Looking at Teaching and Learning Through a “Relationship” Lens


The photographer Eve Arnold once said, “I don’t see anybody as either ordinary or extraordinary. I see them simply as people in front of my lens.” When we think about teaching and learning in schools, we want to emphasize the idea that all of us — teachers, administrators, custodians, secretaries, guidance counselors, parents and most importantly students — are viewed as people first. These people can be extraordinary or ordinary, but we want to send the message that places of learning should be filled with value building relationships first. We should be looking at everything through a relationship lens.

This blog’s primary purpose is to share the how and why it is vitally important for classrooms and schools to embrace the positive impact of building positive relationships. We are thrilled to have a great group of educators joining us to regularly post on Classroom Communities. Within our group we have decades of experience working with students and colleagues in schools. We love the fact our group includes elementary and secondary teachers, administrators, as well as current and former instructional coaches. We believe the community of voices we are creating will resonate with many different readers.

We decided to launch Classroom Communities at the 2017 Nerd Camp Michigan for many reasons, but one is the community of educators and authors who regularly attend Nerd Camp Michigan are wonderful. During a presentation there, we spoke about how relationships are vitally important to help students feel valued and empowered to learn. During our talk we shared the idea of how little things can turn into big things if you commit to them, or as Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, recently said at the University of Edinburgh Commencement Ceremonies: “Do small things in a big way…whether you realize it or not, these things matter.”

Here are a few of the ‘little things’ we have infused into our classrooms, that over time have helped us to create meaningful relationships with the students in our learning community.

  1. Greeting students in the hall as they enter the room. This is a simple, but effective way to ensure your students know that you want to connect with them. This act doesn’t have to be fancy (you don’t need to have a special handshake or a 5 minute conversation), it can be as simple as, “Hey Alex, how is it going?” or “Good morning Salima, how was dance last night?” Two minutes a day in the hall, can have a tremendous impact of the culture of your classroom.
  2. Invite the teacher board. Consider a sign-up sheet in which students can invite you to out of school activities. Even in middle school and high school, students enjoy knowing if you can make it to a basketball game, piano recital, or theatrical performance. Of course you cannot make all of them (well maybe you can), but if you are able to attend, then you will show that you care more about the student than just the time you spend with them in the classroom. Another side effect of the invite the teacher board is that when you can’t attend an event, you still know when a student was doing something important to them. You can always follow-up with a quick chat after the event or wish them well the day of the event.
  3. Allowing students some say in the design of the classroom. We know that teachers value ‘their space.” There is almost something sacred about our classrooms. For many of us, we can be in our sacred spaces for many, many years. And we think we know exactly how we should design elements in our room. However, we have found that students value sharing input on how tables or desks are arranged. Since we share our rooms with 25-35 other people, we should consider the simple idea of asking them for their input.
  4. Joke Time. Let students share a joke with the class. This can be done at the end of the class period or day or at a transition time. You will need to set some expectations that work for you, but a quick bit of student driven humor infused into your classroom can do wonders for a classroom community.
  5. Share your own wonderings and learning. Schools should be places where everyone is learning. We know that is our responsibility to honor our curriculum and content, but sharing your own wonderings and learning that are outside of your curriculum allows students to see a teacher who is invested in other ideas. It also allows your students to see that you are with them on a learning journey. So open yourself a little to your students. If you spent 30 minutes the night before learning how to prepare a new dinner or reading deeply about a new topic, briefly share that experience in class.

If you have other “little things” that you use to build community within your classroom add the ideas into the comments. We want to learn what everyone else is trying with their students as well.

We hope this blog can serve as one of the little things in your professional life that help make each of us better teachers. Thanks for being a part of this community. We look forward to this journey with you.

– Tony Keefer and Brian Wyzlic

photo credit: Phototravelography Selfie without a stick. via photopin (license)

6 thoughts on “Looking at Teaching and Learning Through a “Relationship” Lens

  1. What a great introduction and I love the ideas of little things. Often it’s the little things that matter the add up to bigger things. I’ve seen teachers in my building give a fist bump or elbow touch to each student before they board the bus to go home each night. It amazes to see a teacher get distracted because quite often the student doesn’t get on without that little touch. Now you have me thinking of my own little things list….writing notebook where are you?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tony, Brian, and all others contributing- Absolutely love the concept of this blog!! I will be sharing it with my college students this fall! So very important to build community!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brian & Tony, I am also a fan of the topic of this blog. Thank you for sharing these great ideas on building community thus far. I wish you both and other contributors all the best, and I look forward to reading more! A few little ways I try to build community within my eighth grade ELA classroom:

    1. Learn everyone’s name on day one (or as quickly as possible): For whatever reason I can remember names quickly. Many students are surprised when I greet them in the hallway at the end of day one. Like you note above, little things make a big difference! Names matter!

    2. Monday & Friday Trivia: riddles, One Star Reviews Guess Who (by Travis Jonker), Guess that Pop Sonnet, and other random trivia to celebrate the start and end of the week and learn about students outside the normal lens of my class.

    3. Read Alouds: Stories bring us together at the start of each class and give us common references to share together throughout the year. This one has been huge due to #classroombookaday, students’ generally enthusiasm for the opportunity to hear a story, and their suggestions for read alouds along the way.

    4. Honoring Our Stories: I believe everyone who enters our rooms has a unique story. I try to model how my own stories find ways into much of my writing and encourage students to do the same. When we can honor students’ stories, by encouraging them to permeate in their individual writing throughout the year and allow students opportunities to share if they are comfortable, community grows and so does the lens in which we see the world.

    5. Allow students to write advice about you and your class: my colleague shared this idea with me six years ago and I have used it ever since. Each year I hand out a list of advice from last year’s students. This gives students a heads up about the class, and some unique insights about me that help students feel more comfortable asking me questions or starting conversations. I think it also makes students aware that at the end of the year they will be given the opportunity to share their advice which creates some interesting and often funny insights!

    Again best wishes on this endeavor,



  4. Pingback: Celebration of 100

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