Relationships: Necessary but NOT sufficient for student learning

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“They don’t care what you know until they know you care.”

“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

“Great teachers focus not on compliance but on connections and relationships.”

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

It’s that time of year when the teacher-web is heating up with inspirational reminders that we have to build relationships with the kids we teach.

Well, duh.

But what does that mean, exactly?

It’s easy to define the opposite — a lack of relationship. Here are a few illustrative examples of what NOT to do:

  • Don’t bother to learn kids’ names, or mispronounce them
  • Ignore children in distress
  • Never allow students to question you or your methods
  • Tease and belittle kids who don’t meet your standards

You get the gist. If you behave like this, you shouldn’t set foot in a 21st Century classroom. Find another career.

But knowing what not to do doesn’t mean we therefore know what to do.

Building authentic, supportive and (to quote Zaretta Hammond) “warmly demanding” relationships with our students is hard work. Just like building real adult relationships. It takes time to build trust, establish clear channels of communication, clarify expectations and learn from one another.

Unfortunately, many teachers — feeling pressured by calls to simply “build relationship first” — slip into “get students to like me” mode. After all, they’ll learn from me if they like me, right? (Again, the transitive property doesn’t apply here.)

Here’s what we do in a misguided attempt to build relationships by currying favor:

  • Neglect to hold students accountable for behavior or learning
  • Spend class time chatting and socializing rather than fostering learning
  • Offer too-easy, feel-good assignments to inflate student grades
  • “Friend” students on social media

These teacher behaviors can make you popular with students, and they do build a kind of relationship, but they are not what our students need from us.

Our students need us to model curiosity and enthusiasm about learning. They need us to challenge them to take on increasingly difficult tasks, so they will build important skills like writing, calculating, reasoning and public speaking. They need us to unlock access to future careers, by helping them set goals and work toward them. They need us to hold them accountable.

When we forget our critical role and become our students’ friends instead of their teachers, we miss the opportunity to expand their knowledge, ignite their passions, build their resilience and create more opportunities for themselves in the future.

I know many of us become teachers because we like kids. That’s good. But our job is so much bigger than getting them to like us in return.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom