If We Build it, They Will Learn: Developing Relationships Between Teachers and Students

Originally published in CenterEd on October 11, 2013

Like many other educators, I have walked a long and winding road to get to where I am today at Learning Sciences International. I have served in various roles, from elementary classroom teacher to music teacher to literacy coach, district office teacher, and administrator. My journey has taken me all along the eastern U.S. from Florida to Massachusetts.

One characteristic that stands out to me in all educators I have met is our passion to make a difference in the future by inspiring students.

My question to you is, what ignites your fire, sweetens your tea, fuels your engine, roasts your clams… or whatever idiom you choose? For me, there’s nothing like seeing the excitement in a student’s eyes when they know they “get it.”

Making the crucial connection

I remember one student — we’ll call him Matthew — who came to my first-grade class after having been removed from second grade due to his lack of basic reading skills and his resulting behavioral struggles in class.

I will never forget the day Matthew came into my room with his feet dragging like they weighed 50 pounds each. He was not excited to be demoted to first grade — what student likes being retained, discovering that they are going backwards instead of forward? I remember my initial thoughts were if I did not build a relationship (see Design Question 8 the in with Matthew and let him know I cared about him, he would not learn in my classroom either. And I knew he was capable of learning, despite what his former teachers shared with me. After all, that was our school’s mantra: “All Kids Can Learn.”

Building trust builds bridges to learning

I have to be honest, though. At this point in my journey, I believed Matthew could learn, but I lacked the same conviction when it came to my own ability to guide him. I had to resolve that he would learn, he would have fun learning, and my classroom would be a place where he felt safe and welcome. I had the will and the determination; what I lacked was the “how.”

The goal was simple: Matthew will be able to read and write. Simple? Not exactly. I put forth all my effort and taught like I’d always taught my students, but Matthew was not making progress. He was learning to recognize a few letters and could identify five sight words, but his writing was mostly pictures and scribbles. In other words, he was not making strides as fast as I needed him to progress.

At this point, I began to struggle with believing I had the ability to help him. Not because he was a difficult or unpleasant kid — he was an easy child to love, with a jovial sense of humor and loads of common sense. But it was a busy time of life for me, with two kids under the age of five and a husband who traveled a lot, and I knew Matthew had a lot of other burdens that I couldn’t lift for him. He had little parental support, he lived in profound poverty, and his previous teachers had failed him.

This was a pivotal moment for me: Would I take the initiative to truly make a difference or would I just make excuses?

One bright spot at this point in the journey was the fact that Matthew was making much faster progress in math — finally, something we could celebrate together! And I noticed that he was quite the leader on the playground during games of flag football. When he would come in from recess, I would notice his relaxed smile and a twinkle in his eye.

It gave me an idea.

That all-important AHA moment

I remembered reading in one of my books that I could use students’ interests to engage them in their own learning. The question was, how could I use Matthew’s interest in football to engage him in reading and writing? I decided to have him write a poem about why he loved football so much. He surprised me by grabbing the pencil out of my hand, picking up his writing journal, and heading to the corner of the room to write.

When it was time for the class to come together to share and reflect on our learning, Matthew surprised me again by running to the carpet with the biggest, brightest, proudest smile I had ever seen him wearing. It was that moment we live for as teachers; you know, the dramatic music in the background, the swell of pride, the slow-motion celebrations…

Well, not really. What happened was, I asked Matthew if he wanted to share his writing, and he jumped up to the author’s chair and read his poem. It was about a single football play, described line-by-line from hike to touchdown. The entire class stood and clapped, gave high fives, and insisted we hang his poem on our Author’s Wall in the hallway outside our room.

In the days that followed, almost everyone on that campus came by to see this work of art posted on the Author’s Wall. I remember to this day how the principal came into the room and announced, “I see we have a new author: Matthew!”

This small, incremental learning gain gave Matthew a spark in confidence and the persistence to be a successful student.

If I knew then what I know now…

We all have these stories, don’t we? It’s what keeps us working past the “contract time.” It’s why we spend our summers not on the beach but in professional learning sessions. It’s what led me to join the Marzano Center team: If I’d had a roadmap for my journey like the Art and Science of Teaching Framework, I would not have spun my wheels for weeks trying to figure out how to reach Matthew. The Learning Map is respectful of what we know as educators, yet organizes the learning process for students and teachers in such a way that we can be strategic, intentional, and effective in our practice.

P.S. I moved away from that school shortly after Matthew left my class, but I heard later that he passed his 4th grade writing assessment with flying colors.

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