Tag Archives: relationships

A Note to My Child’s Teacher.

August 25, 2018

Dear Mr. Z,

 By now, I imagine you’ve had the chance to meet my kid, right?  Her name is Reece?

Chances are that she danced into your room this morning — and chances are that she kept dancing right through the Pledge of Allegiance and ALL of your important announcements! She’s probably blurted out answers at least fifteen times by now, too.  She’s never HAS been all that good at traditional school stuff like sitting still and being quiet and raising her hand.

She’s more of a “look at me!” kind of kid — demanding attention from darn near everyone around her no matter who they are or what they happen to be doing.  

And my guess is that she’s going to stretch your patience more than once this year. 

She’s going to struggle to get her work done in the time that you want her to complete it — mostly because she’s going to stall times ten before getting started.  She’s going to struggle with relationships at times and use mean words on the playground whether she really means them or not.  She’s going to be playing with slime inside of her desk when you want her to listen, her cubby is going to be a complete disaster, and she’s going to do the bare minimum on darn near every assignment.

But here’s the thing:  Despite all those quirks, she deserves your love, your attention and your appreciation, too.  

In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that you will never see her best effort UNTIL she’s convinced that you dig her.  She’s the kid who needs to “know how much you care before she will ever care how much you know” — and she hasn’t always gotten that from her teachers.

They lost their patience with her far too easily or tried to use consequences to “break her of her bad habits.”  Rules seemed to matter more to them than building any kind of relationship with her.  The result:  She’s spent the past several years feeling like she’s either “the bad kid in class” or “the dumb kid in class” — or in some cases, both.   Heck, as we stood outside your door this morning looking at your class list, she said, “Someday, I want to be the kid that teachers like, too, Dad.  That would be neat.”


And I promise that if you give her that love and attention and appreciation, you are going to find a kid that you really CAN enjoy.

She’s SUPER curious, churning through Who Am I Biographies and eating up facts on our family trips to museums and historical sites.  She’s a capable learner who can read and write and do math better than you will initially realize because she’s not the world’s hardest worker.  She’s going to eat up your science and social studies lessons — and she’s going to have strong opinions about everything that you are studying.

She’s also a heckuva’ lot more sensitive and empathetic than people give her credit for — always interested in standing up for the little guy or finding a way to make her world a better place.  She’s got a sense of humor that will make you laugh and she’s filled with energy all the time — energy that can lift others up no matter how dark their day may be.  Most importantly, though, she WANTS to please — her teachers, her parents, her friends — even if she doesn’t always get things right.

Long story short:  I’m counting on you.

I’m counting on you to help Reece with traditional academic outcomes — to strengthen her math skills, to develop her reading skills, and to turn her into a writer who understands just how important a complete sentence REALLY is!  Show her how to multiply and to simplify fractions and to add voice and personality to her writing.  Challenge her to identify an author’s purpose or to spot bias in text.  Help her to understand state government and the impact that humans are having on our environment.

All of that stuff matters.

But I’m also counting on you to be patient when Reece doesn’t work as hard as you want her to or makes a choice that interrupts your classroom.  I’m counting on you to help her develop friendships and resolve conflicts.  I’m counting on you to give her the benefit of the doubt and to show compassion and to give her second chances.  I’m counting on you to push her and to inspire her and to encourage her.  I’m counting on you to like her — and to spend just as much time letting her know that she makes you smile as you do letting her know that sometimes she makes you swear.

All of that stuff matters MORE.

I guess what I am saying is that I want my kid — a kid who has never really felt appreciated by a teacher — to walk away from your room each day convinced that you care about her as a person.  If you can pull that off, you will change her life for the better — and in the end, that’s our primary responsibility as classroom teachers.

Thanks for listening,

Bill Ferriter

Proud Parent of a Quirky Kid.


Related Radical Reads:

Growth Mindset Lessons from a Kids’ Ninja Fit Class

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten

Are You Monitoring Your Relationships with Your Students?

Here’s a simple truth that I’m certain no one in Radical Nation would disagree with:  When you invest time and energy into developing strong relationships with your students, you are far more likely to have a positive impact on who they are as learners AND as people.

That’s a no brainer, right?

And here’s another simple truth:  Every teacher — from the energy filled superstar to the indifferent curmudgeon — has strong relationships with some of the kids in their classes each school year.

But lemme ask you an uncomfortable question:  Is it good enough to have strong relationships with SOME of the kids in your classes each year?

If we really believe that “kids don’t care what you know until they know how much you care”, shouldn’t we be working to develop meaningful relationships with EVERY student?

Those are questions rolling through my mind this morning after learning from Rodney Trice — the Assistant Superintendent for Equity Affairs here in the Wake County Public School System — during a professional development session yesterday.

During the session, Rodney presented us with this Zaretta Hammond graphic outlining four main types of teachers and asked us what quadrant we thought that we would fit into:

(click to enlarge.  Original graphic retrieved from this website.)

Then Rodney reminded us that it’s not OUR perceptions that matter.  It’s the perceptions of our students that matter.

You might THINK that you are a “warm demander” — and that’s certainly what your students NEED you to be — but your choices and actions speak a lot louder than your words do to your students.  Just as importantly, you might be filling the “warm demander” role for SOME of your students, but your goal should be to play that same role for ALL of your students — including those who look differently than you do or who come to your classroom with different social, cultural and economic experiences than yours.

Now I know what you are thinking — particularly if you work in a middle or high school.

It’s IMPOSSIBLE to have a strong relationship with every kid.  There are too many students and too little time.  Besides, the beauty of school is that students interact with lots of different adults, so every kid has a “warm demander” relationship with SOMEONE on our staff — and as long as every kid has at least one “warm demander” in our building, we are doing the best that we can.

I’ve made all those same excuses during my career, y’all.  But now, they feel like nothing more than a cop-out to me.  Plain and simple.

It’s pushing off my responsibility for relationship building with my students.  It’s picking and choosing which kids I am going to invest in and which kids I am going to overlook.  It’s finding an excuse for ignoring the kids on my team that I find the most difficult to understand or to appreciate.

And if the thoughts and opinions of the eighth and ninth grade students in our school district look anything like the thoughts and opinions of the kids in my classroom, it’s just plain not true. 

Need proof?

Check out the results from the Teacher-Student Relationships questions on our district’s annual student survey:

(click to enlarge)

Did you see the result that matters most?

Here it is:

Stew in that for a minute, would you?

If our assumption that EVERY kid had SOMEONE in their schools who was filling the “warm demander” role for them was true, wouldn’t the results to this question be drastically different?  Can we really argue that we are meeting the needs of our students when just barely over half feel like we are interested in them as people?

So what do we do to fix this?  

I don’t know about you, but my plan is to start conducting regular surveys of my students to figure out whether or not they are feeling recognized and valued and appreciated by me.

I started yesterday by taking the same student survey questions asked of eighth graders in our district and turning them into a Google Form.  That’s going to give me some initial data that I can use to reflect on the relationships that I have with my students.

I also took the traits listed on Lisa Delpit’s “Warm Demander” chart and turned them into a Google Form, too.  My goal is to see if I can identify the students sitting in my professional blind spot — kids who I may not be filling the “warm demander” role for.

Here’s why that’s important:  Up until now, I’ve always just relied on hunches and my own self-perception when trying to rate my effectiveness at building relationships with kids.  By collecting specific data from my students, I can use data to confirm or challenge those hunches.  More importantly, I can gather the kind of feedback necessary to drive positive change in my practice.

If you dig any of this, feel free to steal my surveys.  Here they are:

Student Survey – Teacher Student Relationships

Student Survey – Warm Demander



Related Radical Reads:

Writing Positive Notes to My Students is the BEST Way to Start My Day.

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed

How Does YOUR School Build Belonging?

I think most teachers know that building belonging — a sense of community between the kids in your classes or on your hallways or in your school — is essential to creating the kinds of spaces where genuine learning really happens.  That’s nothing new, is it?

Church of the King

What IS new is the incredibly lonely world that we are all living in.

Consider these stats, which I found in a recent Fast Company article on the community building efforts of the biggest brands:

That’s shocking stuff, right?  

But it resonates.  I’d identify myself as lonely, I think we live in a world with far less empathy than necessary, and I don’t know or trust my neighbors.  And my guess is that many of my students and their families would fit in the exact same categories.

Which makes the community building efforts of individual teachers and entire school faculties even MORE important.  

Human beings are inherently social creatures.  We thrive on connections.  We thrive on belonging.  Our happiness depends on it.  As Sebastian Junger wrote in Tribe:

“We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding–tribes.This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.

“Whatever the technological advances of modern society – and they’re nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

Schools — along with churches and other community service organizations — really ARE perfectly suited for developing the kind of tribal connections that are “the key to our psychological survival.”  

Need proof?

Then check out the recommendations that Fast Company author Sebastian Buck gives to the brands that he advises:

Although there are some examples of highly engaged communities being developed via technology (e.g., Peloton riders), when it comes to belonging, real connection will most likely come from in-person interaction in real life. But having physical space is not enough: Brands should create spaces, experiences, products, and services that deliberately foster the conditions for diverse people coming together in respectful environments for shared experiences.

Now let me rewrite that for you:

But having physical space is not enough.  Schools should create spaces, experiences and services that deliberately foster the conditions for diverse people coming together in respectful environments for shared experiences.

Are you doing that in your communities?

If not, you should be.  The simple truth is that if we are deliberate , we can be so much more than the place where kids go to get an education.  We can be the place where diverse families come together to BELONG.

That matters, y’all.




Is Your School a “Rules First” or a “Relationships First” Community?

Over the next year, I’m participating in a school-based book study of George Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset.

If you haven’t read it before, you ought to pick it up.  What I dig the most about it is the fact that George’s ideas are incredibly approachable.  Not only will you walk away with a better understanding of just what innovation looks like in action, you will walk away with a belief that innovation is doable.


My a-ha this week came in a chapter on the importance of relationships in education.  

George references this Atul Gawande bit describing how ideas spread through an organization.  In the article, Gawande describes something called “the rule of seven touches” that he picked up from a pharmaceutical sales representative:

I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors—who are notoriously stubborn—to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change.

That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.

I know firsthand that the rule of seven touches works with adults.  Here’s why:  I’m ‘notoriously stubborn’ too! 

Need proof?  Ask literally ANYONE who has worked with me professionally over the last 25 years.

If you are going to have ANY chance of convincing me to embrace a new practice or behavior or to walk in whatever direction you are hoping I’m going to walk, you are going to need to rely on more than just your authority or position.  Instead, you are going to have to have a series of smaller interactions with me that build trust.  If I don’t come to know you — or worse yet, if I’m not convinced that you’ve tried to get to know me — I’m never going to trust you.  And if I don’t trust you, there’s not a chance in the world that you are going to convince me to take your ideas for a spin.

But I wasn’t thinking about adults when I read about the Rule of Seven in The Innovator’s Mindset.  I was thinking about the students who struggle with behaviors in our schools.

You know the kids that I’m talking about:  The ones who aren’t in their seats when we want them to be or who use unkind words to their peers or who can’t keep their hands to themselves or who are late to our classes time and time again or who are in spaces where they aren’t supposed to be or who mouth back when we try to correct their behaviors.

For years, my response to those behaviors had nothing to do with “the rule of seven touches.”  Instead, my response was more along the lines of “the rule of seven consequences.”

I’d sign their behavior trackers or fuss at them in the hallways or chase them back to their classrooms with a stern voice or the ‘evil eye.’  I’d write them up and send them to the office and argue that we needed MORE consequences if we were ever going to ‘manage their behaviors.’

I actually took pride in being ‘the strict teacher’ and would warn kids at the beginning of the year that if they didn’t behave, I would be their LEAST favorite teacher.  I’d call their parents during my planning period, intentionally trying to get kids in trouble.  “Wait until you get home,” I’d crow.  “Your mom is NOT happy with you.”

The funny thing is that NONE of those ‘command and control’ approaches to dealing with student behaviors worked.

Students who were suspended time and again or fussed at time and again or shouted down by teachers time and again or ‘disciplined’ time and again by the adults in a schoolhouse don’t become MORE likely to follow your rules or to participate in your school community in positive ways.

Instead, they resist and fight back and begin to doubt and disrespect everything and everyone in your school community.  Why would you expect cooperation from kids who have been buried in consequences by important adults at every turn?

So I’ve done my best this year to create “positive touches” with the students who struggle with behaviors on my hallway.  

Specifically, I’ve learned the names of kids in different classes that I stumble across over and over again out of place in the hallways.  I say hello using first names every time that I see them. I ask about their weekends, about their interests, and about how their days are going every chance I get.  I say goodbye as the head out the door at the end of the day.  I say, “It’s good to see you!” a thousand times a day to kids who have gotten used to being somebody’s outcast.

There’s nothing remarkable about any of these interactions — and they cost me nothing.  But they are deliberate — designed to get kids to ‘come to know me’ because I realize that if kids who struggle to behave ‘come to know me’, they are more likely to trust me.  And if they trust me, I’ll have a better chance to coach them around behaviors when I need to.

And it’s working.

I’ve already established trusting relationships with some of the most ‘difficult’ kids in our school.  Those kids stop and listen when I ask them to.  If I need them to head back to their classrooms, it happens without any kind of resistance involved.

When they make poor choices, I can call them out on it and know that they will hear me rather than slip directly into denial or anger or belligerence.  What I love the most is that many of them have started stopping by my room on purpose just to say hello in the morning — and they’re bringing friends who want to get to know me, too.

None of this would have happened in previous years, y’all.

That’s because in previous years, I would have tried to drop the hammer on these kids every time I saw them in the hallways.  I would have chased them away or fussed first and asked questions later.  I would have used every punishment that I had available to me, convinced that those punishments were not only deserved, but essential to “send a message” to kids.

Can you see the flaws in my logic?

My priority was obedience first and relationships later, not realizing that obedience — or the lack thereof — was a direct reflection of the state of the relationship that I had with each individual student.  The kids who misbehaved the most were the ones that I’d done nothing to get to know and appreciate and value and celebrate.

Now don’t get me wrong: I haven’t ‘rescued’ any of these students yet.  They aren’t behaving everywhere that they go in our building.  In fact, it’s not unusual for me to find out that they are in trouble for shouting at other teachers or staff members that they’ve encountered during the school day.

But each of those negative interactions bothers me more now than ever because I KNOW that these same students CAN respond in a positive way to correction and to guidance from adults.  That correction and guidance just has to come from adults that they trust — and trust starts when adults concentrate on having positive touches with the most difficult kids in their buildings.

So here’s a simple question I want you to consider:  Is your school a “rules first” or a “relationships first” community?

You are a “rules first” community if you spend more time in staff meetings or leadership meetings or school improvement meetings talking about consequences for kids than you do talking about the best ways to build trust with the kids who need you the most.

You are a “rules first” community if you have an incredibly long list of misbehaviors and their corresponding punishments posted all over your school’s website, but you can’t make a similar list of the deliberate steps that YOU are taking to make sure that every kid — including those that are always in trouble — has positive interactions with adults in your building each day.

You are a “rules first” community if your school is full of teachers who are constantly grumbling about the lack of “enforcement” or “discipline” in your building but those same staff members aren’t willing to roll their sleeves up and create experiences intentionally designed to strengthen relationships with students who are struggling to behave.

You are a “rules first” community if teachers in your building can list all of the things that a difficult student has done WRONG but struggle to come up with anything that those exact same students have done RIGHT.

You are a “rules first” community if you are more than ready to call home to notify parents of all of the ways that their kids have broken the rules, but you never take the time to call home and notify parents of all of the ways that their kids inspire you and make you proud.

And you are a “rules first” community if there are a group of kids that you never seem to be able to reach with consequences.  They’ve tuned you out.  They’ve given up on you.  They don’t trust you — and because they don’t trust you, they will never respond to you in the way that you hope that they will.

If that sounds anything like you, maybe it’s time to start thinking about relationships.

They matter.



Related Radical Reads:

Is Your Team Failing Unsuccessful Practices Together?

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

When Was the Last Time You Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?