By: Shane Saeed
In education we are consistently talking about relationships. How to build relationships, how to mend relationships, and how to leverage relationships all in the name of learning. In his book I Love It Here, author and researcher Clint Pulver discusses the two things needed to be a high-yield mentor teacher: the ability to build strong positive relationships and hold high expectations for students. These are the teachers that see the most results both social-emotionally and academically in the classroom. In Zaretta Hammond’s culturally responsive practices work, she describes this balance within a teacher as being a warm demander. A warm demander is a teacher who focuses on building rapport and trust with students and in turn earns the right to hold students to high expectations and hold them accountable for effort and engagement (Hammond, 2014). The foundation for holding students to high-expectations is having strong positive relationships.
As a student, I had an algebra teacher who gave a speech on the first day of school insisting that he refused to let us fail. Unfortunately, my number sense and conceptual understanding of math did not kick into gear until I was in college. A month into school, my algebra grade had dropped significantly. My teacher sat me down and explained he would not allow me to go through the rest of the semester attempting to fly under the radar when I very obviously did not understand the content. Even as an apathetic student, I could tell my algebra teacher cared about me as a human and wanted my grade to improve. He invited me to the math lab and tutored me for the next few weeks during his planning period until it all clicked and I could balance algebraic equations on my own. The warm demander in him refused to allow me to fail that year which supported my academic success in math the following years.
Knowing strong relationships are the foundation to our academic work, how do educators build relationships, encourage trust, and cultivate an environment where students feel safe to learn and take risks? Educators can start small with their everyday interactions to build rapport and trust. In Dare to Lead author Brené Brown describes the process of building trust using the analogy of a marble jar. Trust is built in little moments over time, each action adding a marble to one’s marble jar of trust (Brown, 2018). Trust is pivotal in a positive relationship as it creates a mutual understanding of positive intent. Embedding meaningful connections with students can be as simple as greeting each student by name and with a smile as they enter the classroom. Better yet, ask students about their interests outside of class and then follow up with a question about their interests at a later time. Every follow up question shows a teacher both listened and cared to follow up. Another simple way to let your students know you care is writing a note noticing their growth or sending a positive email home to their family or caregiver. Every small positive action lays the foundation for teachers to have high expectations.
If a teacher is realizing they are either stagnant or declining in a relationship with a student, they can track their positive-to-negative interaction ratio. Hammond (2014) explains that for every individual negative interaction, the teacher must have at least two positive interactions with the student in the form of individual praise, validation, or affirmation. The tracking of these specific interactions may help the teacher realize if they are having more negative interactions than positive. I tracked my interactions with a student I realized I was in a declining relationship with and was shocked to realize that my negative interactions with them outweighed the positive by far. After this realization, I intentionally sought out positive interactions with this student and within a week I saw an improvement in engagement and rapport. Although tracking interactions with all students is not feasible, focusing on one relationship that is not where we want it to be per class period could be transformational.
One-on-one relationships, though an important part of the learning environment, are not enough to create a space where students feel comfortable to learn. Especially in middle school, students feel as if everyone is judging them at all times. It’s critical that a strong and trusting community is created among the students to support risk taking and mistake making. Community building activities throughout the year can help build and reinforce relationships between your students. One specific activity I recommend for building community would be the STEM Paper Chain Challenge where teams of students are tasked with creating the longest paper chain with the same amount of materials. Through this activity, the teacher is able to see which students take the lead, which students work collaboratively, which might need support with collaboration, and their ability to problem solve. Then, task the teams to do the challenge twice. After the first attempt, the teams discuss what part of their process they want to keep and what they want to change based on their outcome or even what they noticed other groups did. This activity normalizes that we rarely do anything perfectly on the first try. Rather, the learning process is about garnering feedback, reflecting, and trying again for a better outcome.
There is so much more I wish I could discuss in this newsletter, however, the art of building relationships and community is more than I can explain in a single blog post. Therefore, I invite you to join me in my author-led book study on Be the Flame: Sparking Positive Classroom Communities where you will dive into the how of building strong relationships with students, among students, with families, with coworkers, and even with educators around the world. It begins on February 13th and runs through March 30th and you have the opportunity to earn 0.5 credit from Adams State University. Join me in diving into building community with the stakeholders that you interact with the most. Looking forward to partnering with you on building strong relationships in the classroom!
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead. Random House Publishing Group.
Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin.
Pulver, C. (2021). I love it here. Page Two.Shane Saeed is a district instructional coach and professional development facilitator in St Vrain Valley School District. She is also a doctoral student working towards a doctorate in executive leadership with a focus on educational equity, an author of Be the Flame: Sparking Positive Classroom Communities, and a national presenter on building community, the science of learning, and the science of reading in the upper grades. Add to your PLN and connect with Shane via Twitter (@saeed_shane), Instagram (@fantasticallyfourth), and on TikTok (@thefantasticallyfourth).