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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: ‘Don’t Just Teach the Curriculum, Teach the Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 20, 2018 21 min read
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(This is the seventh post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; Part Three here; Part Four here; Part Five here and Part Six 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.

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

In Part Five, it was time for Jana Echevarria, Dr. Beth Gotcher, Joe Mullikin, Denise Fawcett Facey, Rachelle Dene Poth, Chris Hull, Douglas Reeves, and Melissa Jackson to share their thoughts.

Part Six was given over to Sanée Bell, Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, Sarah Thomas, Debbie Zacarian, Judie Haynes, Madeline Whitaker Good, Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn, and Akira M. LeBlanc.

Today, in this series’ next-to-last post, Julia Thompson, Dr. Mara Lee Grayson, Dr. Kris Felicello, Jennifer Lasater, Kristina DeMoss, Cindy Terebush, and Tamara Fyke write their responses.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is currently a teacher trainer for the Bureau of Research and Development. She is also the author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide, Fourth Edition. Thompson offers practical advice for teachers at her website, www.juliagthompson.com, her blog, www. juliagthompson.blogspot.com, and on Twitter @TeacherAdvice:

It is heartening to read so much careful research about the importance of building solid relationships with students. The trickle-down effect of this research is even more positive: building positive connections with students has become a responsibility that teachers embrace.

Although the importance of building relationships with students is now evident, it is not as easy to determine how to go about creating those connections. Just like everything else in education, the methods vary from classroom to classroom and from teacher to teacher. There are some constants that remain true over grade levels, however.

First of all, just as in any significant relationship, time and patience are necessary. Students of all ages are tender creatures (especially the most challenging ones) who need time to develop trust and confidence in their teachers. Be patient. Be persistent.

Expect the best from your students. Teachers who calmly convey their faith in their students are far more likely to have productive relationships than those teachers who make it clear in many subtle ways that they do not approve of their students or fully believe in their ability to succeed. Approach all students--especially the ones who are often difficult--with the expectation that they can succeed, and that approach will make it easier to create connections.

Make it clear that you want to help your students. Questions such as “How can I help you?” “Would you like to talk about this?” and “What’s going on?” when delivered in a sincere and caring manner make it easy for students to respond positively to their teachers. Such questions also implicitly convey the affection and approval that students need.

Trusting relationships are fragile. It’s all too easy to destroy the trust that your students may have in you. It’s almost impossible not to be frustrated during a typical school day, but giving into exasperation and impatience will damage the relationships you have with students. Another easy way to destroy the relationships that you have with students is to be a pushover for flimsy excuses. When students see that their teachers can be easily manipulated by their classmates, they will lose the respect necessary for productive relationships.

Finally, one of the most important things to keep in mind when making connections with your students is to make sure that you put your students first while you are in class with them. Teachers who are distracted by emails, paperwork, lesson plans, and all the other demands that can draw attention away from students find that it’s simply impossible to create good relationships. Doing your best to stay focused on students and their needs while you are together lets students know that they matter to you.

Response From Dr. Mara Lee Grayson

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is an Assistant Professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her scholarship and creative work can be found in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, English Education, English Journal, Columbia Journal, and Fiction, among other publications. Her book, Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing, provides practical suggestions for instructors seeking to implement anti-racist curricula in the composition classroom:

Want to Connect with Your Students? Be a Person.

One Saturday afternoon decades ago, while my mother and I were shopping for groceries, we bumped into my English teacher. While my mother made conversation with Mrs. B, I hid behind a display of salad greens. Given the size of Brooklyn, NY and the fact that my school was many miles from my house, I was shocked to find Mrs. B. in my neighborhood. As a child with a rich imagination and dreams of becoming a writer, I was sure, in fact, that Mrs. B. must have occupied another neighborhood entirely, one to which I had never been, one where only teachers resided.

I shared this story with my mother, who confessed that as a child, she’d thought similarly about her teachers: “I figured my teacher spent weekends grading papers and missing her students,” she said. “What else would a teacher want but to be in the classroom?”

Whimsical childhood notions aside, this is, of course, one of the narratives fed to us by film and television. On film, both the boarding school teacher played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and the Wellesley lecturer played by Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile forsake their teaching positions and accompanying income for a particular group of students with whom they have connected through nontraditional pedagogies. On television’s Boy Meets World, Mr. Feeny somehow manages to be the main character’s high school teacher, principal, college professor, next-door neighbor, and confidante, and on the classic sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, a group of high school students regularly climb through the living room window of their history teacher’s Brooklyn apartment.

On TV and in the movies, teachers’ lives, it seems, revolve around their students.

I don’t buy it. And I don’t think our students do either.

Our students don’t exist solely in the classroom. Most of our third-graders would rather be on a playground than behind a desk and many of our eleventh-graders are more interested in that classmate they’ve got a crush on than anything happening in the classroom. The same is true for us, to a different extent: while we may love our work and believe it to be a calling, it isn’t the only thing that defines us. We have partners, families, and friends; we have hobbies, social lives, and financial woes. When we deny that we are complex human being with full lives and step into a broadly drawn caricature, we perpetuate essentialist stereotypes of teachers and the role they play in our society.

So what can teachers do?


  • Let students know where your interests intersect with theirs. If a student mentions she loves Demi Lovato’s voice, tell her you do too - or tell her you prefer Beyonce’s.
  • Use examples from your own experience. Tangibles make concepts real and it’s easier to be specific when the tangibles come from your own life.
  • Make relevant recommendations. Did you have a good dinner or see a great (age-appropriate) movie over the weekend? Tell your students about it.
  • Let students see your thought process. When students are struggling, let them know how you worked through a similar problem.
  • Share your rationale. When you assign a difficult task, tell them why you’re assigning it. Don’t expect them to guess.


  • Get overly personal. Draw a line and stick to it. Don’t talk about anything you wouldn’t want your students’ parents or your principal to know.
  • Share your life story. The students, not you, should still be the focus of the classroom.
  • Pretend to be someone you’re not. You’ll feel like a fraud and your students will see through it.

Presenting ourselves as complex individuals - who also happen to be teachers - has political as well as pedagogical implications. At a time when politicians and administrators use stereotypical narratives of the devoted teacher to justify cutting funding, extending hours, and depriving teachers of wage increases, we must ensure that we do not inadvertently feed these narratives in our classrooms.

Response From Dr. Kris Felicello

Dr. Kris Felicello has been in the field of education for over 25 years as a Teacher, Coach, Athletic Director, Assistant Principal, Principal, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, and he is currently the Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services in the North Rockland Central School District in Rockland County, New York. Kris obtained his Doctor of Education degree in Educational Leadership from St. John’s University in 2011:

All good educators know that one of the most important things they can do is build strong relationships with students. It starts the first day of school and lasts pretty much forever.

The initial step in the process is to get to know kids as individuals. Learn names, how to pronounce them correctly, and then use them each time you see a student. Learn what students are interested in, passionate about, fearful of, their families, their culture, their strengths and their weaknesses. Once you have this knowledge you will not only have the opportunity to speak with them about topics other than school, you can also use what you have learned to put you students in a position to be successful.

If Tomika loves to paint, but is deathly shy, you may have her create a picture that illustrates the setting of the book you are reading rather than describe the scene to her fellow classmates. Jason loves baseball, but hates math, you can talk about the Yankee game with him as he arrives and later hook him into your math lesson by using stats from the game as part of the activity.

Good teachers are engaging and positive. They smile at their students, they rarely lose their cool and, when they make a mistake, they admit it and apologize. Students are so forgiving if you are straight with them when you inevitably mess up.

When great teachers go the extra mile to connect with students on an individual basis they:

  • Prioritize individual conversations with students
  • Greet students with a smile everyday
  • Attend games and surprise them with a gatorade
  • Go to their concert, take a picture, and mail it to them
  • Go to their play and hang the playbill in the classroom
  • Make positive phone calls home just because
  • Leave little surprise notes on student desks
  • Remember family member names and ask about them
  • Do home visits
  • Have lunch with their students
  • Break rules for their kids when it is in their best interest
  • Ask them how you can do better as a teacher and listen to their feedback

It really is about being intentional and making an effort to go the extra mile for a student. With so much to cover and so little time, how often do we actually speak to our students and get to know them?

Educators can spend hours and hours honing their craft, preparing lessons, buying materials on Teachers Pay Teachers, reading professional books, but without solid relationships with their students much of it is for naught.

Taking time to build relationships is just as important--if not more--as effective instructional practices. In fact, I believe without building relationships, an educator cannot be successful. Students need to feel like individuals, they need to feel cared for. Only then can they reach their potential, academically and socially. The best teachers understand this and make building relationships a priority.

Response From Jennifer Lasater

Jennifer Lasater is an American who has been teaching internationally for 15 years. She has taught at the Early Childhood level for the past 20 years with experience in Early Childhood Special Education, IB Primary Years Programme (PYP), Common Core, International Primary Curriculums (IPC), and International Curriculums:

A good relationship with students is beneficial for a good school year. To build good relationships with your students you need to invest your time. The easiest way to start building a positive relationship with your students is to greet them as they enter the classroom. Meet them at the door, greet them by name and welcome them into the classroom. I greet all of my students as they enter the room, this allows me to evaluate their mood and adjust my plans. I have noticed that when I do not greet my students they are less attentive. Greeting them also gives the teacher an opportunity to address issues and have a small chat with the students. Greeting students is a good way to start the day, on the other side is to make sure you say good-bye to them. It shows you value your students and are looking out for them.

Another good way to build a relationship with students is to be involved outside of the classroom. Volunteer to chaperone dances, go to sporting events or concerts. While at these extra-curricular events talk with the students. Let them know a little of your own personality or your private life. By giving your time for your students you will show you value them and their interests. I have had many good conversations with older students, former students, and even future students outside of the classroom. I am still in contact with some students that I taught 14 years ago, when they were in 1st grade.

As you can see the best way to build a relationship with students is to spend time with them and talk with them. By investing your time and attention in your students you are showing them that they are important people. Don’t just teach the curriculum, teach the students. Take the time to listen to them, find their talents, their learning style and their interests. After learning more about your students use that information to differentiate your assessments and assignments. View your students s individuals, each unique in their own way.

Response From Kristina DeMoss

Kristina DeMoss is currently an Instructional Technology Specialist with Virginia Beach City Public Schools. She formerly taught 3rd grade and is passionate about integrating purposeful technology into learning while providing hands on opportunities for all students:

Building relationships with students is imperative. The benefits of these relationships for both teachers and students reach farther than the classroom and academic success. With the fast pace of today’s lifestyle and the many distractions often present in family lives, students need positive and caring relationships with teachers or other staff members.

One great way to build relationships is by holding morning meetings every morning, no excuses. This is valuable time where students not only build connections with each other but as a teacher you are able to dig a little deeper and find out more about your students. When these meetings are prioritized, they become part of the classroom culture. As a classroom teacher I witnessed many transformational moments with my students through these morning meetings. Students that struggled with social skills, learned how to be kind and positively contribute to our classroom culture. Both myself and my students looked forward to these times. Our meetings always consisted of a greeting, activity and a time for students to share. Once students understood the expectations for our morning meeting routines, I allowed choice as in how students greeted one another or what sharing/activity we did for that day.

At my current school, all staff members attend morning meetings in classrooms and often lead these meetings. This brings a sense of community throughout the entire school where every staff member is invested in students. Invest in your students. They know if you really care and will do anything to perform for you if they know you do. Take time to get to know their interests or what they need from you as their teacher. In a data driven time, we must remember to look past the numbers and that we teach young people. They each have a story and come to us with many different needs. While content and data are important in driving instruction, we can’t forget the whole child, the child behind those numbers who may just need to know someone cares.

Response From Cindy Terebush

Cindy Terebush is an early childhood consultant, presenter and author:

Students need to know that we see them and accept them. They have to know that we are accepting, safe and predictable. My classroom needs to send a message that they belong here and that this is a great place to be.

In order to be accepting of all students, teachers and administrators need to self-reflect and consider their biases. Biases can be cultural, or personality driven. They are often based on where and how we were raised. It is so hard to separate how we experienced childhood from how we treat children. We all have biases and will be naturally drawn to some students instead of others. It is, however, imperative that we seek to develop relationships with all students, so we have to be aware when our biases are making us hesitate to get to know someone. When we are aware of how we think, we can more swiftly put biases aside and seek ways to reach out to everyone.

When I work with teachers in their classrooms, they will often point out the children who challenge them the most. My response is always, “I understand that there is a challenge and we will talk about strategies. What is the child’s gift?” Every human being has gifts, and part of a teacher’s role is to identify them. Children who know that I see their gifts are more apt to connect with me. When I was a child, my gift was communication. I was a good writer and loved talking - a little too much, according to many of my teachers. Today, I get paid to write and to speak publicly. I’d like to go back to those teachers who complained to my parents about me talking too much and tell them what I do for my career. When I think about some of those teachers, I realize that I didn’t have a good relationship with them. They saw my gift as detrimental. The teachers who found a way to capitalize on my love of talking created a connection, and I remember them fondly.

As teachers, we also have to approach situations without judgment. My job as a teacher is to be a helper. I have to tell students that they can come to me, and I will do all I can for them. Sometimes, doing all I can means helping them to find the other people who can guide them.

Finally, I let students see that I am a whole person and that I see them as whole people. I do talk about my life outside the classroom. Over the years, my students have known that I have a husband and two sons, and they learn little bits about us as a family. They learn that I am a history nerd, and that I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles. They even learn about my fear of goats. In exchange, they share bits of their lives with me. I have known who participated in which sports, clubs or other extracurriculars. They share what they love doing and their fears - animals or otherwise. When we share glimpses of ourselves from our whole lives, we are more apt to find points of connection upon which a relationship can be built.

Response From Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke is a creative entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities. She is the creator, author, and brand manager for Love In A Big World, which equips K-8 educators with a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that is both research-based and practical, and also provides the supporting resources necessary to empower students to be socially competent, emotionally healthy problem-solvers who discover and maintain a sense of purpose and make a positive difference in the world. Tamara is editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter @entrprenurgirl:

As I was leading a presentation for a group of educators at the Music City SEL Conference in Summer 2018, one of the attendees of my session said, “Let’s face it! Kids have great BS detectors!” We all laughed and nodded. It’s true! Kids know when we are being authentic with them. That’s why we have to keep it real.

In order to build relationships with students, we first need to be mindful of how they see the world. What are the cultural influences that are shaping their growing-up experience? We need to be aware of the sports figures, artists, video games, movies, YouTube videos―the voices that are echoing in their heads―as well as current events impacting our society.

We also need to share who we are. By letting our students know more about us as human beings, we build connection. There may be someone else in the class who likes chocolate as much as I do or who enjoys “Anne with an E” on Netflix, too. I can share positive and appropriate personal stories about my growing up years, my kids, my pets, the latest books I’ve read and so on.

Additionally, to foster positive relationships, we need to utilize practices that promote social-emotional learning (SEL). The Center for Great Teachers and Leaders at American Institutes for Research outline social teaching practices and instructional teaching practices. Social teaching practices include: a warm and nurturing environment, positive teacher language, opportunities for student voice and choice, and a restorative approach to discipline. Instructional teaching practices include: cooperative learning, classroom discussions, reflection and journaling, high expectations, and more.

Coupled with these teaching practices, we must be intentional about SEL. This means that we build time into our schedule for explicit SEL instruction, such as during morning meeting or advisory period. We must also be intentional about integrating SEL into our daily routine, especially during transitions, debriefing activities, and behavior management.

As Leman and Pentak point out in The Way of the Shepherd (2004), a good leader is like a shepherd “who leads people in a manner that makes them want to follow.” As teachers, we are leading our students -- shepherding their hearts. The old saying is true, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” We must put our heart and passion into our teaching by letting our students know we truly care.

Thanks to Julia, Mara, Kris, Jennifer, Kristina, Cindy and Tamara 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.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

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Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

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Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

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The Inclusive Classroom

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Eight 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.