Jay Schroder is an educator and teacher trainer who has taught high school in traditional and alternative education settings for 24 years. He is author of “Teach From Your Best Self: A Teacher’s Guide to Thriving in the Classroom” and the National Council of Teachers of English’s 2022 High School Teacher of Excellence.
The first time I heard the word “relationships” in the context of education was in 2004, embedded in the slogan of a new education framework taglined “Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships.”
Since then, research has confirmed that healthy student-teacher relationships are associated with “improvements on practically every measure schools care about: higher student academic engagement, attendance, grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, lower dropout rates.”
Although I’ve sat in numerous staff meetings where we were told we needed to build relationships with students, those same staff meetings also left us swamped with more things to keep track of and more things to do.
Cultivating relationships takes time. When teachers have inadequate time and too much to do, something has to give — and it’s often relationship-building that falls to the wayside.
This is a shame because healthy teacher-student relationships make a teacher’s job much easier.
Although teachers are told relationships matter, they are offered very little when it comes to why. Once teachers and their supervisors understand the underlying mechanics of how relationships function within the learning process, prioritizing them will become easy, and teachers will naturally incorporate relationship-building into their teaching.
The 3 stages of learning
Even under the best conditions, learning involves struggle. Consider anything you’ve ever learned — whether that was how to ride a bicycle or how to solve for X, you went through a process. In an ideal situation, learning is a 3 stage process accompanied by thoughts and emotions something like this.
|Excitement (or at least a positive sense of possibility)
|Cool, I want to do this.
You haven’t acquired the knowledge or learned the skill, but you see the promise in the learning. You have a vision of yourself having learned, and you feel inspired to become that person.
|Frustration, discouragement, stress
|Ugh… this is hard. I don’t think I can do this.
Once in the process of learning, you realize it is harder than you expected. You struggle, you make mistakes. Faced with the difficulty, you may lose touch with the inspiration of Stage 1. You may feel self-doubt. You may want to quit.
|Wow, I did it!
You have succeeded, and you feel proud of your accomplishment. This builds your confidence so the next time you set out to learn something new, you know you can persevere when it becomes difficult and succeed. Through multiple successful learning experiences, you build your confidence in your ability to learn new things.
Note: Reprinted from “Teach from Your Best Self: A Teacher’s Guide to Thriving in the Classroom” by Jay Schroder, 2024, p.44. Routledge Press.
It’s important to realize that stress and frustration are baked into learning. The accompanying thoughts and emotions are part of what it feels like as our brain works to build the neural pathways required to successfully learn.
Complicating matters is the fact that most students don’t get the lift embedded in stage 1 in school, because the academic subjects teachers are assigned to teach are not typically things students have an intrinsic desire to learn. To compensate, teachers may attempt to motivate students with the threat of failure, which only adds to the pressure they already feel, increasing the likelihood that they will completely disengage.
When learning breaks down often enough at stage 2, the student loses confidence in themselves as learners and may start giving up before they even start.
Relationships are key to helping vulnerable students succeed
To learn something new means risking failure. Why would a young person undertake this risk and struggle to learn something they aren’t interested in learning? The answer is the presence of a trusted teacher who believes in them even when they don’t believe in themselves. Such a teacher would have already cultivated this trusting relationship, so a student struggling in stage 2 could lean into that relationship as an impetus to persist toward success. Sometimes, the only reason a student has for persevering through difficulty is the relationship they have with their teacher.
Each time a student successfully moves through all 3 stages, their confidence in themselves as a learner grows. In time, they become lifelong learners who can persist through the 3 stages of learning without a teacher standing by their side.
How a teacher’s mental bandwidth affects relationship-building
With each new application of technology, each new initiative, and each set of strategies that school districts require teachers to learn, teachers must go through the stages of learning. Most of the time, the new initiatives are implemented without teacher input or even an adequate explanation, so — like their students — teachers begin the learning process at stage 2.
Learning consumes mental bandwidth. Teachers must undertake new learning while keeping up with their other job duties — duties that may already be stretching them to their breaking point. When bandwidth is already taxed, the additional mental load required to learn a new technology or procedure leaves a teacher with insufficient mental resources for bringing acceptance, patience and empathy to their struggling students. Yet it’s these qualities that students need to experience from their teacher for constructive student-teacher relationships to develop.
3 steps administrators can take to support teachers in building positive relationships with students
First, administrators can introduce the three stages of learning framework to help their staff see how relationship-building pays off in student learning.
Second, administrators can model relationship-building approaches through the way they relate to their staff. Healthy administrator-teacher relationships set up staff to feel supported, creating the conditions for a schoolwide culture that values relationships.
Finally, administrators can take into account the role bandwidth plays in teacher efficacy when making decisions that affect teacher workload. Administrators need to reduce the amount of things teachers are expected to learn, do and keep track of, so teachers have the time and mental capacity to imbue relationship-building into their daily teaching practice.