5 Ways to Share About the Importance of Relationships

Most teachers I am connected with on social media know the value of relationships and community in education. That’s part of why they’re on social media in the first place: they know the benefits of finding ways to connect with others. Every time I would say something about relationships and community, I would get hundreds of likes on Facebook and Twitter. Rarely would there be any negative reaction or pushback.

It makes me wonder if this is just a strawman argument. Do we really need to talk up the value of relationships and community in education, or does everyone pretty much get it already?

Then I would sit down and have some in-person conversations. You remember the type. The ones that go beyond 140 characters? And sometimes happen over shared food and beverage consumption experiences? In these conversations, I would hear stories of teachers who don’t think they should get to know their students. I would hear of principals who don’t allow their teachers to take a day off the scripted curriculum to do community-building activities. I would hear from parents who are pretty sure none of their child’s teachers know their child’s name. I would hear from students who feel so lost at school because they feel there’s nobody there who cares about them.

[Sometimes, those students are my own students, and it makes me pause and reflect quite intensely]

I am reminded that this is not just a battle worth fighting, but it is, in fact, a battle that exists.

So: how do we fight it? What are our defenses? What are our weapons?

[Note: I’m going to stop the battle metaphor here; I don’t think it’s appropriate for a post about education]

Here are some things I’ve found that we as teachers can do to support ourselves, our colleagues, and — most importantly — our students, in the conversation about relationships and community.

1. Have Conversations

It really is a conversation, not a battle (sorry, those of you who really wanted that battle metaphor to continue). If you want to effect change, you need to begin with a relationship. It’s really just putting into practice the very idea! If relationships help students learn, then they will also help others learn.

Let’s say the goal is for your colleagues to be more open-minded about and maybe even agree with you about the role of relationships and community in education. You could:

  1. give them a pile of research that they will probably not read
  2. tell them they’re wrong and have them shut down every idea you ever give them
  3. drop subtle hints about how your students enjoy that you get to know them and seem to perform better because of it and have that colleague feel awkwardly passive-aggressively attacked, or
  4. have a conversation with that colleague.

Which sounds more likely to help you achieve your goals?

The benefit here is that the conversation doesn’t even have to be about the topic at hand! What’s important is that you have a staff that feels comfortable talking with each other. If you can’t even talk about last night’s game or political trends or how excited you are for the weekend, how would you ever be able to talk about topics of disagreement in the education world?

2. Read the Research

Of course, at some point, you are going to go beyond water-cooler talk and get to the important issues of the profession. But it’s tough to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you if you don’t have support for what you’re talking about. Imagine: you have a colleague who is open to talking with you and wants to hear what you have to say — but then you have nothing to back up your arguments! We wouldn’t accept that from our students, and we shouldn’t accept that from each other.

I should start this section by saying I’m not an expert. My master’s degree is in educational technology, and most of my pedagogical research has been in mathematics and literacy. But there are a couple pieces of research on relationships I have found important:

It’s more than just the research on relationships, though. If relationships are so important, information should be everywhere, right? Well, it turns out that is. So it’s also important that we…

3. Read Other Research with a Relationship Lens

Most things we will be reading for our professional lives will not be directly about relationships. Between reading books our students will be reading, content area pedagogical texts, and other things that are just for us, it’s hard to get a lot in. I know.

But when you’re reading those other pieces of research and pedagogy, look for the relationship piece. I have been, and I’ve been shocked how much it comes up (well, shocked and not shocked — it IS important, after all!).

I have found lots of good sound bytes and anecdotal evidence about the importance of relationships while reading Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Dave Burgess, and George Couros, to name a few. In fact, it seems like more often than not, I’m finding intelligent human beings noting the importance of relationships, whether or not this is the explicit focus of their writing. I read a brain-based learning book last year, and even it had plenty to say about relationships! It’s all around us if we are looking for it.

So look for it.

4. Formally Share Your Findings with Your Colleagues

This, to me, is the big one. If we want to help others realize what we are discovering about the role of relationships and community, we need to put it out there. The informal conversations are vital. There’s a reason I listed them first. But formal presentations probably pack the most punch.

So where to begin? Start with those around you. Does the person in charge of PD for your building have teachers lead internal PD? Sign up. If not: ask if you can do one anyway. It might be a welcome change to the PD culture at the school.

State-level conferences are also great for this. I have been fortunate enough to present on this twice in Michigan at state-level literacy conferences. It was very easy to submit a proposal and they were low-pressure presentations. That said, the first time I presented, there were only 4 people in the room, including me! But the 4 of us got a lot out of it.

You could also start a blog. Or, if you don’t think you have enough for a full blog, but have maybe an idea or two that you’d like to share, get a hold of us here at Classroom Communities to see if we would be open to hosting you. [Spoiler alert: we totally would be]

Which brings me to…

5. Follow, Read, and Share this Blog

We are going to be updating this blog with stories, research, strategies, and questions all focused on the role relationships and community play in education. Keep an eye out for particular posts that will be helpful to you in your own classroom, but also might be good to share to a colleague. Just remember: build that relationship with your colleague first, and then share the link. Because as James Comer said: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”







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)