Building relationships? Just be yourself

“How do you build relationships with students?”

A colleague asked me that yesterday, and I was stumped for a minute. I always struggle with that question and feel a little ashamed — because I don’t do many of the things experts say we are supposed to do.

I do stand at the door when kids are streaming in, but I don’t shake hands (or high-five them) or greet them by name. I do almost no icebreakers or purely social activities. I used to attend (and chaperone) a lot of school activities, but I don’t do that as much anymore either. (Though I do take lots of students to econ events!)

It’s not that I dispute the value of these things. Many of them just don’t feel natural to me. And I think students know when you’re faking it.

Still, I think I do a pretty good job at building relationships with my students. 

Last Friday, after my regular econ class students finished a personal finance activity on selecting a pet, the kids practically lined up at my desk to share pics and videos of their own pets — and check out my dog pictures. We continued our semi-serious debate over which is better: cats or dogs? (I say dogs.)


After that, one boy, who had been quietly hanging back, came up to ask me if I wanted to see some Saudi Arabian currency. He’d noticed my currency board on the wall, and he saw that a lot of countries were represented — but not his home. 


I told him yes, of course, and I’d love to add a riyal to the board. (Sometimes students I don’t even know see the board from the hall, come in, and give me samples of currency. That’s how I got my Zambian bill.)

Yesterday, another student in that class asked about the student pictures on my wall: What do you have to do to get up there? 


I explained that the pictures were from Econ Club, and some of the students had started their own businesses, selling everything from T-shirts and pencil cases to apps and biodegradable straws. He responded: Really? That’s cool.

Then still another student asked about my poster of U.S. currency: Is there actually a $100,000 bill? I explained that it was discontinued in 1945 but used to be used for large transfers within the banking system. Wouldn’t it be cool to actually have one of those? Yep.


So: What do I do to build relationships with students?

Honestly, I think the answer is: I just “be myself.” I talk to the students. I listen to their stories and laugh at their jokes. I decorate the walls with student pictures and other stuff that interests me — items that can spark an authentic conversation rather than a forced one.

I let them get to know me as a person, as I get to know them. Slowly and genuinely, just like you build any relationship.

I understand the reasons behind all of the checklists and advice on building relationships. It’s not easy for everyone, and relationships are critical, and sometimes we just need a little kickstarter. But at the end of the day, it’s not going through the motions that matters — it’s really liking kids and letting them know that.

Martha Rush is a teacher, author, curriculum developer, speaker — and occasional blogger. She’s working on her second book, a joint project with Quarter Zero to bring lean entrepreneurship to more high school students. Visit or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information on Martha’s projects. And have a great start to the 2019-20 school year! @MarthaSRush #beatboredom