The *How* of Building Relationships

  • Middle School
Erin Lark

It seems like the fastest way to end a conversation on the logistics of creating change in education is to answer inquiry with “well, you need to build relationships.” The crowd will outwardly ooh and ahh, nodding complete agreement, yet more than a few will internally question, “Okay but how? I thought I was doing that…”

I’m reminded of a colleague from my first teaching job who referred to themself, in tagline format, as “________, not for everyone.” While 12-years later this sounds like a not-so-subtle, career-limiting, branding hashtag, the owner is now a school administrator, leading adults and students in education excellence. Developing the ability to relate, in an increasingly skillful manner, with folks around you is an adventure that may take you far beyond where you began.

The tough thing about that catch-all phrase is that building relationships, a deceptively-brief term, is incredibly complicated and entirely nuanced to users who encompass such an astounding possibility of variables that even my calculus-loving mind boggles at the set of outcomes. This is true for the average adult, navigating a professional and personal journey of interpersonal interactions. We as educators exponentially level up in adding students to the mix.

I, like many, would say I’m good at building relationships, whatever that means, which is exactly the point. Relationship building isn’t something to be lumped into a broad character trait, an oversimplified skill on your resume. It needs emphasis on the noun rather than the verb, referring to, and therefore honoring, a specific connection. Take a look at the difference between the following two sentences:

Verb: I’m building relationships.
Noun: I built a relationship.

The second sentence begs the question, “Awesome, now where will you journey together?” while the first enables a holding pattern of generalization, throwing spaghetti on the proverbial ceiling to see what sticks.

I know, I know, teaching with relationships in mind is tough, time consuming, and hardly likely to be perfected by anyone regardless of our wholehearted dedication. That said, especially when talking college and career readiness, what is more essential to learn and practice than interpersonal communication? Far from providing a perfect solution and fully aware that my own student count will be well into the triple digits this year, I’m offering a collection of strategies to tweak what is already likely a solid, well-meaning, educator machine and develop our superhero skill sets ever further in this pursuit.

Track it.  I learned from my boss, skillful in keeping up with his employee’s personal and professional pursuits, about a leadership strategy that uses data to support connections.  With a depth of connection in mind, make a list of all the people with whom you want to make contact with and check off each time you do. Whether just for students, staff, or both, holding yourself accountable for spending time in earnest communication with each person on that list in a given time period may make the difference in inclusivity.  If it’s Friday and you haven’t shared a warm hello with one of your students, this reminder could be all it takes.

Assimilate.  One of my favorite assignments from teacher school was to find a popular show your certification age group would be into and watch it for the entire semester.*  Talk about cultural learning! While my classmates and I cajoled each other into dramatic teenage reenactments of what we watched, our reflections spoke of people with a new understanding of the youth we would serve.  While media is not a perfect representation, spending extensive time getting to know what is valuable to people you want to know well is a worthwhile activity. Ask your students for a teacher-safe recommendation and submerge yourself into their culture, asking questions and making connections as you (with luck) enjoy the experience. Even if you don’t end up a Riverdale/Andi Mack/Stampylonghead fan, you’ve acknowledged your students’ tastes.

Read up.  Improvement takes new ideas which often come from sources outside our own professional circles.  People are complex; we need exposure to backgrounds, ideas, and lifestyle examples that are outside our daily scope.  I checked back through my Kindle and found a few titles that (directly or indirectly) involve effective means to better relate with each other.


The answer to how is yes

Renegade leadership: Creating innovative schools for digital-age students

We should all be feminists


A gentleman in Moscow

The hate you give

Little fires everywhere

Tell your story.  It should prove difficult to find a school board policy manual that doesn’t include a prominent section on workplace boundaries, with particular attention to staff and student relationships.  This extremely vital directive is necessary to protect those we serve and should absolutely be upheld in all aspects of relationship building. That said, while you must take actions to ensure all communication is appropriate and professional, you can also include what is personable.  Relationships are built on connections, not one-sided delivery, so find aspects of your personal narrative to share. Sharing with a student that you, too, have moved homes before and understand what it’s like to have to find essentials (lunch bag, homework, permission slip, etc.) when living out of boxes is a way to empathize.  Be a human, be a storyteller, and most importantly, then become a listener.

Change.  As I mentioned before, I consider myself good at building relationships, yet not good enough to think I can’t do better.  There will always be that one person, staff or student, whom I can’t seem to reach. Instead of complacency or dismissal, I will keep looking for an inroad, a kernel of opportunity to make that connection, a task which often means I need to do some soul searching and change my approach.  Ask for support from a mentor, ask the person you want to reach, or simply ask yourself what else can be done. Just don’t give up; the news headlines are full of folks without a strong tie to humanity, without a relationship to sustain them when they need it most, and this teacher’s heart will never rest while such loneliness exists.

How will you reach out differently than you did last school year?  

*This is why I slay at One Tree Hill trivia.  Try me.

  • Communication
  • Teacher Leadership
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