Category: Education Topics

Relationships With Students Matter!

During my first year of teaching, the principal of the K-6 school gave me this advice: “Get down to work immediately; give your sixth graders homework the first night; make students work hard from the minute they enter the classroom. Don’t waste time.” I quickly discovered that this advice, given with the goal of covering curriculum in mind, was definitely faulty.

That first year, I felt awkward and uncomfortable diving into the curriculum without knowing the students in my class.  It wasn’t research that raised these feelings, for if there was any in 1963, I certainly hadn’t read it.  After two days of trying to learn with students I knew nothing about and who knew nothing about me, I put myself into reverse and relived the opening days of school. For four consecutive days,  I set aside thirty minutes a day to get to know my sixth graders and help them get to know me.

That first year of teaching I felt as if I was in the middle of the ocean with a life preserver, treading water to keep afloat. I was an English and French literature major—never took an education class.  But here I was, in rural Virginia, facing students who were as curious about me as I was about them. So, in order to help them get to know me, I let them pepper me with myriad questions. Is New York really that big? Why did you come to Virginia? Have you taught school? Do you have children? Have you ridden a subway? Why do you read aloud in the morning? What was your sixth grade like? What do you do in your spare time?


Caring and Trusting Relationships

My responses were honest. Soon, instead of question-response, we were having conversations because many students started sharing information about their lives.  As I learned about each one, the children became unique individuals with diverse feelings, needs, experiences, hopes, and dreams. At this point you might be wondering, why is it important to get to know every student you teach? As teachers form positive relationships with each student, trust develops between both and results in the building and strengthening of a community of learners.

Classroom communities that have strong, positive relationships between the teacher and students develop an environment that advances students’ social, emotional, and academic growth. In addition, strong, positive relationships between teacher and students promote positive behavior and feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy—an “I can” mindset—among students. In addition, when students develop self-confidence, they are more apt to take risks in their academic work and believe they can reach important goals.  It’s never too late to build community and forge relationships with students. What follows are suggestions that can help you deepen your knowledge of students and at the same time nurture positive and trusting relationships.


Sticky Note Sharing

Give students two sticky notes; have them write their names at the top and record their likes on one and dislikes on the other. Ask students to post sticky notes on a wall or whiteboard keeping “likes” and “dislikes” together. Share and discuss the content of the notes without saying the students’ names. Return these to students and have them tape the notes on a clean, dated page of their readers’ notebooks. Complete the same exercise near the end of the year. Ask students to compare the sticky notes from the start of the year to those completed near the end of the year and write a short paragraph that notes and explains changes. You can use the prompts that follow or some of your own.

Why you like/dislike school?

What’s easy about reading? What’s hard about reading?

What’s easy about writing? What’s hard about writing?

Why do you like/dislike writing?


Getting to Know You Conferences

Set aside time for several five-minute getting-to-know-you conferences while students complete silent reading and/or work on writing. Try to meet with every student by the end of two to three weeks. The purpose of this conference is to discover students’ interests, hobbies, reading habits, favorite authors, and genre.

Open the conference by sharing your interests, favorite authors, etc. so students get to know you. Jot notes about what students say so you have reminders to refer to that can help you suggest independent reading books to students as the year unfolds.


Closing Thoughts

Always zoom in on students’ strengths–what they can do because progress comes from building on students’ strengths. In your heart and with your words and actions, project a growth mindset to students–an “I can do it” and “I can improve” outlook.  Support them and continually point out small increments of progress. Knowing they’re moving forward and succeeding helps students continue to work hard, raise questions, and understand when they need extra support.

Keep the information you collect about each student in a file folder. You can also store assessments, journal work, writing about reading, tests, and quizzes in the folder. Periodically, review the contents of the folder to evaluate progress and decide whether to confer with a student and negotiate a goal. The more you keep track of and invest in each student’s learning, the more you communicate “I care” and continue to build positive relationships. By investing in great relationships with students throughout the year, the trusting bonds between you and them strengthen as does students’ motivation to work hard and learn.

Check out the Reading Intervention Toolkit! It’s a great resource for teachers!

Questioning the Status Quo

I’ve always questioned the status quo as far back as my first year of teaching. There was an abundance of negative talk about the administration, other teachers, and how students were unprepared for learning. Most of it occurred in the faculty lounge, and I soon abandoned that room because the negative atmosphere affected me and my attempts to maintain a positive outlook. 


As a new teacher, it’s tough to be surrounded by teachers who don’t want professional development or complain about new initiatives. For me, the greatest challenge was feeling like an outsider. Negative attitudes don’t build community and make it very challenging many teachers and for the principal to build collective efficacy among staff.


Negative attitudes and unproductive teaching practices can be powerful; they can take hold of a school’s culture, spread like a virus, and affect teaching and students’ learning.  Once I became a principal, I made a commitment to work diligently to stop practices that have continued so long.  Some teachers accept them as tradition or offer rationales such as: “We’ve always done it that way here.” or It’s worked for me, it should be good enough now.” The question that begs answering is, What are these practices and how can we can we stop them?  


No doubt, they need to go. To accomplish this means raising your awareness of practices that make no sense.  It won’t happen after one try. Entrenched ideas, like those listed below, require vigilance on your part. Don’t give up. When you address them, Always. Remain. Positive. To maintain a positive stance, I’ve included a section called “Changeover” which offers suggestions for transforming negative practices in your school to positives.

Resistance to Change: Resisting change runs a wide gamut. It can be refusing to adopt research-based best practices, being unwilling to try collaborative learning, refusing to integrate technology, attending professional learning in body but not in mind and spirit. Beliefs and statements among staff enable you to spot resistance. Listen for comments such as, “This, too, shall pass,” or “It was good enough for me, it should be good enough for these students.” Some staff have feelings of entitlement: “Families love me so I can do what I want.”

Changeover: Extend invitations to teachers to participate in learning that can bring meaningful changes to teaching practices. Accepting an invitation means a teacher has made a commitment. Have those involved in change bring artifacts and lesson results to team and department meetings and share. Enthusiasm and good news can spread; give yourself and your staff the gift of time.

Unconditional Defenders: Some staff members feel that the principal needs to defend them to a parent or central office administrator even if the teacher’s actions are indefensible. When a staff member makes an egregious error, you need to take positive action. This might make you unpopular, but as you work to support the person, you can transform this attitude.

Changeover: First, take the time to listen to the staff member and those affected by his or her actions. Help the staff person understand the mistake and discuss ways to avoid repeating it. Be part of the reflective process through meaningful conversations and show staff what kind of support helps them grow and improve.

The Count Down Mentality: In many schools, at the end of the first day, you can hear staff say, “Only 179 school days left.” Some teachers even keep a countdown calendar. This creates a mindset among staff that teaching is a job, not a calling.

Changeover: First, if you hear these comments, start a conversation immediately. Make it known that everyone is at your school to help and support children’s learning and emotional wellbeing. Revisit this mindset at team and department meetings. Invite teachers to share how they have helped move a child forward and continually point out how the teachers sharing illustrates why we come to work each day.

Too Much Tolerance: Beware of condoning unprofessional behaviors among staff and central office administrators in order to cultivate an alliance. If doing this is against your beliefs and values, then you will confuse staff because they won’t know what you truly stand for and value. Moreover, if your words and actions change with each situation, you give staff the license to do the same.

Changeover:  Take a deep look at yourself and have an in-the-head, reflective conversation. Make sure you understand what you believe and value as a principal and avoid compromising these beliefs. Always keep in mind why you are a principal—to advocate for and support children and their teachers.

Unprofessional Dress: If your school has a dress code for staff and students, then both groups need to follow it. A teacher not following the dress code will have difficulty discussing a breach of dress code with a student. Also, staff should care how they present themselves to students and colleagues.

Changeover:  Find out why a staff member continually ignores the school’s dress code. Set aside time to meet and have conversations about this.  Help the person see how his actions affect the morale of other staff members and students. Then, make it clear that part of the job is abiding by the dress code with a goal to look professionally appropriate for students and staff.

Excuses, Excuses: Some staff always have a reason for being late to bus or recess duty, or for not standing in the hall when classes change. This outlook can prevent staff from embracing a growth mindset as they rationalize their decisions, attitudes, and behaviors.

Changeover: Keep a list of excuses made and then discuss the list with the teacher. Help him or her understand how not appearing or being tardy for school duty, affects the entire school community. For change to occur, you will have to help a person understand the whys.

Closing Thoughts

The practices I’ve discussed need to stop because each one hurts students and your school community. My challenge to you is to be part of the solution by taking the time to have meaningful, honest, and supportive conversations with staff to help them understand why a practice, behavior, or words aren’t acceptable.  Your students, teachers, and school community deserve it.

Check out our podcast on things that need to go in education!

Check out my book, The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook

Naming Strengths is Like an Extra Shot of Espresso


By Gravity Goldberg

Let’s face it. By 1:00 pm a third of us are wishing for a diet coke, a third want a Macchiato, and another third want a power nap. Being the kind of teacher who plans purposefully, patiently meets students where they are, and keeps up to date with the latest tips and research can be exhausting. Of course there are also the unplanned events that claim our attention like parent emails, unexpected meetings, and the social interactions that seep into our classrooms and fill it with peer drama and mediation. While that caffeine and sugar boost give us a quick fix it also leaves us jittery, rounder around the waist, and crashing later in the day. This led me in search of other, healthier, and more sustainable ways to get that much needed energy boost.

By looking at the research from positive psychology and sociology I found that one of the best things we can do for us and our students is to focus on building from strengths. It turns out that we train our brains to look for whatever we think matters most. If we believe that focusing on strengths is important we will begin to look for them and then find them everywhere with every student. On the other hand, when we look for what is not working, we can also find that everywhere. The biggest difference is that strengths make us feel good and when we feel good we are happier, more energized and more successful teachers.

Every day I sit with a reader and ask him about his process. I get curious about what this particular reader thinks about, notices, and does as he reads. I really listen. Then I allow myself to be impressed by what he already knows how to do. By focusing on a reader’s strengths I fill up on positivity that can’t help but give me a boost.
After noticing a strength I explain it to the reader so he can also relish in the hard work that is paying off. While giving the feedback I really take in his change in facial expression and demeanor. The toothy grins, the rosy glow, all show me just how much the reader feels his pride. His pride gives me even more of an energy boost. Finally, I sneak peeks at the reader for the rest of the day, and enjoy the energy ripples of communicating to students what they already do so well.

Of course this does not mean I only reinforce strengths when I confer, as I also teach students strategies, but the teaching comes second. At first I had to train myself to look for what the reader could do so I could build from strengths. I put sticky notes on my conferring clipboard to remind myself of my intention. After a few weeks of daily practice it became more natural and now it is automatic.

Think this is all fluff, like whipped cream atop a latte? Think again—
this positivity practice makes a difference. The next day, and the next day after that, you see its impact on the reader. In psychology, they call it the helper’s high. In teaching, I’m thinking of it as a double shot of positive feedback that gives each of us a needed boost.

Click here to learn more about Gravity!

Follow Gravity Goldberg on Twitter @drgravityg

We love Mindsets and Moods By Gravity Goldberg! Check it out!

The Reading Teacher – Invest in Teachers

“Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.” This Japanese proverb supports what Richard Allington’s research explains: It’s teachers who make a difference in children’s learning. Yet, schools invest mega-dollars in programs—basal reading programs. computer reading programs with scripted guides that tell teachers what to say and how students should reply. The notion of a quick fix to transform students into proficient and advanced readers maintains its allure to many school districts around the country.

We need to let go of the search for the magic bullet that quickly turns every student into a successful and motivated learner. The solution resides in every school: teachers. Invest in teachers and make ongoing professional study at the building level the core strategy for supporting all students. This is not the quick fix school districts yearn for; this is an investment that works.

 Investing in teachers also means giving them the materials needed to reach students at diverse instructional reading levels: class libraries with 1,000 to 2,000 books for independent reading and book rooms that have five to six copies of the finest literature relating to the topics in units of studies across the curriculum—all at instructional reading levels that represent the school’s student population. Take careful note: having the best books available for students won’t matter unless teachers receive the training that enables them to use resources to meet students’ needs.

Pre-service Training

        While attending college, it’s crucial to learn the way you will be teaching your students. Instead of lecturing, teachers collaborate, experience project based learning, genius hour, guided reading, differentiating instruction, and explore how to use technology to enhance learning. In addition, college education curriculum should prepare teachers to manage a classroom of diverse learners as well as how to actively involve students in their learning. For you to work in a rapidly changing world, professional study needs to continue in schools where you teach.

Ongoing Professional Learning

        One-shot workshops don’t have lasting power, even when they are from outstanding educators. They can inspire teachers and administrators to reflect on change, but without follow-up, they tend to fizzle and soon are forgotten.  So, to make the most of an inspirational, active learning workshop, it’s important for administrators and literacy coaches to keep the conversation going and provide the support needed to change and adjust instruction. It also means that administrators need to attend workshops that you attend. The suggestions that follow maintain a focus on PD.        

Faculty and Team Meetings: You and colleagues learn using professional materials in ways their students will learn. You collaborate, have meaningful conversations, raise questions, share ways you could integrate technology, write about your reading and ask: How can I use the information in this article to support my students?

Google Docs: Administrators, reading specialists, and teachers can take turns posting a professional article once each month on Google Docs. This is an excellent way to enlarge your theory of how children learn, best practices, and twenty-first century skills: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and technology. You and other staff members respond on Google Docs with a comment, question, or connection to classroom practices. Observing Colleagues: By observing a colleague, you can learn about class management, motivation, engagement, and how experiences foster creativity and collaboration. Finding the time to do this is always an issue. I suggest that school administrators step up and cover a class to make this happen. It’s important to follow up an observation of a colleague teaching with a conversation to offer feedback, pose questions, and clarify understandings.

Teachers as Readers Groups: When the principal suggests organizing groups that read and discuss a professional book the group chooses, and the school purchases the books for the group, it tells teachers, “The principal and this school community value professional learning.”  Best, if principals invite you to volunteer to participate, as you will have to commit extra time. If the principal organizes groups twice a year, teachers will eventually join one–and the principal should also join one.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Take Advantage of Twitter: Encourage the entire school staff to open a twitter account and become active on this social network platform. Twitter offers interactions with educators and writers around the country and world. Learning occurs when you explore articles suggested in tweets, comment on these, and reflect on thought-provoking quotes that occur daily. Ask a question about teaching on twitter, and you’ll receive several thoughtful replies.

Partnerships: Encourage teachers to form a partnership with a colleague they trust.  Teacher partnerships hold myriad possibilities: discuss the kind of feedback to offer a student, learn more about project-based learning and genius hour, share ideas and uses of technology, professional articles, read aloud texts. There are no limits on what partners can share, learn together, and discuss.

Closing Thoughts

Nothing can replace you, the teacher, in the classroom.  That’s why ongoing professional development at the building level is so important. Unlike computers and robots, when you possess deep knowledge about how children learn, you can process students’ actions, words, and written work and provide feedback that moves each child forward. Moreover, you have a heart and emotional center that enables you to build students’ self-efficacy, self-confidence, motivation, and engagement in learning because students feel your respect and trust, your hopes and goals, as they experience your investment in their progress.  

Learn more from a great book by Laura, Read-Talk-Write