The Push Without Relationships

“As much as he pushed me, I never doubted his love for me.” – Billy Donovan about Rick Pitino

As an educator, what does this quote mean to you?  In hearing this, I couldn’t help but think about the students I have encountered in my career.  Not the ones I tagged as a model student.  Not the ones I would say to their parents, “I wish I had a classroom full of them!”  No, I thought of the ones who had me in tears, who had me wanting to holler and throw up both my hands.  The ones who I whispered to myself about them, “you are not my enemy”.  The ones who when they were absent I secretly rejoiced because I knew the class would run smoothly.

I thought intently about would they feel about me the way Billy still feels about Rick.  I reflected on what would cause a player to say that about their coach.  What would cause a student to say that about their teacher?  Relationship.

I truly believe that educators desire to push their students to their max potential.  Okay, well most educators.  I’ve been in conversations with teachers who have the best ideas for instruction that will engage their students.  In collaborative planning, hopes are high and expectations are as well.  Walk into their classrooms and it appears the conversations had during planning were nothing more than lip service.  Students, aren’t engaged.  They’re actually calling out, calling the teacher by their first name and walking about freely.  They’re up opening the classroom door for no apparent reason.

How can there be such a disconnect?  Relationship.  You can have the best laid plans for your classroom, but without relationship those plans can easily go awry.  Relationship makes room for the necessary pushes needed to get students to want to persevere through the low floor, high ceiling tasks.  It’s relationship that encourages students to receive the push that helps them work in spite of the shaky foundation they may have.

All it takes, a simple “it’s good to see you” or “I’m glad you’re here” as students enter the classroom.  A smile (before December) when they pass by.  Attentively listening as they share their thoughts or perspective.  It takes a more intentional honoring of what your students say during instruction.  A high five, when they share their mathematical thinking.  Making turn and talk a pervasive practice in your classroom to show you value each students’ input.

Relationship is the important aspect of teaching that gets you through the tough moments.  It causes you to see past the misbehavior of students and see them as a person, a human.  Without it, your days are longer than you want them to be.  Without it, you students resent you for wanting and doing what’s best for them.  Without it, will they ever say, “I knew he/she loved me…”?





  1. This really hit home for me. I feel like I have successfully built this relationship with 2 of my three classes. But what do you do with that class where the simple stuff doesn’t work (saying “Glad to see you today”, always treating them with respect, valuing their input, etc.)

    How do you build a relationship with students who seem to literally not want one? Or who resist every attempt?

    • These are great questions Daniel. I had a conversation with someone just yesterday about questions very similar.
      As teachers, we inherit some of the world’s greatest issues. We just encounter them through the students who have not yet learned to process them. We have to ask ourselves, what role can we play in helping them process the negative thoughts and emotions?
      Can we implement community circle within our classrooms?
      Can we model positive interactions in the midst of unspoken hurt and pain?

      In addition to teaching the standards and holding ourselves up under the outside pressures of high stake testing, this seems like too much to contend with. That’s why I feel reminding myself this is all bigger than me is so important. So each day is a new day. You may have upset me yesterday, but today I’m still going to muster up the words, “I’m glad to see you today”.

      And I know, I may not see the fruits of my labor within the same season the seed was planted. And I must be okay with that.

      • Thanks for the reply, that’s a really good way to think about it.

        Today I had a 9th grade student on her cell phone while she was supposed to be doing her warm up. This is not the first time she has had to be corrected for this, but I did not respond well. I asked her to put it away and she said “Okay, sorry” and put it away. And what did I do? I let my frustration get the best of me and I said, rather snarkily, “No you aren’t. If you were I wouldn’t have to tell you more than once.” How do I expect her to respect me and feel like we have a positive relationship when she responded to my request politely and she got an attitude back from me? I later apologized to her for responding that way and better explained the message I was trying to send: “At a certain point, ‘sorry’ stops meaning anything when you don’t seem to be willing to change. People will be more receptive to your apologies when you aren’t needing to repeatedly apologize for the same thing.”

        She said that she didn’t really mean anything that deep by saying sorry she was just trying to be polite and respectful.

        Sometimes it is hard for me to remember that my students are NOT adults even though some of the situations they are dealing with are adult situations. Thank you for reminding me that they do not necessarily have all of the tools to process things the way I do.

  2. What a human experience to have. That’s why grace is important. You went back and apologized and provided an explanation. That’s a big deal! Continue to model functional conversations even in the midst of real human emotions.

    Thanks for sharing you truth with us all. Everyone reading this will grow from your response Daniel.

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