We work in a people profession. Everything we do in education involves people. For too long though, our emphasis in education has been to focus on student outputs and outcomes instead of on developing robust and healthy relationships with students. After all, students who have close, positive and supportive relationships with their teachers are much more likely to achieve at higher levels than those students with mistrust and conflict in their relationships. But it’s not just about academic achievement. Other achievements such as improved self-confidence, effectively regulating emotions, and the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others are all really important and valuable assets for students and adults alike. A healthy focus on building and sustaining relationships among and between the adults and students within a school can make all the difference.
Think back to a memorable teacher from your own educational experience. If you had a strong personal connection to this teacher, talked with this teacher frequently, and felt the teacher was invested in you as a learner; chances are you demonstrated more engagement in learning, behaved better in class, and achieved at higher levels academically. That positive teacher-student relationship was key to drawing you into the learning process, and actually reinforced your desire to learn.
Now think about a student you have (or know about) who has been notoriously difficult to connect with. If an equity imperative is for every student to do well in school, that is to feel a sense of connection, belonging, and be meaningfully engaged, then what efforts have we taken as educators to ensure this outcome, even for the most challenging students? We often go the distance for students to ensure they’ve mastered content. But are we willing to go the distance in developing warm and caring relationships?
As educators, we all vary in our ability to connect with and develop positive teacher-student relationships. Some of us simply have an easier time developing positive relationships. Our personalities, feelings toward students, and our own relationship histories may each play a role in how we respond to different students. Some of our personal characteristics as teachers have been identified as predictors of positive teacher-student relationships. In many cases we are likely to develop close relationships with students who share similar background experiences. There may be racial and ethnic considerations implicitly affecting the closeness of teacher-student relationships as well. Being cognizant of our preferences and biases is imperative when working to build trusting relationships with our students and one another.
As leaders concerned with equity, it is our responsibility to set the conditions for caring and supportive teacher-student relationships to flourish. We must be advocates for students that have a difficult time forming bonds with adults in our schools, and provide tools for educators struggling to develop close relationships with students from backgrounds that differ from their own. It is our responsibility to ensure that every adult understands our expectation to get to personally know each and every student they teach; and as leaders, we have the opportunity to model what we expect by making the effort to do the same with every adult and student in the school. Yes, It takes a considerable amount of time to build trusting relationships with hundreds, if not more, adults and students. However, this unwavering commitment is an investment in the success of our students and staff, and this is the very reason we exist. This is what sets us apart from other leaders.
Ensuring all students are successful in school, requires a foundation of trust, caring, and support from which to build. Our schools need to be places where students and staff want to be, and where they see themselves and their contributions as valuable and important. Being a leader and champion for all students means just that; ALL students. As a leader concerned with equitable outcomes for all students, our core values should drive our decisions and help us stay true to this belief. It is this unwavering commitment that can inspire others to do the same, promoting a spirit of inclusion and equity that drives success for all.