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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: We Must ‘Notice the Uniqueness in Each Student’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 10, 2018 20 min read
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(This is the third post in a seven-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

Today, Debbie Silver, Nedra Robinson, Tamera Musiowsky, John Seborowski, Bryan Christopher, Becca Leech, Kelly Wickham Hurst, and Diane Mora contribute their ideas.

Response From Debbie Silver

Debbie Silver is a former Louisiana State Teacher of the Year and an internationally known presenter. She is the author of the best-selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. She co-wrote Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success. She can be reached at www.debbiesilver.com:

I’ve always felt that as the teacher I am rather like a hostess, and it is my job to see that all my students (my visitors) are welcomed into my classroom with genuine cordiality. Since they have little or no choice about being at school and in my classroom, students deserve at least the same hospitality and interest I would extend to guests in my home. Yes, I have house rules, but I treat people in my home with dignity and respect, whether I’m “feeling it” or not. Why should I do less by my students?

The best way to build relationships is to let them know we are interested in getting to know them and inviting them to get to know us. We look at them when we speak to them, and we do the same when they are speaking to us. I’ve worked with students at every grade level, and here are some of my favorite methods for building positive relationships with them (i.e. some of these will need to modified for younger learners).

Learn their names

Whether they say it’s a big deal to them or not, it is a big deal to me. I tell them on day one that anytime I mispronounce or misspell their names, they are to correct me immediately. I think it is respectful to know and correctly pronounce their names. I use seating charts, pictures, and notes to myself to help me quickly learn who they are. I address them by their preferred name every time I speak to them, and I require students to do the same for their peers. We play name games, have “pop quizzes,” and utilize trifold name tents until we all know each other’s names.

Personal inventories

On the first day I ask each student to fill out an inventory sheet that asks them questions about what they do when they are not in class, how they feel about school, and their personal likes and dislikes. They get a chance to tell me all kinds of things I need to know about them as learners. I read over the sheets regularly to remind myself who my students are, and I frequently refer to their particular interests when I’m planning lessons or having a discussion with them.

Greet each student every morning

I make it a priority to say “hello” to each student as they enter my class or anytime I encounter them outside my classroom. If at all possible, I mention something positive about the student regarding anything shared by another teacher, a personal observation, or just a reference to something they’ve told me before. I want to make sure they get at least one smile and personal greeting during the day.

Show up at their events

Whenever possible I try to show up for their special times. Whether it is a ballgame after school, an award celebration, a concert, or a presentation they are doing in another teacher’s room, I try to drop by and let them know I think they are worth the effort to be there. Even if I don’t get to speak to them at the event, I am able to mention something positive about their performance when I’m greeting them for class.

Share your own stories

My students seem to delight in hearing stories about what I was like when I was their age. They enjoy looking at my old yearbooks and asking me question about “the olden days.” I create a bulletin board about myself for them to scrutinize during the first couple of weeks at school. I include not-so-flattering school photos along with current pictures of my family and life outside school. I use self-deprecating humor to engage them as well as to model how to handle things that make us uncomfortable.

Never give up on them

Through my words and actions, I let students know that there is no way I will give up on them. I tell them that hurtful words and inappropriate choices will have consequences, but that I am and will always remain their advocate. I had the good fortune to teach in my first school for 17 years. After the first few years word got around that once you were my student, you became my kid for life.

Put it in writing

At the beginning of each year I give every student a composition notebook that will remain in the classroom until the end of the year. They decorate it however they choose. Occasionally I supplement a science lesson with a chance for students to write about their feelings. When a student seems upset, I ask them to grab their journal and “write it out.” On a regular basis I read their journals and respond or write specific questions to the owner. I keep an emergency basket on my desk for students to place their journals if they have written something they need me to read immediately. I keep their notebooks secure and private until the end of the year. At the end of the term, I return their journals to them along with a personal letter I write telling them my favorite things about them, my dreams for them, and some of the things I’ll never forget about them. I have had students tell me they have kept their letters for years after they left our class.

Response From Nedra Robinson

Nedra Robinson is a Crowley ISD Board Trustee, a Fort Worth educator, and a Texas Education Policy Institute Fellow. She is passionate about education policy and equity in education. Robinson holds a masters in public administration and is the mother of two remarkable children. Connect with her on Twitter at @nedra_robinson:

One year, I had a student approach me at my classroom door as I was standing to greet students. She asked, “May I have a moment to speak with you before I go inside?” Once I agreed, she proceeded to tell me that she wasn’t having a good day and that she’d prefer not to be called on or interact with her classmates. She informed me that her brother had passed shortly before school started, and the memories of him were very strong that particular day.

Her level of maturity struck me. Here’s this preteen girl who could’ve very easily entered the classroom without speaking, put her head on her desk, ignored my instructions for the day, and had an outburst or meltdown if I had tried to correct her behavior since anger is part of grief. Instead, I granted her request and ensured that her classmates left her alone when they questioned why she wasn’t participating with the rest of the class.

Later, I discovered that I was the only teacher with whom she had disclosed that information. Which made me ponder: What had I done to make her trust me so early in the year?

  1. First Impressions Matter

    • Greet students with enthusiasm and maintain that passion during the year
    • Before doing any of the Getting to Know You Activities or reviewing rules and procedures, introduce yourself, discuss your family, activities that you like to do outside of teaching, and places where you have lived or traveled. Let students meet the person before they meet the teacher.
    • Learn names quickly, and jot down a phonetic spelling of names that you may find difficult to pronounce on your roster. This helps eliminate offending students, giving them an unsolicited nickname, or requesting that they provide you an alternate name.

  1. Discuss Non-Academics

    • Over the years, I’ve come to realize that small group time provides an opportunity to get to know students on a personal level that’s often difficult with the whole group.
    • Set aside a few minutes to discuss their lives outside of school. Some students are an open book while others are reluctant speakers. If you show a genuine interest in students’ lives, it’ll help with establishing a rapport, gauging students’ feelings, and provide relevant tools that you can use to enhance your lesson.

  1. Create a Culture of Respect

    • Most importantly, provide a safe, secure, structured environment for students.
    • Handle situations professionally, and refrain from chastising students in front of their peers.
    • Address issues individually, in a respectful manner
    • Teach alternate ways of handling a situation when a student exhibits unacceptable behavior towards you, another student, or staff member.
    • Be consistent

By implementing these strategies, the student who wouldn’t utter her brother’s name at the beginning of the year was showing me things that her brother had posted on social media by the end of the year. There’s a saying, “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Value-added is much more than test scores. I’d say that this student made remarkable gains during the school year.

Response From Tamera Musiowsky

Tamera Musiowsky is an international educator and adviser who has taught in Singapore, New York City, and Edmonton, Canada. She is an active member of ASCD and is the President of the Emerging Leaders Alumni Affiliate. Her previous roles include elementary teacher, teacher leader, instructional coordinator, and Student Action Coordinator. She currently resides and teaches in Singapore:

Your Best Bet at Building and Maintaining Relationships with Students

With time constraints to “cover content”, it is often easy to overlook the importance of building relationships with students. Building or ignoring relationships could make or break the time you have with them. Focusing on teaching the people in front of you, rather than the content, will change teaching and learning in the classroom environment you share with them.

  1. Notice the uniqueness in each of your students, especially when getting to know them

    . Each student has the capacity to contribute to the classroom community in their own way. No matter the age of those you teach, all students are unique, independent beings and need to be treated as such. Recognize that all relationships take time to build. At younger ages, we might expect that relationships form immediately because little ones tend to trust quickly. As students progress through school, building that relationship may not be as easy so how you greet students as you see them, will be specific to individuals. Not everyone wants a handshake or a high five in the morning, but everyone wants the recognition that they are there. Learn about their interests and strengths, their likes and dislikes. Your approach will be noticed and will support the development of the relationship. In return, take note of how students engage with you, and celebrate these uniquenesses with your community of learners.

  2. Check in daily.

    Developing initial relationships can be natural or a bumpy road. What can be challenging in the further development of relationships, is that you have to put in effort to keep developing it. You have to put in the effort everyday to check in with your students. Most students will want you to ask them how they are doing, what the weekend was like, or how the family visit was. Some students will shrink and not want to be asked at all. Although some students will avoid your questions, you will need to find another wait to stay connected with them. That could be through a hand gesture or a look, just to make sure everything is okay.

  3. Follow through. One of the most important ways to maintain a strong and trusting relationship with your students is to follow through on what you say. If you say you’re going to bring a certain book in for someone to read, bring it. If you say you are going to email a video on a topic of interest, email it. If you say you will talk about something later, talk about it later. These small actions build trust and are meaningful to students. Little things that take some effort to remember but take little of your time.

Small actions will prove to be incredibly important in building and sustaining relationships with your students. Be the person they can count on in their learning environment to ensure that they can have the best experiences possible during your time together.

Response From John Seborowski

John Seborowski is entering his seventh year as a school administrator after spending twelve years as a high school English teacher. He is currently the Assistant Principal of Pequannock Valley Middle School in Pompton Plains, NJ:

When I first stepped into my role as a middle school assistant principal four years ago, I quickly realized how much time I would be spending with students who did not want to be in class or even school in general. After an initial year of ups and downs with students, I reflected on what I did, but, more importantly, did not do throughout the year with students who had difficulties both in the classroom and out.

After doing some reading and participating in Twitter chats, it dawned on me that although I spent time with these students, did I really get to know them? Did I really take the time to learn about their interests? Did I share my interests with them? Did they genuinely feel that I was there to help them because I cared about them? Little did I realize the answers to these questions would transform my approach to classroom and overall school management. All of the paperwork would take a backseat and relationships would be the focus.

At the start of the next school year, I made it a goal to build relationships with as many students as possible, especially the “frequent flyers” in the main office. I sat with students more in the cafeteria. I attended as many after school events as possible. Instead of sending a student to the central detention room, he or she had detention with me so that we could get to know each other a little more and discuss a plan of action moving forward. I saw fewer repeat discipline referrals and noticed more students going out of their way to say hello to me and wanting to talk in the hallway. Simply put, I was astonished with the results.

I have found that the single best way to building relationships with students is to show them that you care. It might seem like a simple suggestion, and, you might even say, “Well of course I know and care about my students.” I thought I did too - until I sat down and asked myself the questions I reflected on earlier.

Having a one-on-one conversation at the start of the year with a student sets the tone for the next ten months. Following that conversation up in the hallway or the cafeteria makes it stronger. Attending the school musical, a soccer game or stopping by the Maker Space in the media center to watch them in action solidifies it. Once that student sees you as a person, a human being, and not just someone ready to assign a detention or more work, learning on multiple levels starts to take shape. The student gains a certain respect and trust for you that might not normally be there, and that is what you can fall back on when the difficult times arise.

It has been my experience that once you take the time to not only listen to their interests but also ask questions and share your insights on the topics that mean the world to them, students, quite frankly, will walk through a wall for you. They start to see that they mean something special to you and are not just an entry in a gradebook. And for those students who have never felt that way about a teacher before, they will be your greatest allies in the classroom.

Response From Bryan Christopher

Bryan Christopher has taught English and journalism at Riverside High School in Durham, NC since 2007. You can learn more about by visiting his website:

When it comes to building relationships with students ice breakers and formative assessments are nice, but making a connection that enhances student achievement requires more nuance.

Having something non-curricular to talk about with each student in your classroom is a great way to build personal relationships. Three questions I like to ask to learn about their lives outside of school are:

  • Who do you stay with?

    How students describe their homes can reveal much about their lives out of school. Do they live with one or both of their parents? Do they have siblings? Are they a primary caregiver when they’re at home? You can later ask about the people they mention in follow-up conversations (How’s your grandma doing? What school does your younger sister go to?).

  • What do you like to do when you’re not at school? Learning their hobbies and interests is an easy way to lay groundwork for personalized conversations later on. If they are musicians, ask them about upcoming concerts or what they’re listening to this week. If they’re athletes, ask about or attend their games. Knowing their interests can also help inform lesson plans. For example, if you have a classroom full of soccer fans, incorporate the World Cup. Or, if your students have jobs, utilize their prior knowledge of wages, schedules and bosses.

  • What adult do you respect the most? I often ask students this question in writing. Many write about their parents, but others describe relationships with coaches, grandparents and older siblings. It’s another way to learn the context of their lives outside of the classroom. Knowing who they respect the most is a powerful tool when calling home, too. Passing along information - especially praise - to the person they respect the most maximizes your impact.

Students know it’s your job to teach them the course content, but they’re much more willing to listen and work if they know you’re invested in them as people, too. Ask the right questions early and follow up often to connect what they’re doing in your class with the people and passions in their lives outside of school.

Response From Becca Leech

Becca Leech, M.Ed, has been a special education teacher, specialist, and program coordinator in Tennessee public schools and non-profit agencies for over 25 years. She will be moving into a new challenge as Learning Support Teacher at the International School of Kuala Lumpur this year:

As a special educator who teaches the hardest to reach teens, my first principle for building relationships with students with learning difficulties is to never embarrass them. My students who have given up on school most often tell me it’s because of a teacher who exposed their learning struggles to the class and made them feel dumb.

My other guiding principles:

Commit to fairness and equity: Check your bias. Young people have a sharp sense of fairness that underlies all relationships with authority.

Be real: Be vulnerable, make mistakes, and correct them in front of students. Talk about your struggles and decision-making to model how you grow and change.

Make your class a safe zone: Have zero tolerance for bullying and power-jockeying and learn to spot their subtle forms. I don’t allow joking or friendly-seeming teasing that involves race, income, religion, ability, sexuality, or any other other quality that can make students feel unsafe or undervalued.

Encourage and protect risk-taking: When we value mistakes, we allow all students to participate. I won’t tolerate the words “This is so easy.” I offer several levels of challenge and ask students to tell me when they are ready to level up, but don’t allow anyone to judge the work others are doing, their questions, or their mistakes.

Be the professional you are: Excitement about our content is contagious and can form the core of our relationships with students. Part of forming that relationship is finding ways to make content relevant to each student. We have to be experts in our content and its applications, as well as our students’ aspirations, to do that well.

Give it time: I’ve learned I can form a quick and easy relationship with a class by putting myself at the center and trying to get students to like me, or worse, fear me. But to form relationships that challenge students to achieve at their highest levels, I have to take the time to move my focus away from me and hear each voice to gain student trust and learn what matters to them.

Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She’s a mom of 6 and grandmother of 2 and lives with her husband in Springfield, Illinois:

Students are desperate to know about your life outside of the classroom but they also want to know you’ll show up for them. Head down to the lunchroom when they’re eating and plop down at a table and just talk casually to them. Attend their concerts and games and any extra-curricular events if you can. Being a good listener and then relating some of your own struggles makes you seem far more relatable than you know. Plus, it’s easier than you think.

Response From Diane Mora

Diane Mora, M.A. Ed., has been teaching writing in ESL programs internationally and in the U.S. for twelve years. Currently she is passionate about teaching writing and literacy skills to SLIFE students who are also ELs at East High School in Kansas City, Missouri:

Without question, for me that best way to build relationships with students is to read and comment in writing about their writing. I have the advantage of teaching writing classes, so it’s very easy for me to build this structure. I admit it does get overwhelming because I have anywhere from 120-140 kids on my roster in a year, but the things my students share in their personal writing journals really enable us to communicate in ways that might now always be possible throughout our busy days at school.

Secondarily, I model every daily writing prompt I give them and my journal is open to them for commenting as well. I think this helps build community, shows that I respect their insights about my writing, too, and solidifies that trust is a two-way street.

Thanks to Debbie, Nedra, Tamera, John, Bryan, Becca, Kelly and Diane 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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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

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Best Ways To Begin The School Year

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Look for Part Four in a few days.

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