How to Create Powerful Student-Teacher Relationships
by Annette L. Brown
originally published by Edudemic.com. 24 June 2013
For the past six years, I have been an instructional coach. I miss kids but I often get to do “guest” teaching. In fact, recently I prepared a writing lesson for an 11th grade English class. I was teaching an explicit approach to analytical writing that I had used with great success as a classroom teacher. I was excited about the lesson: I pinned down structures, jazzed up engagement pieces, created questions to elevate relevance, and added in name tags to promote personal connection. I entered the room on light feet, knowing I was prepared.
But it was a struggle from the beginning. I could not figure it out—initially. That first six-day series was a challenge. The follow-up lesson a week later was a challenge. But the eighth time I was a “guest” teacher, the room was different. I had built relationships with enough students that the climate in the room had shifted and teaching that lesson was joyful and productive.
As a result of that teaching experience, I realized that student-teacher relationships are not important; they are imperative. Dr. Bill Daggett’s Rigor and Relevance Framework (2005) addresses the need for relationships. He points out that relationships are “important” when asking students to think and “critical” when engaging them in “Quad D” thinking: thinking that pushes students at the highest levels of Bloom’s and challenges them at the highest degree of application—when students are required to think and work.
Dr. Ruby K. Payne (2003) in A Framework for Understanding Poverty claims, “The key to achievement for students from poverty is in creating relationships with them.” I live and work in Merced County, California, one of the most economically depressed areas of the nation, where the average per capita income in 2011 was $28, 497 vs. the national average of $41,560 (Sbranti, 2012). I see this poverty played out daily in the 81.5% of our students who qualify for free or reduced price lunches (CDE, 2012). When I enter a classroom, I am smiling at students of poverty—for whom relationships are always critical.
This was confirmed the other day by an email I received from a former student. It was a thank you note, for which I was very grateful, honored truly. But that is not my point. He wrote (in 2012):
Growing up I often felt unimportant, unnoticed, unheard and sometimes unworthy. I grew up with very limited resources in a monolingual Spanish-Speaking migrant family. I had subconsciously internalized feelings of inferiority based on the treatment my family and I received in English-Speaking spaces. We kept quiet and became invisible. You noticed me.
Not only did you notice me but you brought me and my voice out of the shadows and into the front of the classroom. I mattered in your English class; my words mattered, my thoughts mattered, my opinion mattered. I existed, finally.
Livingston High School Class of 2001
Admissions Counselor, CSU, Stanislaus, 2012
I was struck by how specifically Miguel had defined himself by his poverty and ethnicity. I was saddened by his feeling “…unimportant, unnoticed, unheard and sometimes unworthy.” He chose “invisibility.” It made me wonder how many of our students choose that route; and worse, how many succeed. And I thought about how our ability to move students to imagine their best selves and to see their gifts is imperative and how it is unequivocally tied to our ability to forge relationships. In short, I wondered how we can challenge a student’s definition of himself with a better possibility if he does not trust us. And trust can only come from relationships.
But relationships are complicated, and forging student-teacher relationships is no exception. There are intuitive actions teachers take, e.g., the timely smile, the subtle (but needed) nod of approval. However, there are also explicit steps teachers can take toward building relationships. We can begin by creating a safe environment, one where a student need not fear ridicule from either the teacher or his peers. To learn students need to feel safe. When students don’t feel safe, the fight or flight center of the brain, the amygdala, fires and incapacitates the hippocampus, the new-learning center of the brain. Students then become survivors vs. learners (Nussbaum, 2012). We don’t want our students just “surviving” in our classes; we want them thriving.
Structure and routine help alleviate fear: students know what to expect, know how the room will feel. That is, structure and routine around how we do things, not what we do. The brain needs stimulation to be healthy. Therefore, our lessons should contain variety; they should even create a bit of anxiety, which is healthy for learning. A looming deadline, a time limit, a set of demanding expectations can be very motivating (Nussbaum, 2012). The goal then becomes creating safety in structure but a push in the intellectual challenge.
While our classroom structures frame our work, how we treat students and how we structure our lessons to promote autonomy and creativity are also key to building relationships. Habit 5 of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People(1989) is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” He goes on to point out that those who feel understood are more likely to listen. If our students feel understood, or at least heard, perhaps they would be more willing to listen to us. To create opportunities for listening, we must ask questions. Rather than always “feeding” information to students, we can share a bit and ask a lot—ask them to predict and justify predictions with evidence from what we have provided; ask them their opinion, what they would do if; ask them how a teaching strategy is helping them learn and if there is anything else we can do to support their learning. Implied in the asking is that we care; conversely, no questions suggest no interest and can be construed as non-caring. Students who feel valued and respected are more likely to be “cooperative and motivated” (Sprick, 2006).
While our structure promotes safety, our daily interaction creates personal connection. I do not mean to suggest “personal” in the intimate nature of friendship but personal via acknowledgement of the student as an individual. Smiles count—especially if eye contact is made. Smiles are free, quick, powerful. Addressing a student by name counts; say hello John, Maribel, Nick. Courtesy counts. When we provide directions and when students follow those directions, we can say “please” and “thank you,” just as we would to a peer or friend. We can make our goal a 3 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. These positive interactions will be highly motivating and will promote positive relationships with students (Sprick, 2006). We can enjoy ourselves. Every attitude is contagious, and our joy, when extended through smiles and positive interactions, becomes an invitation to our students. We can write brief messages on post-it notes to praise (or redirect) a student and place it on the student’s desk as we pass by. I never realized how powerful such a small act could be until I saw a note written in October fall from a student’s binder in March—the “sticky” having been depleted. He had kept that note six months. My praise was meaningful to him.
Ultimately, courtesy, kindness and acknowledgement work to build relationships. However, we can embed strategies which inherently serve as instructional tools while also fostering positive relationships.
Hand rubrics create an accountability opportunity while cultivating a positive relationship. We can use them to ask students questions which require an evaluation response: a 1-5 rating, 5 being high. We should create protocols for response, including a verbal cue and a zone for where students will hold their fingers (e.g., chest area below chin). When we respond, we look our students in the eye and nod to thank them—even say it. The “one-second contact” this creates is valuable. It is listening. Ideally, this kind of interaction is followed with questions allowing students to explain their rating (verbally or in writing) and/or pair-share enabling them to share their thinking.
I also use hand rubrics in place of “how many of you…” questions. I would create a statement and require all students to respond, e.g., “True for you or False for you….” Students show thumbs up or down, or a number (1 = true, 2 = false) to respond, e.g. “True for you or false for you: you included an example of irony in your response.” Again, we need to create protocols and make eye contact as we accept responses. We often like to know “how many” of our students feel a certain way, have experienced a certain activity, etc. But when we ask “How many of you…?” students may elect not to participate. When we require participation, we imply that a student’s thinking is important to us, that we care about their thoughts and/or experiences. We also set an expectation for participation—both of which build relationships.
An exit slip (or ¼ sheet written response or digitally via Google form) is a tool which provides data while nurturing positive relationships. Given that writing is thinking, an exit slip creates a great opportunity for us to listen to our students’ ideas. While it is important to respond to the students’ ideas the following day, it is not that important to write responses. In fact, when I used this strategy, the only response I gave was whole-class verbal. I would read and organize responses by correctness or creativity in under five minutes. The next day I would acknowledge their effort and address trends in student weakness, excellence where observed, and any adjustments in instruction made to meet student needs. I often selected one or two to read to the class. (I would tell students that I would be sharing their work, but I would ask permission to reveal the source.) As long as the verbal response is immediate and specific, it is enough to build student motivation and foster relationships. Students know we’re reading their ideas; we are listening.
Use exit slips to do any of the following:
We use Pair-Share and follow-up questions to promote accountability and create class community. There are many reasons to engage students in academic conversation, e.g., creating opportunities for students to clarify and expand their ideas, increasing memory of critical concepts, building listening skills. Again, we should create protocols for student interaction and teach them explicitly—the same way we teach content, through clear directions, modeling, observation, reinforcement or redirection. Dr. Paul Nussbaum (2012) identifies socialization among his five basics for brain health. Having students talk to one another allows them to get their voice in the room and their ideas heard; it allows them to build relationships with peers and promotes community within the room.
Examples of when to use pair-share:
Dr. Ruby Payne (2003) points out that education and relationships are the two forces that help move students out of poverty. She goes on to say that when students successfully move to the middle class and are asked how they “made the journey,” nine times out of ten it has to “do with a relationship—a teacher, counselor, or coach who made a suggestion or took an interest in them as individuals.” For students of poverty relationships are essential. Moreover, Dr. Dagget (2005) points out that for engaging students at the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy and the most challenging levels of application, relationships are “critical.” I contend that relationships are imperative for inspiration. We are inspired by one another—by the beautiful music of a crystalline voice, by the prowess of the dedicated athlete, by the word extended in kindness. We have the power to inspire. It was always my goal to inspire students because I want to live in a world run by inspired people. And our students are, after all, our future.
Over the years, I have heard students say, “I like this class.” But I have always known that what the students are really saying is, “I like how I feel about myself when I am in this class.” It is what we do with our positive actions and our instructional choices that will lead our students to like “our classes.” We have the power to create a positive environment, one that fosters growth, invites participation, and inspires curiosity. My hope is we will honor our power and wield it wisely.
2011 free/reduced price meal eligibility data. (2012, June). California Department of Education.
Covey, S. (1989). 7 habits of highly effective people pdf. New York: RosettaBooks. Retrieved from
Daggett, W. Ed.D. (2005). Achieving academic excellence through rigor and relevance. International
leadership in education, Retrieved from http://www.leadered.com/pdf/academic_excellence.pdf.
Marzano, R. (2007). The Art & Science of Teaching. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision &
Nussbaum, P. Ph.D. (2012, June). Your brain health and brain health lifestyle. Presentation delivered at
Model schools conference, Orlando, Florida.
Payne, R. Ph.D. (2003). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, Tx: aha! Process, Inc.
Pulido, M. (2012, November). Hi mrs. brown [Electronic mailing list message]. Retrieved from
Sbranti, J. (2012, November 27). Valley incomes at record in 2011. Merced sun star. Retrieved from
Sprick, Randall S., Ph.D. (2006). Discipline in the Secondary Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.