What Matters Most In Education: Human Relationships

When I began teaching in the 70’s, things were a lot different. Reading, writing and arithmetic used to be the name of the game. Students showed up to school prepared to learn. They came from intact families (divorced parents were rare), were well fed, and walked with friends a short distance to a school within their community. 

I placed parent helpers on a rotating schedule to accommodate all of their volunteering, and birthdays and holidays were celebrated with a buffet of home-baked treats brought in by the parents. My classroom had 18 students, and personal relationships were natural. When I sent homework home, it was always completed and returned on time. 

Fast forward to 2015: divorce has skyrocketed, students are bussed across town, and often, their most substantial meals are served at school. Classrooms run anywhere from 36+ students to 90, and they straggle in late, often looking like they haven’t slept well. Both parents are working to survive, making it nearly impossible for them to be involved in the classroom. In fact, I’m lucky if I see parents more than once a year at orientation or parent-teacher conferences.

The result of all this? The opportunity to build relationships is at an all-time low. The world is a different place. People are stressed, busy, and distracted. We’ve lost touch with the one thing that truly makes all the difference in education: human connection

The Caring Quotient 

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. ~ Theodore Roosevelt Click To Tweet 

Never before has this statement been truer. In a world that runs Mach-II with our hair on fire, we all want to feel like we matter and that we’re connected. When I asked my now-grown students, “How did you know your teacher cared about you?” these were the most common responses:

  • She let me know, or somehow otherwise made me feel important.
  • She was willing to be transparent. 
  • She corrected me without robbing my dignity. 
  • When I was having a tough time, she would notice and always ask me how I was doing. 
  • I could email her for advice, even when it wasn’t an assignment. 
  • I could tell that when I was speaking, she was really listening to me.

Working As A Team  

According to a recent study of more than 10,000 students, parents and teachers conducted by North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University, and the University of California, Irvine, “the role of family involvement is crucial when it comes to academic success.”

When students, parents, and teachers work together like a three-legged stool, academics increase dramatically. When one leg of the stool drops off, the stool ceases to function suitably. Most parents want to help, but find themselves at a loss as of what to do. Here’s where building relationships with parents will turn them into advocates. It becomes a partnership on the student’s behalf.

When positive relationships are built, studies show that:

  • Students earn higher grades and test scores improve dramatically
  • Increased numbers of students enroll in higher education 
  • There is less absenteeism 
  • Social skills improve 
  • Behavioral issues decrease
  • Graduation rates increase 
  • Violent crime rates among teens drop

When We Fail

The National Institute of Justice Journal indicates that parental disengagement in regards to their children’s academics is a major cause of youth violence:  

“I doubt that there is an influence on the development of antisocial behavior among young people that is stronger than that of the family. A fifth pathway linking family problems with adolescent violence is through the impact of negative parenting on youngsters’ academic performance. There is now some very good research indicating that involvement in aggressive and antisocial behavior during adolescence is frequently preceded by school problems of one sort or another, including academic failure and conduct problems. Children who have problems in school often gravitate toward peer groups of other troubled children, and these peer groups frequently become involved in antisocial behavior. Engagement in school is a strong protective factor against antisocial behavior, and positive family relationships are predictive of school engagement.” 

Obstacles To Building Trust

When students and parents feel decisions are made without their input, or that their concerns aren’t heard, dissension toward administration can tear down interaction and involvement. Poor communication, frequent teacher turnover and weak ethical leadership all contribute to parents and students feeling vulnerable. Ultimately, these obstacles can end up creating an ‘us-against-them’ mentality, and academic success suffers.

Building Relationships Begins With Trust

When students and parents know they can trust teachers, they’re more likely to build a relationship that benefits everyone. Here follow some clear points that, in my experience, almost always work towards achieving these ends.


Though it is important to encourage this behaviour from students, it can’t always be expected. If the adults in the relationship, however — the teachers and parents — manage to practice these tenets consistently, the chances that the student will come on board, due to the developing trust in the relationship, increase greatly. 

  • Begin first by demonstrating personal integrity– say what you mean and mean what you say. 
  • Finding ways for communication will build opportunities to share information. Perhaps that means being more accessible through texting, emails, and letters sent home. 
  • Being supportive of dissenting opinions will help facilitate engagement. 
  • Asking for others’ ideas and opinions. 
  • Ask for help but be specific. ‘Can you volunteer for our fundraiser?’ sounds like an overwhelming task, but asking if they could create the fundraiser sign-ups or call parent helpers relaxes the pressure a little. If they know the task, they may be more likely to say yes. Also, getting to know their unique talents and presenting them with projects that fit will up your chances of engaging their help. 
  • Recognition of, and concern for, each other’s best interests and working to protect them.
  • Consistency: being able to count on others to follow through.
  • Believing the other party to has the competence to perform the required tasks, and showing this.
  • Making sure different situations are each being represented fairly. 
  • Demonstrating authenticity and openness.
  • Guarding confidentiality. 

When the Hoy and Tschannedn-Moran Trust Scales were given in hundreds of schools, the results showed that when students, parents, and teachers built a higher level of trust, there was a strong degree of collaboration and cooperation. 

Relationships at the elementary level: 

Accurately assessing your child in the early stages of learning is vital to setting a strong foundation for them. Often a learning challenge, caught early, can be corrected before it causes significant struggles.

However, a teacher cannot always fully assess a child without a parent’s input.  A parent may have significant information that can change the direction a teacher will develop for a student. Understanding trauma, for instance, can drastically affect a child’s ability to learn. Learning styles, if understood by the parent and the teacher, will greatly affect the ways information is shared with a student in the formative years, when it matters most.

For example, a young student that experienced several serious bouts of ear infections may not have learned to isolate sounds. This inability needs to be addressed to teach decoding phonetics in reading. A simple tool like using a mirror with both the child and the parent or teacher modelling the shape of the mouth with the sound can rebuild speech and hearing deficiencies. If a relationship isn’t established, this information might be lost, and a more severe diagnosis of the problem could be established.

Relationships at the secondary level: (6th-12th grade) 

Students in the pre-teen and teen years have already taken their personal inventory and find themselves lacking. It goes with the age. It may not be true, but it is their perception of themselves that will dictate their learning.

Because teens tend to short-change their worth, they build masks that give them a false sense of protection. These masks show up in the form of belligerence, non-compliance, poor clothing choices, identifying with different groups of peers (the good and the bad), hair color, attitudes, addictions or simply shutting down.

When a teacher can build a relationship with the parents, it gives them a wealth of insight into their students’ lives, and parents, as well, need to develop a relationship with their students’ teachers and administration for several reasons. Consider the following: 

  • Teachers have an insight into your child’s life that you don’t. Remember they spend 25-40 hours a week with them and see your teen in peer situations as well as a variety of authoritative scenarios. As a parent, you need that input to sculpt them into adulthood.
  • Parents have a history that teachers need to better understand the student and help direct them toward college and careers.
  • Parents need teachers to help understand credits, college requirements, the value of internships & volunteering, and scholarships. In an ever-changing world of increasing information, teachers are your first line of defense. 

The Heart of the Matter

All humans, no matter our age, want to feel that we belong and that we matter. When we allow our relationships with those most important in our lives — this includes our childrens’ teachers — to drop in the list of priorities, we open the window for developmental problems to begin taking hold. I’m reminded of the students who contemplated ending their lives when another student, teacher or parent stepped in to engage with them. Those relationships saved their lives. 

School shootings make our hearts ache, and we wonder if we could have done more to prevent them.  Perhaps, a proper relationship with the perpetrator might have made the difference. By saving one, many others may be saved