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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Be ‘Real’ & ‘Consistent’ to Build Positive Student Relationships

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 12, 2018 20 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to build relationships with students?

This series was kicked-off with responses from Adeyemi Stembridge, Candace Hines, Jacki Glasper, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Valentina Gonzalez, and Julie Jee. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Adeyemi, Candace, Jacki and Mary Beth on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s guests were Timothy Hilton, Valerie Ruckes, David Bosso, Jenny Edwards, Pamela Broussard, Kara Pranikoff, Patty McGee, and Jonathan Eckert.

In Part Three, Debbie Silver, Nedra Robinson, Tamera Musiowsky, John Seborowski, Bryan Christopher, Becca Leech, Kelly Wickham Hurst, and Diane Mora contributed their ideas.

Today, Lisa Westman, Kevin Parr, Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, Ryan Huels, Catherine Beck, Dr. Sheila M. Wilson, Ed.D., and Steve Constantino provide commentaries on the topic.

Response From Lisa Westman

Lisa Westman is a writer, speaker, and consultant who works with school systems across the country to implement student-driven differentiation, standards-based learning, and instructional-coaching programs. She has over 15 years of experience as a teacher and an instructional coach specializing in differentiation. She is the author of Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin). Connect with Lisa on Twitter: @lisa_westman:

One of the most staggering statistics I have read came from the 2016 National Student Voice Report published by Dr. Russell Quaglia and the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations. After surveying over 38,000 students in grades 6-12, the researchers found that only 58% of students feel like their teachers respect them, while 99% of the teachers surveyed reported that they respect their students. This statistic really forced me to ask “why”?

In my book, Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin) and outlined in the infographic below, I share my answer to “why” and identify the most crucial components of respectful student-teacher relationships.

In short, to ensure teachers and students both perceive relationships to be respectful, teachers must follow these three tenets of respectful relationships: be real, be consistent, and be a listener. And, because teachers are the adults in the relationship, the onus is on us to create these conditions.

Be real: teachers are human, yet, students often don’t see this side of us. It frequently amazes me how afraid teachers are of sharing personal information with students. Now, I am not talking about sharing all personal information (no, we don’t share information about our dating lives. Yes, we can share that we have lost pets or loved ones and experienced pain in our lives).

Be consistent: There is no doubt about the fact that some students are more difficult than others. And, there is no doubt that sometimes it requires more effort to respond to our more trying students with the same level of patience and understanding as the less difficult students. However, in order for respectful relationships to exist, we must take care to be consistent in our actions and reactions with all students.

Be a listener: Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People sums this tenet up best. He said, “see first to understand, then to be understood.” We must ask our students more questions and then ensure we listen and understand their answers.”

Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a fourth grade teacher from Wenatchee, Washington and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

A strong, positive relationship between the teacher and student is paramount to learning. These relationships begin (or don’t) on day one and continue throughout the school year. In preparing the environment necessary for positive relationships to flourish, I offer three keys to keep in mind: Be empathic, be real, be consistent.

Be empathic: Even though it is a common, well-intentioned back-to-school activity, teachers should reconsider the idea to begin the first day with a peer-peer interview or even an “all about me” sheet. The fact is, many students who enter our classrooms are less-than trusting of each new adult that enters their life and are not eager to expose themselves upon first meeting and we need to understand and honor that. Instead, teachers would do well to allow each student their own entry point to the student-teacher relationship. One strategy teachers can use is to get students doing something. An introductory teambuilding activity or design challenge gives the teacher an opportunity to observe students and engage them in a short conversation whenever the student looks willing and comfortable.

Be real: All students are looking to be seen, heard, understood and cared for. They are also very adept at identifying adults’ superficial attempts at connecting. This is especially true for students who are less trusting or more resistant to opening up. Each encounter with a student is an opportunity to build a relationship. Unfortunately, teachers do not always have the time to listen intently to each and every student at any given moment. Therefore, sometimes it is better to just offer a friendly, “good morning” than it is to ask a student a question and move on without waiting for a response.

Be consistent: Even though positive relationships can take a long time to establish, they can be eroded in a heartbeat. Teachers must be aware that once relationships with students are established, they will be watching and waiting for any sign that they should retreat or distance themselves. These signs may not be related to direct interactions with the teacher but also extend to how the teacher interacts with others. Therefore, teachers must be consistent throughout the day and year with their interactions with all students.

Keeping these three easy ideas in mind, teachers can build and maintain positive relationships with students throughout the year.

Response From Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson

Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson is an educator with over 30 years of experience in the classroom and as an administrator. Currently, she serves as an educational consultant facilitating presentations throughout the nation regarding children who live in poverty, diverse student populations, equity and social justice, school connectedness, and social/emotional learning:

Building relationships with students is the most important process that takes place in a classroom, school, or district. Without these connections, nothing else matters. There is nothing that will occur in a school that cannot be addressed by building a relationship with a student. Often referred to as soft skills, building relationships is just as meaningful as a strategy to increase rigor or making lessons culturally relevant. In fact, if a positive relationship is not present, students will not come along for the ride to improve achievement or engage in the teaching and learning process.

Below, I offer 21 strategies to bridge the gap between despair to hope in building relationships with students. These strategies were initially published in the AMLE Magazine article Leading Learning for Children from Poverty but bear repeating.

Connect and Validate Students

Seven ways to connect to and validate students

  1. Establish a caring and believing environment.
  2. Get to know each student’s name.
  3. Determine what each student is interested in.
  4. Survey students to learn about family and daily practices.
  5. Identify students’ learning styles.
  6. Allow students to “tell” their story.
  7. Build lessons based on information learned about the students in your class.

Educate and Respond to Students

Seven ways to educate and respond to children who live in poverty:

  1. Teach with confidence.
  2. Establish high, consistent expectations and practices.
  3. Make reading the default curriculum.
  4. Use data to inform instructional changes.
  5. Restructure time and space for more flexibility in responding.
  6. Create student-centered and culturally responsive lessons.
  7. Use multiple ways to keep students actively engaged throughout the teaching and learning process.

Lead and Succeed with Students

Seven ways to lead and succeed with children who live in poverty:

  1. Establish an environment where every child is accepted, and nothing less than the best is tolerated.
  2. Find the positive in every child and every situation.
  3. Provide opportunities for educators to learn more about children who live in poverty.
  4. Eliminate practices that limit or hinder student success.
  5. Change what does not work and incorporate strategies and practices that support achievement.
  6. Measure and report progress frequently.
  7. Work collaboratively to develop the best environment for children.

Building relationships matter and they matter a lot. So much so that educators are finally returning to focusing on establishing relationships with students after they have tried everything else. Although it has been a long time coming, it is good to see the conversation about building relationships with students rise to the top of discussions for reform in today’s schools.

Johnson, C. (2013, November/December). Leading learning for children who live in poverty. AMLE


Response From Ryan Huels

Ryan Huels is the Assistant Principal of Oregon Elementary School in Oregon, Illinois. He spent 5 years as a 1st Grade classroom teacher prior to entering administration:

As building leaders, we have the unique opportunity to build positive relationships with hundreds of students daily! However, we cannot build those relationships confined to our office. Make it a priority to greet students as they arrive each day, visit classrooms regularly to learn alongside students, and engage in activities with them at lunch or recess. The #GoodNewsCallofTheDay has transformed the mindset students have about their building principals and has been a great tool in building positive relationships with students and their families. More and more of our students come to school facing less than ideal situations, and are eager to come to school for a source of consistency and structure. As leaders, we can do more by taking time out of our day to be an unwavering beacon of positivity for students. This can take the form of an encouraging high five, positive praise in a classroom walkthrough, or a brief follow up conversation when you become aware of student in need of pick me up.

I firmly believe school discipline/behavioral management systems are another way we can encourage the use of positive relationships with students. Traditional discipline practices are designed to “punish” students and are far to reliant on consequences that aren’t related to problem behavior. Work with your teams to develop natural consequences centered around restorative discipline practices that help repair the relationship between the students and/or staff member involved.

Creating ways to celebrate student successes can pay huge dividends in terms of fostering positive relationships with students. Implement the aforementioned #GoodNewsCalloftheDay, celebrate student successes on social media, and work with your team to develop Social/Emotional lessons that help students develop a sense of community, leadership, and collaboration. Leaders can help promote the creation of a positive culture by getting directly involved by visiting classrooms to read stories that directly align with SEL lessons. Not only will you set the tone for the building culture you are attempting to create, you will foster and enhance relationships with students as they see you in a different light, learning along side of them

A plan I have for the upcoming year to amplify student voice while building relationships will be the implementation of a “Student Advisory Committee” that I will meet with monthly to go over our school’s current successes, areas of growth, and brainstorm ways we can better meet the needs of the students we are so blessed to serve! Some of these tasks may alter your typical daily calendar, but we cannot create a culture that is designed to do what is best for kids, if we as building administrators aren’t at the forefront of making a point to build relationships with students on a daily basis.

Response From Catherine Beck

Catherine Beck is the Director of Schools for Cheatham County, TN. She is also the author of “Easy and Effective Professional Development,” and “Leading Learning for ELL Students":

We all know that building relationships with students is the foundation of everything positive that happens in a classroom. This can include increasing student achievement, student engagement, and improving behavior, to name a few. Nothing says it more simply than, “Students will not care about school until they know that you care about them.”

Obviously, we must take the time to get to know students. We must ask questions and get to know what students are interested in, who they are outside of school, and perhaps what is bothering them if they seem a bit off their game. Equally important is to let students know us. It is important for us to share about ourselves, our lives, and our interests. We want these relationships to be bidirectional.

My husband taught for 39 years and he was a master at establishing relationships with students. He had several strategies that were very successful. One strategy that paid big dividends was that he was an exemplary storyteller. He would take whatever content he was teaching and begin the lesson with a story involving our family, or some experience he had with the skill. Often parents would tell us they felt like they knew him, for their children retold each story at the family dinner table that night. He taught math and every math word problem had our children’s names in it. The students felt like they knew our children too. That created a familiarity between him and the class. It was as if he was sharing details of his life with the students and this in turn made them feel special.

Never underestimate the power of someone’s name. It is important to learn each child’s name quickly and use them! Stand in the doorway as students enter the class and greet them using their name. Use their names in conversations with them. When someone learns our name we feel special and this very simple act can be very rewarding early on.

Finally, I am going to let you in on a secret strategy that perhaps has been the most impactful. The conditions have to be just right for this to work but it is the secret sauce of all strategies. As you are standing in the hall, position yourself next to another adult. As students walk by, call one over to you and the other teacher. Ask about his/her evening/sporting event, recent movie, whatever. Then as the child is walking away, say something positive about the student to the adult next to you. The student will feel like he/she has overheard a positive comment about himself. Be strategic in the comment. That student’s smile will light up the hallway and I guarantee he/she will feel 10 feet tall for the rest of the day.

These very specific strategies share a common theme: making a student feel special. We gravitate towards people who make us feel this way, don’t we? It is the same in life as it is in the classroom. Making children feel special gives them confidence. The confidence translates in to big effort and positive behavior for the child. This equates to an increase in student achievement and self-confidence. It is the self confidence that the students will need for realizing their dreams. Those dreams begin with a relationship.

Response From Dr. Sheila M. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Sheila Wilson, Ed.D. is an educator with over 28 years in diverse educational settings in elementary, secondary, and at the university level. She is currently employed with Virginia Beach City Public Schools and has served at Regent University as an Adjunct Professor in the Teacher Leader program. She has recently launched an educational blog with the aim to empower educators to amplify their impact called Teaching With Intention, https://teachandreachsite.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @wilson1sheila:

The best way for teachers to build relationships with students is by being very intentional about taking the time to get to know them. For me, building relationships with students happens at the very beginning of the school year. I’m a firm believer that “before you can teach them, you have to reach them"--and this comes through establishing relationships. This includes learning who your students are, what they like, how they learn best, and what is important to them. Manuel Scott, one of the original Freedom Writers, refers to this as being a student of your students. The information you learn about your students is the most effective way to build a solid foundation from which to grow.

Next, it is important to listen to students. I do this by encouraging their input in creating the class culture. In my opinion, when you think about the amount of time that students spend in their classrooms it becomes paramount to include student voice in informing the design of the classroom, creating the rules/agreements, and the developing consequences students believe are appropriate and as they align with the overall school discipline plan.

Another key element in building relationships with students is engaging parents and families. Family engagement is key! When students know that you care enough to connect with the people who love and care for them, for me this is a game changer. I make it a point to connect with my parents prior to the start of the school year. I introduce myself to the families and let them know up front that we are a team. I let them know that we are going to have a great year and that my goal is the same as the one that they have for their child, which is a happy environment where students feel safe, can learn, and accomplish great things. To ensure that I can reach parents directly I have changed my form of communication. This past year I used an app named Sideline, which provides an alternate phone number attached to your mobile number. The Sideline app really was perfect for me because I found more traditional methods of communication with parents to be less and less effective. With this app, as long as I had the parent’s current mobile number I was able to call parents, send group texts as reminders of school events, send individual texts, or even send pictures. But if you venture to go the route of the Sideline app, be ready to pay $10 a month...it was worth it to me!

Being intentional about building relationships with students will yield great dividends for students but also for you the teacher. So, take the time to learn your students and their families. It is an important investment, and in my opinion, there is no better way to get to the heart of what each student needs than by building authentic relationships.

Response From Steve Constantino

Dr. Steve Constantino is the former Acting State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Virginia and an international expert in family and organizational engagement. He is a speaker and consultant and is the author of four books on the topic of family engagement:

In many of the workshops that I conduct throughout the United States and abroad, I tell a story of a typical negative interaction between a teacher and student, and explain how the scenario might be reversed through a positive relationship with families and a commitment to two-way home-school communication. The story goes like this:

One morning in a high school, students make their way to first period, taking their seats milliseconds before the bell. In English class, Bill is late. He bursts into the room, drops his book bag on the floor, throws himself across his desk and puts his head down. It is quite a scene. The teacher encourages the students to keep working.

“Bill,” the teacher says. “You’ll need to sit up and pay attention!”

“What are you going to do if I don’t?” Bill snaps back.

“Bill, either sit up and participate or go to the office.” With that, Bill stands up and announces that “this class sucks anyway,” and storms out. The teacher calls the office to warn them that Bill is probably on his way.

That’s how the story could have gone. Except, that story, as similar as it is to real circumstances, is actually the fictional one. Here is what really happened:

One morning in a high school, students make their way to first period, taking their seats milliseconds before the bell. In English class, Bill is late. He bursts into the room, drops his book bag on the floor, throws himself across his desk and puts his head down. It is quite a scene. The teacher encourages the students to keep working.

However, Bill is fortunate to have a teacher who is committed to providing outreach to and forging trusting relationships with families, and encouraging them to share information about their children that might be helpful to their learning lives. That morning, prior to first period, the teacher listened to a voicemail from Bill’s mother:

“Hi, Mrs. Johnson. This is Bill’s mother. I wanted you to know that we have had a tough night at our house. Our family dog, who has been with us since Bill was born, died tonight. The children, especially Bill, are very distraught and have been up most of the night sobbing. I told Bill to stay home, but he insisted he needed to go to school. If he is not himself this morning, please understand why. Thank you, Mrs. Johnson. I know you of all teachers will understand our situation.”

And so following Bill’s disruptive entrance, Mrs. Johnson started the class on a warm-up problem. While the class worked, she went to Bill’s desk and knelt in front of him. His head was still face down on his desk, covered with his arms.

“Bill,” she began. “I am really sorry about what happened last night. I know you are not yourself today and I am quite sure that English class is the last thing you want to do. But please know, that class is just not the same without you. I hope that, when you are ready, you can join us. If not, know that I understand and I am here for you.”

She then resumed class. About ten minutes later, Bill raised his head, fished his book from his book bag and joined the lesson. No yelling. No storming out. No office referral. A very different ending to a very typical story.

When we engage with families, build relationships with those families and allow there to be true two-way communication between home and school, teachers are in a far better position to be the positive influencers they are born to be. Teachers, by their very nature, want their students to be successful and when given the opportunity, can nurture students to success.

Family engagement allows them to do just that.

Thanks to Lisa, Kevin, Cynthia, Ryan, Catherine, Sheila and Steve for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for Part Five in a few days.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.