Strong Relationships with Students Matter. Here’s How.

My friend Melanie Farrell pointed me towards this interesting Blake Harvard blog post today.  

In it, Harvard shares an email conversation that he had with Yale University Professor James Comer, who is perhaps most famous for a quote that I’m sure you’ve seen before:

“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

– Dr. James Comer

What Harvard was interested in knowing was whether or not Comer was referring to a significant PERSONAL relationship — think a strong connection between a teacher and a student — in his quote.  That is, after all, the most common context applied to the quote when you see it shared in the #eduverse.

Comer’s reply may surprise you.  Here’s how Harvard describes it:

It appears his quote is widely misunderstood.  In his email to me, Dr. Comer states that he’s surprised by how “widely” his statement has been used and that it has grown out of neuroscience findings showing that meaningful relationships with material and experiences are remembered and applied more than others.

That makes sense, right?  

If you are fully invested in an idea, relationships are irrelevant when it comes to learning.

Heck, just last weekend, I spent hours and hours on YouTube learning how to repair sheet rock.  Why?  Not because I had any kind of relationship with the people who made the videos I was watching, but instead because I’m broke and I had a huge hole in my wall after a water leak!


And we can all probably share a time where we were driven in a classroom even though we didn’t dig the teacher.  Motivation doesn’t always come from the people around us.  Motivation can come from the drive that we have to learn something new, no matter who is teaching us.

But I AM convinced that a strong relationship between a teacher and a student matters. 

Here’s why:  Strong relationships give a teacher leverage to push individual students further than they would have otherwise gone.

Here’s an example:  I had an uncomfortable conversation with a student today.  He hasn’t been working very hard in class at all, choosing to let his group mates do most of the heavy lifting on the assignments that they are completing together.

I told him that worried me — that when he skated by in class, it might be easy, but it also has long term consequences for his own learning and work habits.

My bet is that he’s going to work his tail off tomorrow.


Because I have a strong relationship with him.

That relationship allowed me to push him into uncomfortable places to begin with — and that relationship is going to get him to invest more than he otherwise would have.  I couldn’t have had the same conversation with every kid simply because I don’t have the same relationship with every kid.

My guess is that strong relationships are especially important when students AREN’T deeply connected to the material being studied.  

In fact, I bet that sometimes strong relationships are the ONLY motivator for students.   Can you name a kid who doesn’t seem fully invested in ANY of their classes?  THOSE are the kids who need a significant relationship with an important adult the most because they don’t have a significant relationship with the content being studied in school.

And my guess is that strong relationships are even MORE important to students who traditionally struggle in school. 


Because they aren’t even convinced that it is POSSIBLE to “have a meaningful relationship with the material and experiences” being studied in school.  How engaged are YOU in activities that you’ve never experienced any success in?  Now imagine being a student who has struggled with academics for YEARS.  If we are relying on a meaningful relationship with content to be a motivator, we are going to be out of luck right quick.

Long story short:  Sure it’s possible to be motivated by material and experiences.  Kids who learn to code with no one’s help, who master the Ukulele or Minecraft or any other seemingly random skill by watching online videos, or who spend hours and hours becoming Fortnight champions are all having significant relationships with ideas, not people.

But we can’t count on every kid being motivated by the material and experiences they are forced to learn in our schools.  That’s why it is so important to invest in developing strong relationships with every kid in your classroom.

Does any of this make sense? 


Related Radical Reads:

The Perfect Response to a Child’s Misbehavior.

A Note to My Child’s Teacher.

Growth Mindset Lessons from a Kids Ninja Fit Class.


The Perfect Response to a Child’s Misbehavior.

Most regular Radical readers know that my daughter is my entire world.

She’s beautiful and funny and curious and smart.  She’s into science museums and camping trips and climbing trees.  She digs reading graphic novels and playing with her cats and learning new jokes that she can tell her family and friends.

But she’s never done terribly well in school.  

A part of that is because she’s younger than darn near everyone in her class.  That means she’s always in the lowest reading group and her spelling is atrocious.  She’s just not in the same place developmentally as everyone else in her class — and that makes her feel like a failure sometimes.  Confidence is definitely a challenge for her in the classroom.

And she can be a complete pistol when she wants to be.  She’s got a strong personality that rubs both teachers and students the wrong way.

The result:  I’ve been called by teachers and guidance counselors and principals again and again over the last several years — all with negative reports about something that my kid has done.

And believe me:  I’ve heard it all.

“Your daughter won’t sing the morning song.”

“Your daughter isn’t sitting criss-cross applesauce in circle time.”

“Your daughter blurts out frequently in class.”

“Your daughter is playing with toys inside of her desk during class.”

“Your daughter’s cubby is dirty.”

“Your daughter is saying mean things to friends.”

“Your daughter slapped another child on the playground.”

“Your daughter wouldn’t share a paper with her group mates.”

“Your daughter was writing on the walls in the bathroom.”

“Your daughter didn’t work hard on her test.”

“Your daughter won’t cooperate with me when I ask her to do things in class.”

That’s why I cringed a bit when I got an email from her teacher a few weeks back saying that he wanted to talk to me about something that happened in class.

I just knew that I was in for more of the same — and to be honest, I was sick of it.  How many times can you hear negatives about your kid from the teachers in her school before reaching a breaking point?

And this time, the negative was a doozie:  My kid called a classmate a word that rhymes with “itch.”

(Nope.  Not ditch.  Not witch.  Not even Golden Snitch.  The OTHER word that rhymes with itch.)

So I asked her teacher — who I trust completely because he started the year by telling me that he knew all about Reece and had given “a few fist bumps” when he saw her on his classroom roster — how seriously I should take the situation.

His response was PERFECT:  “Well, if I wanted to, I could give you a list of a thousand things that Reece has done right this year and this is the first thing that she’s done wrong.  So is it serious?  Sure.  But the good in your kid far outweighs this one mistake.”

He’s right, isn’t he.

That’s worth remembering:  The good in our students FAR outweighs the mistakes that they make.  

And let’s make sure THEY know that.

(And what the heck: Let’s communicate it to their parents as well!)



Related Radical Reads:

A Note to My Child’s Teacher

Growth Mindset Lessons from a Kids’ Ninja Fit Class

Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of Quirky Kids

Activity – Evaluating the Feedback Teachers Give TO Students.

As I mentioned last week, I’m working with a client who is interested in helping her teachers to improve the overall quality of the feedback that they give to students.  That’s an important step to take, given that feedback is one of the highest leverage practices that we use to help students achieve.

To help with that work, I pointed out that the best feedback given from teachers to students meets five basic criteria:

(1). It’s brief.

(2). It’s clear.

(3). It encourages thinking instead of compliance

(4). It’s ungraded

(5). It leaves time for subsequent action.

I’ve gone a step further, though, and developed an activity that can help teachers to reflect on the quality of the feedback given to students. 

In the activity, teachers look at five different samples of student work that has been reviewed and returned with feedback to students.  Then, they are asked to rank order the samples in order from “Most Effective Feedback Given to Students” to “Least Effective Feedback Given to Students.”  Finally, a series of three reflection questions are asked to encourage teachers to think through the kinds of simple changes that they can make to improve the feedback that they are giving to the students in their classroom.

Sound interesting to you?

Then check it out here.

I’d love to hear what you think of it!

Hope this helps.


Related Radical Reads:

Five Tips for Giving More Meaningful Feedback to Students

New Slide:  Turn Feedback into Detective Work

Google’s New Comment Bank is a Win for Meaningful Feedback

Peer Feedback Matters

Five Tips for Giving More Meaningful Feedback to Students.

A client that I am working with recently asked me an interesting question. 

She said, “Bill — I know that the most meaningful feedback in classrooms is feedback that students gather about their own learning, but the fact of the matter is that teachers still have to give feedback to their students.  It’s a basic expectation.  So what can my teachers do to improve the feedback that they give to their students.”

Great question, right?  

I think what I loved the best is her recognition that nothing is more valuable than the feedback that students gather about their own learning.  Dylan Wiliam calls that “turning feedback into detective work” — and I dig that analogy.

(click here to view full-size image on Flickr.)

But teachers DO give students tons of feedback — and there ARE steps that they can take to make the feedback given to students more useful.

Here are five tips followed by quotes from the educational experts who have pushed my thinking about the quality of the feedback that I provide in my classroom:

(1).  Be Clear.

“Students often find teachers’ feedback confusing, nonreasoned, and difficult to understand. Sometimes they think they have understood the teacher’s feedback when they have not, and even when they do understand it they may not know how to use it.” 

— John Hattie.     (p. 8 in this bit)

(2). Be Brief.

“Students differ in their capacity for responding to correction, and too much corrective feedback at one time can cause a student to shut down, guaranteeing that no further learning will take place.  In such cases, consider letting go of the urge to provide all correctives necessary to make the work perfect and instead provide as much guidance as the student can reasonably act on.” 

— Jan Chappuis        (p. 39 of this Ed Leadership issue)

(3).  Encourage Thinking, Not Compliance.

Second, whether your feedback is oral or written, choose your words carefully.  Describe the work’s strengths and give at least one suggestion for a next step that is directly in line with the learning target.  Use words that suggest the student is an active learner and will make decisions about how to go forward, not words that suggest a student should use the feedback by complying with a request.  

— Susan Brookhart        (p. 29 of this Ed Leadership issue)

(4). Leave Off the Grade….For Now.

When students receive both scores and comments, the first thing they look at is their score, and the second thing they look at is…someone else’s score.  Being compared with others triggers a concern for preserving well-being at the expense of growth.

— Dylan Wiliam          (p. 34 of this Ed Leadership issue)

(5).  Provide Time for Action.

When students get feedback on a performance that’s not followed by an opportunity to demonstrate the same knowledge or skills, feedback will fail.  Feedback “so they know better next time” is a waste of energy. This isn’t the students’ fault, and it doesn’t mean they didn’t take your feedback seriously.  It’s just a characteristic of how people learn.

— Susan Brookhart         (p. 28 of this Ed Leadership issue)

So which of these tips makes the most sense to you?  Which one would be the hardest to pull off?  Which one could you start using right now?

(And remember:  If you are interested in learning more about the role that feedback can play in the work that you do with students, you can check out Creating a Culture of Feedback — the short book I wrote with my buddy Paul Cancellieri.) 


Related Radical Reads:

New Slide:  Turn Feedback into Detective Work

Google’s New Comment Bank is a Win for Meaningful Feedback

Peer Feedback Matters

Ernesto* is the Reason I Believe in PLCs.

Have you ever cried over a student?

I have.  His name was Ernesto*, and he’d been in the United States for less than a year.  He spoke no English at all — and his parents didn’t speak any English at home.  He was mainstreamed into my science classroom without any real support.  I don’t speak Spanish — and our district had no resources in Spanish that addressed our grade level curriculum.

The minute I met Ernesto, I knew that I was going to be in for a long year. 

It’s no easy task to teach the content in our sixth grade science curriculum — ideas about heat transfer and plate tectonics and the cycling of matter through the ecosystem — to kids who have spent their whole lives speaking English.  Teaching that same curriculum to a Spanish speaking student when you have no additional training or resources can feel completely impossible.

I jumped in with both feet, though, because that’s what teachers do.  I used online translation tools to translate as much content into Spanish as I could.  I reached out to district office staffers who supervised our English as a Second Language services for ideas.  I hit the ol’ Google Machine — and somehow, I even found a third grade science textbook written in Spanish.

But eventually, I started to struggle.  The amount of time, energy and effort that I was investing into finding and developing individual materials for Ernesto was honestly overwhelming.  I was getting to school at least an hour early just to pull something simple together — and those simple materials weren’t all that interesting to Ernesto.

So he became a “behavior problem”. 

He stopped coming to class — and when I would track him down in the bathroom or wandering the hallways, he’d return to class only to sit there and refuse to even try.  I’d get frustrated with him — but looking back, his behaviors were a reflection of the support he was receiving and the learning experience I was creating.  Who am I kidding:  He was acting the exact same way I would act if I were in a learning space that didn’t even come close to meeting my needs.

Have you spotted the problem in my story yet?

I was working alone to meet Ernesto’s needs.  I wasn’t working as a part of a collaborative team in a professional learning community.  The success or failure of Ernesto rested completely on my shoulders — and I didn’t have the unique set of professional skills necessary to help him.  Worse yet, if he’d been assigned to another teacher with a different set of skills in the exact same school, he COULD have been successful.  Luck of the draw — being assigned to my classroom — meant that he lost an entire year of learning.

THAT’s why I believe in PLCs.  

It’s not because I’m driven to see my school make higher test scores and be ranked towards the top of district and state level performance.  Those things mean nothing to me.

It’s because I have Ernestos in my classroom every single year — kids that I don’t have the knowledge and skills to serve well.  What’s more, EVERY year, there are Ernestos in the classrooms of my colleagues — kids that they struggle to serve well.  That’s not an admission of weakness.  It’s a statement of truth.  Our classrooms are incredibly diverse places.

If we continue to work alone — to rely on our own know-how or to draw from our own professional bag of tricks — there’s simply no chance that every kid will succeed.  Instead, the small handful of kids that have needs that align nicely with our individual strengths will succeed.  Everyone else will stall or struggle.

But if we embrace the notion that “these are our kids” and open ourselves to genuine collaboration with our peers, we can pool our talents and improve our practice.  I’ll bring MY strengths at teaching students to understand nonfiction text to the table.  You bring YOUR strengths at structuring inquiry based learning experiences or working with students who are learning a new language.  If we ever feel stumped, we can identify a few practices with promise, try them out in our classrooms, and identify those that have a positive impact on our learners.

Together, everyone achieves more, right?  Including our Ernestos.

This is an equity issue, y’all.  Plain and simple.  And I don’t care how uncomfortable that makes you feel.

If you genuinely believe that every kid deserves an equal opportunity to master the skills that are essential for success in an increasingly complex and competitive world, then you simply can’t settle for school cultures that allow teachers to work alone.  No one teacher has the professional skills to serve every student well.

Stated more simply, if you settle for working alone, you are failing children.

Are you okay with that?  

Me neither.

Find a team and collaborate.



*While Ernesto is a pseudonym, he was very much a real student.  He went on to struggle throughout his time on our building — and I can’t help but think that was because of the poor start that he got in my room.  I think of him often because I knew that I was failing him — but I didn’t do anything to reach out to my colleagues for help.  Today, I’d turn to my peers — and I know that together, we’d find a way to help him achieve because we really believe that our collective capacity is far greater than our individual ability.


Related Radical Reads:

The Power of PLCs.

Five Resources for Starting PLCs from Scratch.

Note to Learning Teams:  It’s Time to Complete Your Mid-Year Checkup