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Classroom Q&A

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

‘Building Relationships With Students Is the Most Important Thing a Teacher Can Do’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 08, 2018 26 min read
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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.

Today’s guests are Timothy Hilton, Valerie Ruckes, David Bosso, Jenny Edwards, Pamela Broussard, Kara Pranikoff, Patty McGee, and Jonathan Eckert, answering the question, “What are the best ways to build relationships with students?”

Response From Timothy Hilton

Timothy Hilton currently teaches high school Social Studies in South Central Los Angeles, and has taught in the area for the past 9 years. Timothy has experience teaching every level of social studies ranging from Advanced Placement to English Language Development. In addition to teaching in the inner city of Los Angeles, Timothy is currently a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University studying Educational Policy, Evaluation, and Reform:

Building relationships with students is by far the most important thing a teacher can do. Without a solid foundation and relationships built on trust and respect, no quality learning will happen. While I believe the importance of relationships cannot be over stated, many teachers have no idea where to start. This is especially true when attempting to build relationships with students who come from a different background than you do.

While building relationships with students can seem like a daunting task, I try to keep it simple and follow three guiding principles:

  1. Check your biases. First and foremost, we must remember that we all come from different places. We cannot assume we know about the experiences of our students based on location, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. When speaking to students about their experiences it is best to remember that your experience is unique to you and is not the ‘norm.’
  2. Talk to your students (about topics unrelated to coursework): In conjunction with checking your biases, it is important to talk to your students. Talk to your students about their interests, sports, current events, funny (yet appropriate) stories from your personal life, or anything else you want. These conversations help student connect with you outside of the teacher role, and on a more personal level. The teacher-student dynamic is a very tricky relationship. It is important to build your relationships outside of this dynamic.
  3. Never hold a grudge: I know that it is hard not to hold a grudge sometimes when student misbehave. Sometimes we want to be rude to them to, ‘teach them a lesson.’ This is extremely counterproductive. The reality is that students have bad days. We cannot forget that our students have lives outside of our classroom, and often we have no idea what their experience is out there. If a relationship is to be one of trust and respect, every day must be a new day. Every day must be a fresh start.

As was mentioned earlier, the goal is to build relationships that have a foundation of trust and respect. In my experience, I have found these three guiding principles have allowed me to cultivate this type of relationship in nearly all of my students.

Response From Valerie Ruckes

Valerie Ruckes is in her 18th year of teaching and currently teaches first grade with Rochester Community Schools in Rochester, Michigan. Val is involved as a mentor for the New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP) in her district and she serves as a member of the Instructional Leadership Team in her building. On Sunday nights you can find Val on Twitter (@valruckes) where she co-moderates #1stchat and connects with other first grade teachers:

Building relationships with students promotes a positive learning environment, helps to build our classroom community, and is probably one of the best investments we can make with our students.

Care! When we seek to understand, we show our students that we care. Attempting to understand our students is not a simple process because every child is a unique individual. When we take the time to ask questions and listen, we have a good chance of understanding our students even better. This sounds really simple, but it’s now always as easy as it sounds. We’ve all experienced situations where students are upset, emotional, or even defiant. When I’m trying to understand a student who is in one of these emotional states, my first question is, “Are you okay?” It’s amazing how much a child will open up to us once we show them that we care.

Conversations. When we get to know our students as individuals we can learn about their hobbies, interests, and passions. In turn, students get to know us better, too. Books are amazing vehicles for building conversations around all kinds of situations and experiences. Books provide us with moments where we can laugh together, make connections together, and discuss important lessons together. Additionally, using what I know about students’ interests helps me to select books for guided reading groups and other instructional activities. When I’m working with a struggling reader, selecting a book that matches his or her interest is often the best way to engage the student during the lesson.

Here are a few books I share with my first graders that foster the kinds of conversations that help us learn and grow together as a community of learners.

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson—The lessons include the importance of showing kindness and the regrets of missed opportunities.

Ish by Peter Reynolds—This book helps students to let go of making things “perfect” and embraces individual creativity.

Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty—Promotes the importance of never giving up and problem solving.

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill—Focuses on Anti Bullying and treating others with kindness and respect.

Connections. Connect first, then teach! Our most challenging students will allow us to teach them if with connect with them first. Once I’ve invested the time in making connections with students, I’m able to teach them more effectively because they trust me. Connecting with students involves allowing our students the opportunity to experience our humanness. My first graders love it when I laugh with them, dance with them during brain breaks, and when we sing songs together during shared reading activities. They also love it when I share weekend news during our morning meetings. My students enjoy hearing about what I do for fun and how I spend time with my family. Learning more about me, helps them connect with me and to discover that sometimes we share similar interests.

You may think that you already know most of your students really well. But what about the few students you know very little about? Here’s a way you can find out. Make a list of 10 things that you know about each of the students in your classroom. You might be surprised to discover that there are one or two students that you know very little about. Those are likely the students that you have yet to connect with. The 3 C’s—Care, Conversations, and Connections, will help you to build and foster meaningful relationships with your students.

Response From David Bosso

David Bosso, a Social Studies teacher at Berlin High School, is the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year and 2012 National Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year. Over the course of his teaching career, Bosso has traveled to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as part of educational delegations for global understanding. Bosso holds Masters degrees from the University of Hartford and Central Connecticut State University, and a Doctor of Education degree from American International College:

During a study hall years ago, one of my students was having a rough day and feeling down on herself. Recognizing the need to find a way to get her to feel better about things, I asked if she wanted to learn how to juggle. She looked at me incredulously, and then agreed. Over the next twenty minutes or so, I showed her the movements and patterns involved as she struggled to acquire the skill. I cajoled her, corrected her, and celebrated her. After many attempts, she was juggling! In the ensuing weeks and months, I occasionally asked how her juggling was coming along, but did not give it much more thought. Later that year, she gave a speech to her peers at an assembly and referenced that day. She talked about how I had taken the time to teach her to juggle, and how it was less about the learning process and more about the value of the experience in helping her get through a tough time.

Sometimes, the simplest gestures can have the most powerful impact. Standing at the door to the classroom, greeting students as they enter, and checking in on them sends a subtle yet important message: “you are cared for, you are safe, you supported, you are respected, and you have a voice here.” It is an unfortunate reality for many students that sometimes, a teacher may be the only adult throughout the course of the day who takes the time to talk with them.

Despite the multifarious dynamics of the school day and the overall school environment, successful teaching and learning experiences ultimately depend on basic human connections and basic human needs. Students and teachers need to feel connected, empowered, and successful. Effective educators intuitively know that social and emotional intelligence are vital to engendering classroom and school climates that support and enhance students’ educational experience. They are authentic, they have a sense of “withitness,” and they are transformational. They know that many times, it is paying attention to the little things that will pay important relational dividends—and this can mean the world to some students.

Good teachers are driven by a sense of moral purpose, and they have a keen appreciation for the difference they can make in students’ lives. Being attuned to the social and emotional dynamics present in the lives of our students and colleagues—as well as our own—fosters awareness, connectivity, and a stronger school culture that reflects the commonly stated mission of schools: lifelong learning, respect and empathy, and active citizenship. In the context of emotional intelligence, the importance of developing and sustaining and positive, welcoming school culture cannot be underestimated. We know that academic outcomes mean little without a solid social emotional groundwork upon which a student’s experience depends so heavily—the fundamental building block is relationships.

Our students are feeling more and more anxious and overwhelmed. The best teachers are the ones that know that, occasionally, it may be necessary to put aside a lesson and address concerns on the minds of their students. They remain observant to body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal clues that may express more than what a student can orally articulate. In many instances, teachers believe in their students more than the students believe in themselves. And sometimes all it takes it a smile and a greeting—or teaching a student how to juggle —to establish such a crucial foundation for growth and empowerment.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards, PhD, is the author of Inviting students to learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD, 2014). She taught at the elementary and middle school levels and is presently teaching doctoral students at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA. She can be reached at jedwards@fielding.edu and @jedwards814:

My principal, Jim Fay, always asked us, “For whom are you going to work harder ... someone you like or someone you do not like?” We can use a variety of methods for building relationships with our students.

First, it is important for us to think positive thoughts about our students and let them know we genuinely like them. What we think about our students will come through in what we say to them and how we treat them. Babad, Bernieri, and Rosenthal (1991) showed videotapes of teachers interacting with a student off camera as well as talking about a student. They showed them to a variety of groups from 4th graders to experienced teachers. In less than 10 seconds, people in all of the groups could tell whether the teacher liked the student and whether the teacher thought the student could succeed.

In order to understand our students, we can attempt to see out of their eyes. What experiences might they have had that helped them to develop their attitudes and capabilities? How do they view the classroom? How do they view the work they are doing? These insights will give us ideas for building relationships with them.

We can build rapport with our students by mirroring their body posture and using similar gestures. We can use some of the words they use, and we can adapt our voice to match their tone of voice as much as possible. We can also breathe in when they breathe in and breathe out when they do (Costa & Garmston, 2017). On an unconscious level, they will be thinking, “This teacher is like me.”

We can learn about their interests and ask them about them. If they play baseball, we can ask about their last game. If they enjoy track, we can ask them about that. The more we get to know them on a personal level, the better we will be able to relate with them.

We can visualize success for them, both short-term and long-term. What do you believe your students will be doing, both now and in the future? “Because you are working hard on this, you will be completing the lesson quickly.” “My hunch is that your project will be outstanding.” We can help them to see their future by saying things such as, “Someday, you will be an excellent lawyer,” or “The skills and talents you are developing now will propel you into a successful career in the field of engineering.”

In addition to making our own observations about our students, we can tell them what others have said about them. “Mrs. Jones, who had you in class last year, said you loved to read.” “Mr. Smith, who works in the cafeteria, said she appreciated how you helped clear the tables at lunchtime yesterday.”

We can also use words to imply that students are already doing a good job. We might say, “This project is even better,” or “Could you please refine the paper?” (Edwards, 2010). If students say, “I can’t do this,” we might respond with, “Yet,” which implies that even though they have had difficulty with the task in the past, they will be able to accomplish it (Hall, 2006).

Finally, we can paraphrase what our students say to let them know we have heard them. We can summarize what they said (“So you are concerned about X,” “You are elated about X”), we can put what they said into categories (“You have two ideas ... one is X, and the other is Y, and you are trying to decide which to do first”), or we can take what they said to a higher level (“You are a peacemaker,” “This is about integrity,” or “You greatly value your friendships”) (Costa & Garmston, 2017).


Babad, E. Bernieri, F., & Rosenthal, R. (1991, Spring). Students as judges of teachers’ verbal and nonverbal behavior. American Educational Research Journal, 28(1), 211-234.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (Revised by J. Ellison & C. Hayes.) (2017). Cognitive Coaching foundation seminar learning guide (11th ed.). Highlands, Ranch, CO: Thinking Collaborative.

Edwards, J. (2010). Inviting students to learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Hall, C. (2006). Language in action. Santa Cruz, CA: The NLP Connection.

Response From Pamela Broussard

Pamela Broussard is a High School New Arrival Center Teacher and presenter from Houston, Texas. She is a recipient of numerous awards including Teacher of the Year, TABE ESL Teacher of the Year for Texas, and an HEB Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a Rotary Peace Fellow who has taught nationally and internationally:

Building relationships with students starts before they ever enter the classroom. Is the classroom inviting and reflective of student interest, culture and need? In my first years of teaching, I made sure my room reflected things I liked. I was excited to finally have “my” room. Fast forward 30 years, and my classroom reflects my students’ interest and cultures. As teachers, we need to look around our rooms and see if different cultures are represented. What about students with disabilities: would they see someone like them in a poster or art? Next, we need to check our class library and reading assignments to be sure they consist of authors and protagonists of various races, cultures and genders.

Other simple ways to build relationships are to pronounce names correctly, do interest surveys and take time for individual conversations with students. Attending school events when your students are playing, performing or presenting also lets students know you care.

But I would say some of the strongest ways to build relationships are to have shared experiences. Create classroom traditions or even a class cheer. They can be as simple as getting to sit in a special chair on your birthday or a class photo on your special day. In my class we often sing, do movements or dance together to learn a concept. No one cares how good we are; we just have a good time doing it together. Actually, the worse you are, and the students see you are willing to vulnerable, the more they are willing to participate. Our songs and dances are pretty goofy. Kids often joke about them, but they are OUR routines and traditions. We proudly refer back to them all year.

In addition, create lessons that allow students to reflect on and share their experiences. Teachers need to participate in these activities too. When the students are asked to write something personal, share your story first. Let’s student see you as Three dimensional person with a life beyond the lecture and the walls. Play the game with the students. Do the crazy dance even if you can’t dance at all. Laughing and sharing experiences together builds community. As you build a class community through sharing stories and experiences, the trust deepens.

Another way to build relationships is by doing what I call, “Calling out the good.” All students have something good inside of them. Unfortunately, many struggle to see or believe it. I make it a point to find something each student is good at and either publicly or privately praise them for the quality. I take it one step further and tell them how a boss, a friend or spouse would appreciate that quality. I continually call out that quality each time I see them display it.

For example, “Joan, I noticed you always make sure the table is neat before you go. You are so conscientious and organized. Your bosses will appreciate that you take time to do things right and respect the company’s property.” I can’t tell you how many times through the years, students have told me that they didn’t know they were good at ___ or that no one had ever noticed that that about them. This year, when I had a student take over a game when the assigned leaders were letting it fall apart, I praised her for her leadership skills. I made a comment that her teachers from her last school must have really liked that about her. She replied, “Ms., no one ever noticed me at my last school.” I couldn’t believe it. She went on to tell me how she had been bullied most of her life. By the end of the year, I had given her many more tasks to lead. As the year progressed, she and her classmates began to see her as a leader and called her one. As we connect with students’ backgrounds, give them voice, and call out the good in them. Through that process, the relationships will grow.

Response From Kara Pranikoff

Kara Pranikoff is a elementary school teacher at a public school in New York City. Her book, Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation (Heinemann, 2017) shares many ways to keep the balance of classroom discussion in the hands of the students:

I’ve spent the last few years out of the classroom, working as a literacy coach in an elementary school. I had a dedicated room in my building, but most of my hours were spent in the classrooms of my colleagues as we planned and taught and learned together. I’ve had the honor of working across my school in grades K-5 and have been able to wrap my hands and thoughts around the curriculum and the students in a broad way.

One of my favorite things about being a literacy coach was the ability to watch students grow up. This spring, while in conversation with a mother whose eldest son was graduating from fifth grade, I remembered a story about a favorite toy falling down the stairs, which he wrote during his first weeks of kindergarten. As a young writer he perfectly conveyed his story through an illustration of a stairway stretched diagonally across his paper, a toy hovering above each step, connected by arrows to show the downward motion. After sharing this memory, I went up to my classroom, found this ear;y writing piece, and sent it home for the student’s 5th grade self to enjoy.

In addition to watching individuals grow over the years, I’ve loved that this position has allowed me to have daily contact with a wide range of students—a group whom I lovingly call my “frequent flyers.” They are the students who stop by my room on their way to the bathroom or just after lunch looking for a book recommendation or wanting to share a recent piece of writing—that’s their guise anyway. Really, they are looking to connect. Something happened during my time in their classrooms, when we got to know each other not as teacher and student, but just as interested and interesting equals.

I have loved my time out of the classroom and the insights it has provided, but for the past few years I have also longed for a tighter community of my own. This coming school year I will be heading up a second grade classroom, which I have been planning and dreaming about all summer. I’m looking forward to spending more prolonged time with a single group of students, knowing that the most important thing I can do in the first few days of school is to let them know that we are in this together, we are all learners.

Here are three things, which I learned from both the students whom I have seen grow and graduate as well as from my current group of “frequent flyers.” I am going to be certain to do the following in the coming days to build relationships in my own classroom and I encourage you to consider them as well:

Share stories

Our pull toward narrative is strong at every age. The stories we tell draw us together and help us get to know each other intimately. Building relationships requires individuals to share parts of themselves, to reveal themselves, to find connections. Your students want to know about you as much as you want to know about them. So, think about some good parts of your past to share. What were you like when you were their age? What were your favorite games to play during recess? What’s the biggest adventure you had during the summer? I guarantee the stories will make their way home and soon the parents in the class will feel a little closer to you, too.

Make individual time

In the course of a day a teacher needs to work like a camera lens, continually zooming out to catch the class as a whole and then zooming in tight to see each individual student. This ability to shift focus helps a teacher gain clarity about the students who she is teaching. We need to teach the group as a whole, of course, but the real learning happens during independent work time. Kneel down next to individuals, watch their process and confer about their thinking. This focused time makes your learners feel attended to and will help target your lessons in response to individual needs.

Hold on to the details

When your students come to school and want to tell you about their soccer practice or the lego creation they made last night, they are really asking to be seen as individuals. They let you into their lives because they want you to know their whole-selves in a more well-rounded perspective, not just their school-selves. These details build connection and memory. They allow each student to take an independent shape in your head. Hold on to what your students share with you in these off-moments, write them down somewhere to help you remember. The delight is in the details.

Response From Patty McGee

Patty McGee is the author of Feedback that Moves Writers Forward (Corwin Literacy) and a literacy consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC. Patty brings a vision for creating learning environments where teachers and students discover their true potential and power. It is in the moments when teachers are working collaboratively with students that Patty sees great growth, change, and success:

Trust is the bedrock of relationships, it’s true. Trust is not an enigma. There are very clear ingredients that build trust: authenticity and empathy are two that cannot be overlooked. Authenticity (living fully in one’s value system) and empathy (understanding fully others’ value systems) knit together the relationship of educator and student. When teachers understand students and students believe that they are heard, understood, and valued, the relationship is strengthened.

Simple and powerful ways of building trust are using authentic and empathetic words. Words have the power to build and destroy relationships. Words that strengthen relationships with students that I have heard from teachers are:

  • What can I do to help?
  • What’s your plan?
  • One strategy that may help you...
  • I have faith in you.
  • I trust you.
  • Maybe talk to a partner for more support with that...
  • Here are some options. Which one do you want to try?
  • Have a go at it and see what happens.
  • It sounds like your focus is... Let’s talk through some next steps...
  • You have so many different directions you can go in...
  • The more ideas the better. It gives you options...
  • Maybe consider...
  • The choice is yours...
  • Tell me more about what’s tricky.
  • I’ve been there.

Empathy. Authenticity. Two words and gestures not found in many resources for teachers yet are the magic that makes learning happen.

Response From Jonathan Eckert

Jonathan Eckert is the author of The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher (2016) and Leading Together: Teachers and Administrators Improving Student Outcomes (2018). He is a professor of education at Wheaton College. He earned a doctorate from Vanderbilt University, served at the U.S. Department of Education in the Bush and Obama administrations, and taught outside of Chicago and Nashville for 12 years:

Fifth grade girls’ softball games can last up to three hours. My posterior has been molded by bleachers as I have endured these marathon events to support my students.

Most of us would endure these grueling tests of endurance for our own children, but why would we do this for people who are not bonded to us by blood? As teachers we go to games like these because we want to build relationships.

There are many ways to build relationships with students. While there aren’t any formulas, here are three of the best ways I have found to build relationships with students.

Go to Them

There is no substitute for spending time with students. That does not mean that we need to spend three hours at a softball game - maybe 20 minutes would do. The key is spending time with students where they know that you do not have to be there. This is especially true for middle and high school students. Chris Emdin describes a relational breakthrough for him when he started going outside after school and playing pickup basketball games with his students instead of pouring all of his time into lesson planning that was not working well anyway. Other ways to reach our students beyond the classroom include home visits and living in the same communities where they live. For my first three years of teaching, I lived in the same apartment complex as many of my students. This made a tremendous difference for how they saw me and how I saw them.

Cogenerative Dialogues

Another strategy that Emdin employs is the cogenerative dialogue. To really understand what he proposes with these “cogens,” read his book. In the meantime, here is the basic idea:

  1. Identify four students from diverse backgrounds in a particularly challenging class.
  2. Invite them to a brief conversation before class to determine how the class could be improved.
  3. Meet weekly and listen (do not get defensive). Their feedback is essential to determining progress.
  4. After meeting for several weeks, ask one student to bring a friend to the cogen. The next week, that friend should replace the original member. The original member remains an ally in the classroom.
  5. In subsequent weeks, repeat this process as you bring more students into this dialogue.


At the individual level, the 2x10 is one of the most effective strategies I have found for building relationships with individual students with whom I was not connecting. Here is the strategy:

  1. Identify a student with whom you are struggling to connect.
  2. Seek that student out for a two-minute conversation about anything - it does not matter.
  3. Repeat this for ten consecutive days.

Research shows an 85% improvement in that student’s behavior. In my experience, this is because both the student and teacher change. This strategy can be hard. It is very easy to feel rejected by the student and requires vulnerability on the part of the teacher. As Brene Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, and the first thing I look for in you.”

Of course, the uniqueness of each of our students demands many more strategies, more time, and more love - much of my first book focuses on relationships and still only scratches the surface.

What has been effective for you for building relationships with students?

Thanks to Timothy, Valerie, David, Jenny, Pamela, Kara, Patty and Jonathan for their contributions.

(This is the second post in a seven-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to build relationships with students?

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.

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