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.