The Power of Relationships

Two weeks ago marked the conclusion of #TeachersAppreciationWeek.  When your day/week of recognition is jammed between other widely celebrated holidays such as Cinco de Mayo and Mother’s Day, you almost become the forgotten holiday.  On Mother’s Day, everyone and their momma (no pun intended) goes to their various social media accounts to share and post photos and videos of their mothers, grandmothers and mother-like figures as a way of expressing appreciation for all our moms do for us, not the least of which is bringing us into this world (and the threat of taking us out of this world if we act up) for starters.  As someone who was raised by a single mother, I completely understand why such a day would mean so much to so many.  Besides providing our basic human needs – food, clothing and shelter – mothers give us character, kindness, grit, empathy, warmth, compassion, integrity, and so forth.  Who we are has much to do with the woman who gave us life. 

With all this love and adoration pouring out on my Instagram feed, I couldn’t help but wonder why I typically never see any posts celebrating our favorite teachers on their special day.  There’s not an adult breathing whose life was not impacted by teachers.  Sometimes, that motherly figure in our life is a teacher.  The best teachers, the ones whose names and faces we will never forget, are the ones who taught us some of the same qualities we typically associate coming from our mothers and/or fathers.  There is something special about those teachers who labor with tireless enthusiasm school year after school year, ensuring their students are well informed and cared for every time they walk into their respective classrooms.  The teachers we choose to celebrate showed us more than academic material.  They showed us love, compassion, empathy, just like our mothers.  The reason why my IG is flooded with Happy Mother’s Day messages and photos is because the relationship between mother and child is powerfully rooted in our very essence as people.  The relationship between teacher and student can be just as essential to our development.  If we took the time to reflect on the teachers who embraced the power of relationships, I’m certain we would see an endless outpouring of teacher appreciation socially.  With that context, I wanted to share with you some of what I have learned about the power of relationships in our classrooms and its impact on students in the hopes it will trigger some positive memories about a teacher you want to appreciate today or sometime in the future.


My all-time favorite TED Talk is Rita Pierson's "Every kid deserves a champion".  Ms. Pierson was a lifelong educator who understood the paramount power of relationships between young people and teachers.  Midway through her talk, Ms. Pierson recounts an exchange she had with another teacher who was expressing frustration at her students’ behavior.  This teacher believed it was the teacher’s job to teach and the students’ jobs were to learn and that was all there was to the profession.  In response to her colleague's complaints, Rita Pierson would state plainly words that would help define the foundation of my work with youth and young men for the rest of my days.  "Kids don’t learn from people they don't like."  Unfortunately, her colleague simply dismissed Ms. Pierson's words of wisdom, but I never forgot those words.  Today, there has been a swath of research that supports Ms. Pierson's sentiments clearly.  The power of relationships between adults and youth in school has become a key influential marker of student performance, improved behavior and high school graduation rates.

Human connection influences our cognitive and social-emotional development from birth.  A distinguished scientist of The Aspen Institute and founder of Turnaround for Children, Dr. Pamela Cantor has made her career studying the relationship between science, trauma and academic achievement in children.  “When children have experiences of closeness and consistency and trust, oxytocin is released. And oxytocin has many, many positive effects on the development of the brain.”  Benefits such as reduced stress, stronger social bonds and improved interpersonal skills can all be traced back to the release of oxytocin in a child’s brain.  Children who struggle with focusing due to stress or have challenges connecting socially with others are almost certain to be at a disadvantage when entering the classroom; therefore, it is even more imperative that teachers and schools intentionally create spaces for relationships to develop over time.  Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, stated, “What the science of learning and development tells us is that we need to create learning environments, which allow for strong, long-term relationships for children to become attached to school and to the adults and other children in it.”  It is becoming more and more evident that how we learn and our sense of connectivity to our environments paint a picture of potential academic success and productivity. 

Student effort and productivity are heavily influenced by relationships and a student’s sense of belonging.  Back in April I attended a PD session hosted by Relay Graduate School of Education.  The session, “Caring and Belonging”, was part of their Heart-Mind-Will series led by their President Mayme Hostetter.  During the evening session is when I was introduced to the idea of belonging and how important it is to student success and academic behavior.  Belonging is defined as students’ sense of being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teachers and peers) in the academic classroom setting and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class (Goodenow 1993a, p. 25).  A student with a strong sense of belonging will generally exert more effort and are typically more motivated while in the classroom (Finn J.D., Zimmer K.S., 2012).  In addition to a sense of belonging, students’ self-efficacy and the perceived value of the academic content all serve as key influencers on student motivation and persistence (Tinto, 2016).  These outcomes aren’t that surprising when you consider what impacts the productivity of working adults.   According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), feeling valued is a key indicator of job performance.  Employees who feel valued are more likely to be engaged in their work and feel satisfied and motivated.  In contrast, this same APA survey found that three-quarters of Americans list work as a significant source of stress, with over half of those surveyed indicating that their work productivity suffered due to stress.  Nearly half of those who say they do not feel valued report they intend to look for a new job in the next year.  Work stress and unhealthy work environments intensify workers’ sense of being undervalued and can contribute to absenteeism and lack of productivity when employees are at work.  Students and working adults persist through challenging assignments when their sense of value has been faithfully fostered. 

In conclusion, if schools want to see their students show grit, remain focused and be motivated in the classroom, schools must become brave spaces for a sense of belonging to be cultivated, nourished and sustained.  Schools must be re-imagined as spaces where teachers and students alike feel they belong, are a connected to a larger community of support and feel their contributions are appreciated by faculty and classmates.  I believe schools can do this with intention and effectively without making sweeping changes to policy or instruction.  This series The Power of Relationships will explore some strategies and share some examples of how schools and faculty are building belonging into today’s classrooms and campuses.