside of the teacher’s control. Sometimes, no matter how hard a teacher tries, he or she can’t “click” with a certain student.
Strong student-teacher relationships, however, are linked to both short-term and long-term improvements on multiple measures: higher student academic engagement, better attendance, better grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates. These effects hold true regardless of students’ individual, family, and school backgrounds.
Experts say that forging positive relationships with the full range of students, including the aloof, withdrawn, and even defiant ones, is not necessarily an intuitive skill—it comes with training and experience. Yet there’s a stigma against admitting that connecting with some children is easier said than done, teachers say.
“We are allowed to say that our spouses frustrate us, we’re allowed to say our [own] children frustrate us, we’re allowed to say that we don’t necessarily like our colleagues or even supervisors,” Crockett said. “But we’re not allowed to say that there’s a child that I work with that I find very difficult, and the truth of the matter is that I weep a little inside when I see them coming, and I rejoice when I see them leaving.”
Still, teachers “don’t get to act on those feelings,” she stressed. “I do think that it is imperative that we understand where our students are coming from.”
So how do teachers connect with a student who may be hard to like? Education Week spoke to both experts and veteran teachers from all grade levels to get their advice.
Try not to take it personally. Remember that the disruption and mean comments probably don’t have anything to do with you, and it’s human nature not to mesh with everyone, educators said. Still, that’s easier said than done.
“You can’t judge this person because of the way they’re behaving in this moment, there’s always some underlying thing,” said Audrey Green, an 8th grade Global Scholars program teacher in Broward County, Fla. “But how do you get through the day if the kid is acting like that all the time?”
For example, she said, a student once told her that she shouldn’t be a teacher. The comment stung.
“It’s very hard to not take it personally,” Green said. “You immediately become the middle schooler. We’re all human. If you have people berating you all day,” it’s going to hurt.
That’s why it’s important for teachers to learn how to regulate their own emotions, and take a step back in the heat of the moment to calm down, said Allison Riddle, a veteran teacher who is now the elementary mentor supervisor for the Davis school district near Salt Lake City.
“I felt so much better inside when I was able to just be calm and have empathy for a student—as soon as I learned, ‘This isn’t directed at you, this person is in pain,’” she said.
Find something to like about a prickly student. A student isn’t defined by their attitude in class, teachers say.
“It’s easy to like the kid who is compliant,” said Wendy Ramos, a high school English teacher in Weslaco, Texas. “It’s more of a challenge to like the kid who’s giving you trouble; but that doesn’t mean you can’t. I think you can find things in most students that you like. ... I think that, sometimes, you can even just like the challenge that they’re giving you, to help you grow as an educator and as a compassionate person.”
This starts with forming relationships with students at the beginning of the year, teachers said. Learn about their interests and hobbies, and try to find common ground.
After all, “the more you get to know somebody, the more that you develop empathy for them, the stronger the relationship is,” said Vicki Nishioka, a senior research adviser with the nonprofit group Education Northwest who studies teacher-student relationships.
Teachers said they try to engage their students in personal conversations before or after class. At the elementary level, recess might even be a place for teachers and students to forge a common bond, said Kevin Parr, a 1st grade teacher in Wenatchee, Wash.
“Sitting down one-on-one is almost a confrontation, but if you’re shooting baskets or playing tetherball, it’s more of a safe space to talk,” he said.
Step outside the authority role to better connect with students. Don’t be afraid to open up with students, Nishioka said.
“It helps students to see [a teacher] as a person who maybe has had some of the same struggles, ... or had some failures and made some mistakes that they’ve recovered from,” she said. “I think it’s important as a model, but also for relationship-building, for students to hear some of those stories.”
When Green, the 8th grade teacher in Florida, allowed her students to use the game Minecraft for a class project, it put her in the learner’s seat. Her students knew more about how to build virtual worlds in the game than she did.
“You become human,” she said. “[They see] you are fallible, and you’re trying.”
Build a positive classroom culture. It’s important for all students to feel welcomed by their teachers, experts said.
“I think that establishing a sense of belonging for students is so essential for them to want to come [to class], for them to want to engage with teachers,” Nishioka said. “I can’t tell you how many times a student has told me I did my homework, but I was mad at the teacher so I didn’t turn it in.”
That’s why it’s critical to continue to try to show support to students, even if they’re resistant, teachers said.
“Even just a little smile can go a long way,” Parr said. “If you act positively toward a kid, eventually they’ll act positively toward you. They’ll gain the trust.”
Also, other students can help: “If there’s a positive classroom environment, and everyone is treating each other respectfully, ... over time, that challenging student will assimilate to the rest of the group,” Parr said.
And when a student isn’t acting appropriately, teachers have to be “emotional detectives,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles’ graduate school of education, who co-wrote an upcoming book called No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships.
A teacher should try to pick up on cues that a student is upset about something, he said, and ask questions like, “Is there anything I can do to assist, or maybe just lend an ear? Do you need some additional time to complete an assignment? Is everything OK? Do you need a counselor you want to talk to?”
“I think students can tell if teachers really are truly interested in their well-being by demonstrating what I call authentic care,” Howard said.
Build a relationship with parents, too. They can be both a valuable ally and an insight into why the student is acting out, teachers say.
Crockett, the English teacher in Atlanta, said reaching out to parents early on gives her a “partner at home—someone I know who is batting on my team.”
One time, she said, she had a student who “loathed” her and would push back on everything she said. Crockett met with the student’s mother, who immediately knew the problem—Crockett looked just like the student’s father’s new girlfriend. The mother was then able to talk to her child and help her get through the school year.
“I was never her favorite, and she was never mine, but we were able to reach a compromise,” Crockett said. “It’s not the ideal, but sometimes it’s the reality.”
Make sure to confront any unconscious biases or stereotypes. Data show that black students are more likely to be disciplined at school at disproportionate rates. And teachers make the first decisions about behavioral consequences.
Nishioka said it’s important for teachers to confront their implicit biases, which might influence how they treat students in their classroom. For example, white teachers—who make up 80 percent of the profession—might see a black student as more aggressive or unruly than a white student, and could dole out harsher consequences for similar behavior.
“I think many teachers will say, ‘I’m fair to everybody,’ so it really takes a lot of work, and probably work that they need to do on their own but also in partnership with other people,” Nishioka said. “I think it’s hard to look at yourself inwardly without getting some information from teachers around you.”
Part of that, Nishioka said, comes from having a school community that values the cultural differences of students and teachers.
“If we begin to ask students and listen to them about their story, then we begin to appreciate and maybe begin to challenge some of our own misconceptions or opinions that we made about the students,” she said.
Don’t try to force a resolution with a student who is not receptive. Trying to resolve a problem when the student and the teacher are still upset won’t be productive, teachers say.
Riddle, the elementary mentor supervisor in Utah, said she learned over the years that it’s important to give everyone involved some space and calm down before addressing the conflict.
“It feels better to walk away and let a child de-escalate than it does to stand there and stay angry,” she said. “It feels better for everyone. ... It feels better for the learning atmosphere.”
Students still have to be held responsible for their work, their effort, and their actions, Riddle said, but it will be more productive if they’re allowed to calm down first. “You have to give grace sometimes,” she said.
Even in the long-term, some students might not want to build a relationship with their teacher, despite the teacher’s best efforts.
“One of the things that kills teachers is that there are always going to be students who, for whatever reason, don’t engage or are not receptive,” Howard said. “You shouldn’t press it, if students are not wanting to receive it, because that can oftentimes go really bad.”
Instead, he said, teachers should be consistent and let students know they’re always available to talk.
Don’t expect instant results. Building meaningful relationships with students takes time, experts said, and it might take longer than a semester or even a school year to yield fruit.
“I’ve seen over the years teachers say that a student that they thought they never made an impact with will come back a year later or two years later and say, ‘I appreciate you because you always checked. I never did open up, but you continued to check to see how I was doing, you still made yourself available,’” Howard said. “We tell teachers, don’t always expect immediate results.”
Green, the 8th grade teacher, said she’s had a few challenging students reach out years later—a sign that she was doing something right, even if it might not have felt like it at the time.
“They come back from high school where they’ve matured and say, ‘I get it now,’” she said. “It doesn’t happen that often. But that’s where the measurement should be.”
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as When It’s Hard to Really Love That Student