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Positive student-teacher relationships are crucial to student success — four strategies for transforming school culture.

Over the past several years, local, state, and national leaders have expressed the need and their support to “harden” schools. Those who are encouraging these extreme measures fail to understand relationships in the teaching and learning process. In simple terms, students do not learn, or they struggle to learn, from teachers they do not like. Through years of school transformation work, we know that for a culture to transform, positive relationships must be a priority in schools and districts. 

Student-teacher relationships

No matter how strong the district’s vision statement is, how innovative the curriculum is, or how many national board-certified teachers it may have, nothing is more critical than the student-teacher relationship in the transformation process. As a teacher and school leader, I have witnessed firsthand that groups of students can do well, have a high attendance rate, and be fully engaged in one class. While, in the very next period with a different teacher, the same set of students can struggle academically, have high rates of absenteeism, and be disengaged — typically listening to music, checking Instagram, or reading a magazine. Some will say that the teacher is struggling to keep students engaged. I argue it is not classroom management issues or content knowledge. It is a relationship issue. 

When students know that a teacher cares about them, students will do anything for the teacher. They will strive to meet high expectations, maybe not for intrinsic reasons, but definitely for extrinsic purposes — for the teacher’s praise and recognition. Teachers maximize their relationships, not for personal gain, but instead, to empower, engage, and maximize students’ talents, skills, interests, and aspirations.

Four practical transformation strategies

We know that positive student-teacher relationships start the transformation process from inside the classroom and spread to the whole school. Below are four strategies to begin a transformation process by building positive student-teacher relationships. 

1. Make students feel valued.

Recently, social media has provided a glimpse of powerful student-teacher relationships. Think about the viral video of the teacher who has personalized handshakes for each student as they enter his classroom. The teacher has 20+ students but has a different handshake for each one of his students. What does this signal to students? Yes, students think it’s fun, but more importantly, they feel valued — and receive a message that they are known. Rita Pierson’s viral TedTalk reminds us that students only learn in classrooms when they feel that the teacher cares. Educators must make time to make each student feel valued in school.

2. Know students’ needs, goals, interests, and aspirations.

Teachers from across the nation are perfecting this daily with a variety of in-class strategies. Consider starting your class this fall by having students write down: 1) their name and what name they prefer; 2) their interests like cars, fashion, or music; 3) what they need to be successful in class, such as opportunities to collaborate, move around, or have hands-on activities; and 4) how they prefer to learn. 

3. Provide words of inspiration and positive comments.

There is nothing more valuable in the growth of a student-teacher relationship than positivity. Highly effective teachers understand that students respond to positivity and not negativity. Positivity strengthens and sustains relationships while also helping students grow. Students are more engaged and attentive in classes where they receive praise, words of encouragement, and inspiration. It is simple — positivity matters. 

4. Create a classroom environment that signals warmth and invites creativity.

Teachers who take the time to decorate their classrooms have happier students. For far too long, classroom walls have been painted institutional white, decorated with cookie-cutter minimalist bulletin boards and wall art, and organized in rows. Students today, many with a lot of baggage from complicated homes, need classrooms to be spaces of safety, flexibility, and creativity. No matter the grade level, PreK-12 teachers can create awesome, warm, and creative spaces — often on a dime, with a gallon of paint, DIY projects, and free reclaimed furniture. Believe it or not, classroom environments can ignite positive student-teacher relationships. Students recognize the teachers who spend time and money on creating spaces that make them feel safe.

Relationships are key

Though some are advocating for the “hardening” of schools, the key to education is not standards, immaculate buildings, or state-of-the-art technology. It’s relationships. With the changing demographics of students, we must meet their basic needs such as safety and survival — needs that are not addressed by standards and technology, but instead, fulfilled through positive, value-driven student-teacher relationships. Teachers today are increasingly becoming more than just the student’s teacher, but also their counselor, mentoring friend, life-changing agent, and parent-figure. Students already deal with the “hard” side of life; schools, specifically teachers, must be there to show the “softer” side of life. 

Brian Creasman

Dr. Brian Creasman’s Twitter profile says he has the best job in Kentucky! As superintendent of Fleming County Schools since 2014, he has the privilege of leading, learning and collaborating with students, staff, and the best community each day. Over his career, he has been fortunate to serve as a teacher, assistant principal, middle school principal, high school principal, and assistant superintendent. Recognized as a National Certified Superintendent by AASA, Brian's areas of interest include school and district transformation, teacher leadership, student voice, and empowering others to do BIG things for students. Brian is the 2020 Kentucky Superintendent of the Year and a nationally recognized author — having co-authored The Leader Within: Understanding and Empowering Teacher Leaders, Growing Leaders Within: A Process toward Teacher Leadership, Can Every School Succeed? Bending Constructs to Transform an American Icon, and ConnectED Leaders: Network and Amplify your Superintendency.