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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

Response: Relationships Matter in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 16, 2018 21 min read
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(This is the sixth post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; Part Three here; Part Four here, and Part Five 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.

Today, this post is 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.

Response From Sanée Bell

Sanée Bell, Ed.D. is a middle school principal and adjunct professor who resides in Houston. She has experience as an elementary principal, middle and high school teacher, and basketball coach. Dr. Bell recognizes her impact as a leader and uses her role to inspire, motivate, and empower others. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

Realize. As educators, we impact the lives of students in two ways--negatively or positively. Everything we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, matters. We must realize that we have power to build up or tear down. This realization is critical. Unfortunately, I think that power that we have in our hands is sometimes forgotten because of the external pressures we face as educators. At the heart of everything we do is building relationships. Nothing else really matters in the end. Students will learn your content at a deeper level when they feel connected to you as a person. Students do not care what you know until they know how much you care. Building relationships is the cornerstone to any highly effective classroom or school.

Prioritize. In the beginning of the year there is always a heavy emphasis on building relationships with students. Everything is new and fresh, and everyone is excited to start the new school year. That seems to fade after the first couple of weeks and we begin to move on to business as usual. Think about how to build time daily to check in with students. Shaking hands or giving high fives at the door are great ways to have a personal interaction with students daily. Having students share good things while taking attendance is a quick way to help the classroom community connect. Engaging in community circles once a week also builds community. Lastly, sharing with your students so that they see you as a person and not a profession helps them to feel connected to you throughout the year. Prioritize your time so that you can build and cultivate relationships with students throughout the year.

Personalize. Relationships are a result of personal connection. Each student that comes through the door is different and interacts socially in different ways. It is important to know that how we engage with students must be in a way that is comfortable to them. We must personalize our relationship approach based on the needs of our students. For example, some students are very social and like to talk and share freely. These students are more easily engaged and require less effort to get to know. On the other hand, there are some students who are shy or do not like to talk and can come off as standoffish or socially awkward. Because it will require more effort, It would be easy to leave these students alone thinking that is what they prefer. As humans, we are wired to connect. We must remember that we all prefer to connect in different ways. Don’t overlook the students who connect differently than you do. Take the time to find out how they like to connect and be intentional about personalizing your relationship building approach with each student.

Response From Martha Caldwell & Oman Frame

Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, authors of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom, developed a class their students call “Race, Class and Gender.” They also provide professional development training in diversity, equity and inclusions best practices for schools through iChange Collaborative:

Building Relationships with Students: Teach them to listen to each other

We know students do their best work when they have solid relationships with teachers. Great teachers know that mutual respect is the foundation of healthy relationships with students. Self-aware, socially attuned, and empathetic, they have a keen ear for listening. They honor students’ thoughts and feelings, offer supportive feedback, and ask good questions to learn more about them. They notice body language, facial expressions, or a shift in the quality of a student’s response in class. They read the room constantly to gauge interest and enthusiasm. They are genuinely curious about their students and want to learn about them.

But what about students’ relationships with each other? How do peer relationships affect learning? We also know that social emotional competencies support improved academic performance, and an inclusive classroom climate supports both. Teachers can take learning to the next level by explicitly teaching the communication skills they practice with students every day. By teaching listening and speaking skills (and providing opportunities for practice), they can help students make authentic connections with each other. These supportive connections foster environments in which rich exchanges of ideas take place. In this exchange, the power of a diverse learning in community comes to life!

Students are frequently afraid to reveal their true thoughts and feelings, lest they be judged by their peers. This fear consumes much of their attention, often silencing their most meaningful contributions. Yet when this fear is addressed and overcome, their attention is free to focus on higher order learning: emotionally, socially, academically, and morally.

So how can we make it safe for students to share themselves authentically in our classrooms?

We offer these simple guidelines for listening:

  1. When someone is speaking, give them your undivided attention. Listen silently. Don’t have conversations, make comments, or exchange looks. Pay attention to their words, their body language, and the emotion behind their words. Your attention creates safety and focus for the entire group.
  2. Listening is enough. You don’t need to fix anyone. There’s no need to give advice or offer solutions.
  3. Accept others’ thoughts, feelings, and opinions without judgment. You don’t have to agree, but listen with respect and be open to learning something new.
  4. Pay attention to your own feelings. Conflict is a natural part of learning, so if you hear something you don’t like, sit with it. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable. Give yourself time to process it.
  5. If you don’t understand something someone says, repeat back what you think you heard and ask for clarification. For example, you could say, “Did I hear that right?”

We also offer guidelines for speaking:

  1. Use an “I” perspective. Tell stories or relate specific experiences. That’s usually more effective than talking in generalities or philosophies.
  2. Be honest and open. You may be surprised at how many people feel the same way you do. Even if they don’t, they may respect you for sharing your authentic perspective.
  3. Respond to others with supportive and respectful comments, such as “I appreciate that you shared that” or “I feel as if I understand you better now.”
  4. Allow for mistakes. We all make them, so be forgiving. We’re learning together.
  5. If you feel conflict, stick with the process. Conflict can be resolved, and when it is, relationships often grow deeper.

Respectful listening and speaking skills are the building blocks of supportive relationships and inclusive climates, both of which facilitate learning gains.

Response From Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez is a National Board Certified Teacher and 2011 Folsom Cordova Unified School District Teacher of the Year. Sarah currently teaches fifth grade in Rancho Cordova and serves on the Washington Unified School District Board in West Sacramento, where she lives with her husband and two young children -- a second grader and preschooler:

Students need to feel important. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -- Maya Angelou.

This quote resonates with me, and I realize now how important it is to tell others how much I appreciate them. Each day I make sure to tell my students how grateful I am to be with them, and that there is nowhere else I’d rather be. “Today’s is going to be a great day. I’m so excited that everyone is here to experience it!” This positive talk also helps me get in the best mindset to serve my students.

Like so many teachers, I start my day by greeting students as they walk in the room, giving me a chance to say hello, but more importantly to look in their eyes. I can see who might not have gotten enough sleep, who might have gotten in an argument at home before getting to school, and who might need a few minutes to talk. If I see anything concerning, I ask a student subtly to stay outside for just a minute and I privately ask if they are okay or need anything. As the day goes on, I make sure to walk around and talk to students during group and independent time. Sometimes it’s tempting to sit at our desks and answer emails or grade, but being present with our students is so much more important.

Our students need to feel heard. We have a Class Meeting jar where students can anonymously write about social or academic topics that are bothering them or seek advice from their teacher or peers. I peek into the jar daily. If I see it building up or something concerning, I call for a class meeting. We address important topics, and often the student advice is the most powerful. If you have never done class meetings and want a place to start, I have pulled many strategies from The Morning Meeting, by Carol Davis and Roxann Kriete.

We also have a kindness jar in our class. Here students can write about anything a classmate has done to make their life easier or a little better. I read the notes to the class and we all give a cheer or applause to celebrate students.

Students need to have a voice in decision-making.

Ask for your students’ opinion as you plan. As long as the learning target is met, let the students have a say in the how. For example, we need to do 20 minutes of physical education today, would you like to do basketball or soccer? For today’s reading, would you like to go outside or stay inside? Of the three responses you provided, please mark the one you feel is your best work with a star and that is one I will grade. Project-based learning is also the perfect opportunity to let students take ownership and make decisions around their learning.

One more simple step to honoring student voice is to have them write a quick note. On the back of every assessment I have the students answer the same prompts: what do you like, love, or wonder/want to change? I tell them that I will go through the papers and look for common themes, and do my best to keep doing the things they like and love and find ways to make the changes they are requesting. This constant reflection on our classroom learning and environment helps me ensure I am best meeting my students’ needs.

Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas, PhD is a Regional Technology Coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools. She is also a Google Certified Innovator, Google Education Trainer, and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest. She is also a national advisor for the Future Ready Instructional Coaches Strand, and an Affiliate Professor at Loyola University in Maryland:

There are many ways to build relationships with students. One great way is by having them teach us things, or learning things together. We have explored drones, robotics, coding, and other technologies or ideas. Also, getting to know what your students like is extremely helpful. If you have shared interests, that is icing on the cake! Like me, I found that many of my students were into music, basketball, and gaming; thus, we created a Music Production Club at lunch. Additionally, I coached our school’s basketball team, and also implemented a gamification model in my classroom. Lastly, it goes a long way to show up at students’ extracurricular activities to cheer them on.

Response From Debbie Zacarian & Judie Haynes

Debbie Zacarian brings three decades of combined experience as a district administrator, university faculty member, and educational service agency leader. With expertise in responsive leadership, instructional practices, family-school partnerships, and educational policies, she’s authored many books and local and state policies and presents extensively.

Judie Haynes is an ESL teacher with 35 years’ classroom teaching and teacher training experience. She is the author and coauthor of eight books and is the co-founder and co-moderator of #ELLCHAT, a widely know Twitter chat for teachers of ELLs.

Debbie and Judie are the co-authors of Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas; The Essential guide for educating beginning English Learners; and Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress (with Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz):

The importance of teacher-student relationships cannot be minimized. Renowned sociologist Joyce Epstein (2011) and educational researcher John Hattie (2008) show a strong connection between the relationships that we build with our students and the powerful academic impacts they make. Here are four strategies for building relationships with our students.

  1. Take time to learn about each student. An important goal for us as teachers is to get to know our students so that we can identify their strengths and assets. For example, asking young learners to respond to the following prompt can help us in getting to know them: ‘I wish my teacher knew that...’ Similarly, asking older students questions such as: ‘Tell me about the activities that you are involved outside of school; activities that you do at home; activities that you particularly enjoy in and out of school; what a prior teacher did that you found particularly helpful.’ These questions help teachers get to know their students and personalize their interactions with them. For example, when a teacher learns that a student is active in the school drama club, she/he can comment positively on the play the group performed.

  2. Design and deliver lessons that connect with students’ experiences. It’s greatly meaningful and compelling when learning is connected with the information that we learn about our students’ personal, cultural, social, world, and prior academic experiences. For example, an elementary science teacher found out that her students had an interest in planting a vegetable garden and growing vegetables. With help from the families and community, the children in the science class created a community garden and the produce went to help those families in need.

  3. Tell the students something personal about yourself to build a personal connection with them. It should be something that you can share publicly. One teacher, for example, tells her class about her two-pound dog and its encounter with a skunk. The class looked up remedies for getting rid of the skunk smell. From that point forward students eagerly questioned the teacher about trouble that the dog got into. Another teacher talks about his interest in learning how to cook and tells the class about his successes and failures in the kitchen.

  4. Help students to see their own strengths and find the strengths in others. In addition to helping students to see their own strengths, we must help them learn how to find the strengths of others. Teachers can model this behavior by identifying students’ positive and inherent qualities and values and reflecting these values back to them. For example, a teacher can identify the positive qualities of a student that takes out her notebook or tablet out of her knapsack. An acknowledgement to that student can go something like: “Thank you for being attentive, responsive, and responsible by bringing your notebook/tablet to school.” The same type of positive and precise feedback can be given to students as they work in with peers (e.g., “I appreciate your willingness to listen. That is a great quality that is coming across in your responses”).

When we take time to use these strategies to build relationships with our students, we can strengthen their engagement and academic success in school and in their lives.

Response From Madeline Whitaker Good

Madeline Whitaker Good has taught elementary and middle school, and is currently a middle school teacher in Springfield, Missouri. She is a co-author of Your First Year:

One of the best, yet least talked about, ways that you can build relationships with students is to make sure that the content you are teaching is taught in an accessible way, and that all of your students have a chance to feel success in your classroom. Many people don’t realize that most of their students come to school genuinely wanting to learn and feel success at the beginning of the year, and when they realize that they are in a class where learning may not take place or where only some students will be able to find success, the potential for tight relationships is strongly hindered. Yes, asking students about their life outside of school is a great way to build connections, but if they see you as someone who doesn’t care about their learning, you asking those questions may come across as inauthentic. Never forget that the main part of your job is to teach students, and if that does not occur, students will notice.

Response From Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn

Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn, ranked #4 in the Top 30 Global Gurus in Education, is the author of 18 books on rigor, motivation, instruction, and leadership. She regularly collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. She can be reached through her website, www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

The most basic way to build a relationship with students is to ask questions and then listen! No matter the age of your students, they want someone who cares about them, and they judge that, in part, by how much you listen. For example, when my niece was in 2nd grade, she was very excited when her teacher used her dog’s name in a math word problem. She told me, “I know my teacher likes me. I told her about Bingo, and then she put his name on our worksheet.” For my nephew, when he was older, he played baseball. He can still tell you the names of the teachers who attended his games; he’s convinced they came just to see him, and he had a better relationship with those teachers.

Other ways you can build relationships are to use interest inventories to learn about students, or to ask students to create a visual of what they want to do when they graduate from high school. Another creative way is to ask students to write you a letter on the first day of school. They should imagine it is the last day of school (or semester, or whatever time frame you would like). In their letter, each student explains why being in your class was their best year ever. You can also have them create vision posters, which is a nice alternative for younger learners. It’s amazing what you will learn from them, and it sets a tone in your classroom that you want to hear students’ perspectives.

Response From Akira M. LeBlanc

Akira M. LeBlanc has served the Spring ISD learning community for nearly a decade. In her role as a Multilingual Teacher Facilitator, she supports educators of culturally and linguistically diverse students by providing responsive professional development and instructional support. Kira also serves as one of the two chief consultants with Apple C.R.A.T.E Consulting; she also co-authors the Above & Beyond newsletter for educators of English Learners:

Let’s do a bit of math. Take a scan of all the budding scholars crossing the threshold of your classroom. Then, survey the amalgam of energized and exhausted educators populating your campus. Finally, between both groups, multiply the differences in gender, personality, ethnicity, language, religious beliefs, culture, and every other unmentioned identity-informing category. The result? An infinite number of possibilities for best practices in relationship-building!

While we derived our answer somewhat mathematically, the best kept secret of student-teacher relationship-building is that it is less a perfect equation and more a masterful work of art. Ever experienced reverence as instructional royalty by one student and perpetual evil eyes by another? It’s happened to the best of us! The key, however, is in establishing a solid foundation of care from the onset. Here’s three best practices that lead to positive student-teacher relationships:

  1. Effective educators always possess and display a positive vision for all students’ learning capabilities. Ensuring that we sincerely believe that all students--regardless of what you’ve heard or read--are capable of achievement is a huge step in relationship-building. Most students can detect your beliefs about their capabilities; and they usually respond accordingly.

  2. Effective educators proactively learn their students. In the day-to-day grind, one can forget that our students learn best when they are loved first. Familiarize yourself with your students’ likes and dislikes, aspirations and dreams, talents and interests. Throughout the school year, purposefully integrate that knowledge as you interact and educate.

  3. Effective educators know themselves. Know that your own gender, personality, ethnicity, and so on factor into your relationship-building with students. After all, you’re not just a teacher; you’re also a human being. Spend some time enhancing your own self-awareness about what makes you you. Consider how your own funds of knowledge might inform the ways you interact with your students and be willing to compromise. Love students in the language they understand, even when that means stepping out of your comfort zone.

The art of effective relationship-building takes on different shapes and sizes with teachers and their students; there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. But, the mastering of basic best practices such as these can help you to design a classroom collage of care and learning to be remembered for ages!

Thanks to Sanée, Martha, Oman, Sarah, Sarah, Debbie, Judie, Madeline, Barbara and Akira 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

Classroom Management Advice

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Implementing The Common Core

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

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Teaching English Language Learners

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Author Interviews

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The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & The Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

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

Look for Part Seven 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.