“The Power of Relationships (Whatever That Means)”


Nothing you try with your students will work if you haven’t established a good relationship with them.

You might think this goes without saying, but you would be surprised how often this seed of wisdom goes unsown.

Just this week I was talking with a colleague of mine who works closely with teachers in thousands of schools all over the world.  He told me about a middle school principal who was handed a list of students who were failing.  The school had been experiencing an increasing number of academic failures lately.  The principal looked down at the list and said, “Who are these kids?  I don’t even know them.”

“Right then, I immediately knew what the problem was,” said my colleague.

It’s easy to talk a good game about the teacher-student dynamic, but too often the usefulness of this matter gets lost in fuzzy jargon such as “collaborate effectively,” “foster relationships,” and (my personal favorite) “build a community.”

If it takes a village, can we at least start with some clear, specific language?

So what does all this relationship stuff mean, really?  

Let me get specific about this in a way that makes it truly useful.

First of all, it’s absolutely true.  Making a good, solid connection with your students will do more to motivate them and prevent classroom problems than just about anything else you can do.

This is because people aren’t motivated by programs or concepts.  They’re motivated by people.  

(Research has actually documented this but, really, do we even need the proof?)

One of those people in my own life was Mr. Leigh.  He taught English and P.E. in middle school, and he was most likely one of three adults who saved my life.

I think if you remember something for more than 30 years, then it must be pretty significant.  Here is what I remember. . .

A little over 30 years ago, I was one of those kids who played sports very well but ran around with a suspect crowd from age 12 to 15.

I doubt that Mr. Leigh attended any in-service workshops where he was taught to establish relationships.   He did this naturally because he happened to be a teacher who was both funny and cool – two attributes extremely helpful if you aspire to be anything other than a complete dork in the eyes of an eighth-grader.  

Mr. Leigh knew how to joke with us without making anyone feeling laughed at.  He knew how to praise us without totally embarrassing us.  He didn’t teach “at” us.  He didn’t approach us from “on high.”

Basically, he was the single biggest reason I stopped being “another one of those damn Daly kids” and began acting like a leader who could feel good about himself and succeed.

Here’s how that happened . . .

One day Mr. Leigh asked us to do something that threw me for a loop.   He started by doing something a little “outside the box” – he had the entire class write a five-paragraph essay verbally as a group while he wrote down our best ideas on the overhead projector.

We had to have an introduction, supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.  And I was fully into it.  I blurted out ideas freely along with the other kids because Mr. Leigh was funny and cool and I wanted to gain his admiration.   Something about him made you want to try hard and succeed.

When we were done, when Mr. Leigh had written down our best sentences, he changed the game on us.  Now we had to write one by ourselves, silently, all alone.

I was mad and scared.  Shouting out ideas in class was more my speed.  How was I ever going to do this?  I was fairly convinced that what I was about to write would suck and embarrass myself and maybe even Mr. Leigh.  (As if anything I could write would actually embarrass him . . . you can see how the mind of an insecure 14-year-old works!)

So I did what any kid who is inspired by a teacher does:  I gulped down my fear, fought through the assignment, and said, “Okay, let’s just try this and see what happens.”

Now, what comes next is not a Hollywood ending.  I wasn’t “Rudy” coming into the game for a season-saving tackle.   I wasn’t a dyslexic failure who goes on to win the National Book Award. 

But what I’m about to tell you is even better, because it’s real.  It will ring true for every kid who ever got a pat on the back when all he felt before was the burden of unmet expectations.

Mr. Leigh made an overhead of my essay and showed it to the entire class as a shining example of how to do this right.  He didn’t shower rah-rah praise all over me, because like any pro, he knew his audience.  (Remember, this was eighth grade.)  He simply pointed out all the good things about my essay and left it at that.

After that, I started telling people I was going to go to college. I now had the confidence to write anything in any class and know that it was worthy . . . and even if it wasn’t perfect, well, that was okay, too, because Mr. Leigh had already stamped my passport to a future and told me that I belonged.

It’s important to note that Mr. Leigh wasn’t the only good teacher I ever had.  And he certainly wasn’t the first one to point out that I could write well.  As a matter of fact, Miss Cornecil had told me the same thing in sixth grade, not to mention Ms. Jorsensen in the fifth grade, Mr. Harvey in the seventh grade, and even my own mom.

But it wasn’t until Mr. Leigh that I started to believe it.

I wouldn’t have broken that barrier for just any teacher.  But I fought through my demons for Mr. Leigh because he had a way of making me feel like we were on the same level.

When you do that, when you surrender what is called the “one-up relationship,” then that is when you can produce small, quiet miracles like the one I experienced.

I'll say it again: Nothing you can do will improve your classroom management more than building sincere, real relationships with your students.

The very best way I know how to do that is to follow the steps in my teacher training package.  It gives you a series of practical exercises and techniques to build those bonds immediately.   You will be shocked at the turnarounds that are possible with the simplest of steps. Click here to take a look at that program now.