Fist-bump currency

Grit. High-leverage. Warm demander. Relationship building. All of these words have begun to get as stale as a piece of Juicy Fruit. And it’s time to reevaluate our use of them, and take a long, honest look at our practice. One thing I’ve learned this year is that I am not as wonderful as I thought I was, or that past students have told me. Or colleagues. One person’s opinion can upset years of professional dedication. So, before I go too far into an unhealthy path of projection, I will speak for myself, and share what others think, too. The big questions are when do we get it right, and when we don’t, how do we fix it?

Novice teachers sometimes equate relationships with “the kids like me.” And yes, it’s true that we can’t learn from people we don’t like. It takes a mountain of maturity and self-actualization to respect/ignore/tolerate others who deride or dehumanize us. And a grand nirvana-level mastery of self-control to learn from others. But everyone can teach us something. The universe doesn’t have a plan, and all we get out of interactions is what we can and can’t control. And most students are not there yet. Most adults aren’t either.

Students want a teacher to like them, but guaranteed most of them would choose someone who’s strict and firm, and doesn’t allow for big theatrical displays of misbehavior in the classroom. And this is where it gets tricky. I don’t “allow” for these levels of misbehavior, but once I’ve exhausted my own treasure trove of tricks, contacted parents, sought out admin’s support, etc., if a student still hops on a chair and spins around, and knows there will be no consequence except for their teacher “getting in trouble” then the relationship becomes one of mistrust. Words matter, and deeds matter more.


I have raised two sons. They love me, and I love them. I haven’t always liked them, nor they to me. And relationships with other humans is nuanced, complicated, and changing. This notion that if we simply ‘built a relationship’ with our students somehow everything will change, and no discipline issues will arise ever again, and we’ll all get “Distinguished” on classroom culture and Mary Poppins can go to a new house because our house is clean.

It doesn’t take having one’s own children to know how relationships work between teachers and students. My point of bringing it up is to underscore how complicated these relationships can be. Students bring a lot of modeled behavior in our classrooms: parents who abuse one another or them, drug addiction, neglect, passive-aggressive means of communication, depression, and other forms of trauma. And this is a reminder to myself of what works, when applied consistently and gently:

  • High expectations and an explicitly voiced belief they can meet them
  • Explicitly voices belief that who they are in this moment is not their whole life or self: they will grow and mature
  • What they are learning today has relevance and purpose
  • They are creative, funny, and intelligent, and loved.

And most of all: self-respect.

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.” 
― Joan Didion, On Self-Respect