Be an Ally

Ally: to join (yourself) with another person or group, in order to get or give support

I have been meeting with a teacher who has a very challenging class regularly since the beginning of the year. The first few meetings were all the same, in a very stressful state, she expressed all her concerns and needs and was not ready for any solutions.  By our third meeting, discussing the same group of students, the conversation was again turning down a negative road and deep into “the home life” conversation. I stopped her and suggested that we discuss what our goal is for meeting. My goal was to support her in changing her mindset, to collaborate with her on preventative behavioral strategies she could use and support her in setting up some changes in her classroom that would make a positive impact on these challenging students and her whole class.   I quickly learned that her goal was to give me all the reasons why she could not work with these few students, prove to me that the situation was out of her control, that she was doing her job and that at least one of these students, if not more, needed evaluated and placed in a special education behavior program.

As I listened to her concerns about the students, I took notes and stayed quiet.  At the end I had a list of 3 main behaviors that were disrupting the classroom, keeping her from teaching and the students from learning.  As we looked at the list and prioritized what behaviors she felt were most important to focus on, she became agitated and asked me, “You think I am doing something to make this worse don’t you.”   I was surprised by the statement and wondered why she asked that. Was it my body language? Was it my silence? Or was it something she had been struggling with herself?    I assured her I was not thinking that and I was not here to judge, I was here to help and support her in improving the situation.  

We talked in detail about each student and each behavior for another 20 minutes or so, trying to stay very solution focused in our conversation.  Putting the work into building strong relationships with each student became the clear first step.  I was feeling like it was going well, until…

“So, basically you are telling me I am not only a teacher now, but I am supposed to be a parent, a counselor, and a friend to all these kids?”

I was thrown off by this and hesitated to answer. I wanted to give a long detailed answer that would make her understand that students are changing and their needs are changing and we have to change and adapt and learn new strategies and ways to reach them if we are going to make a difference and do our job.  Instead, after a pause, all I said was “Yes.  You need to fill those roles with some of your students.”

While she was not receptive to the idea at first, since that meeting, she is open to trying some relationship building strategies in her class.  It is a work in progress but she has started to change the narrative in her head.

Eric Jensen refers to this as the Relational Mindset – Why the types of relationships you have (or don’t have) with students are one of the biggest reasons that students graduate (or drop out).

As his research tells us, the need to connect is hardwired. When students feel connected, they stay in school, achieve more and are more likely to graduate. Whether you want to be a role model or not, you are a role model.  Here’s the proof:

Effect Sizes:

  • Teacher-Student relationships:   0.74
  • Teacher Empathy and warmth:  0.67
  • Teacher Respects Students:  0.61

Building relationships with students and showing that you care can result in a year and half of growth! Of course, quality relationships are not a make-or-break situation for every single student and every school.  But for students, especially those from poverty and trauma, connections are the only reason they even come to school.  Good relationships diffuse stress for students just like it does for us. Can every student in your class say, without question, that you are an ally (not an adversary)?  Do they feel like they BELONG in your class?  Do students feel SUPPORTED daily?  Are you EMPATHETIC to the world of your students?

How do teachers find time to do this?

Personalize the learning: Greet students coming and/or leaving, smile at students whether they are your favorite or not, make eye contact and share:

  • Share good, bad and maybe silly or embarrassing stories about yourself. 
  • Share an everyday problem, students from poverty need to know how adults solve everyday problems in the real world.
  • Share your personal goals and share progress on goals
  • Always use personal courtesies (please, thank you, pardon me)

Connect everyone for Success: Connecting with people is one of the few elements that genuinely make people even happier than money (Psychologist Daniel Kahneman 2012).

  • Split classroom time equally between social time and individual time
  • Cooperative learning effect size 0.59 (over a year’s growth)
  • Visit the students neighborhood, go to a game or community event
  • Ask about their personal lives and give them respect for it (hobbies, families, interests)

Show Empathy: the ability to understand and share the same feelings.

  •  Seek to understand. Listen more and talk less.  It is not about judging a student’s situation or fixing it, it is about listening and showing you care
  • Empathy does not mean you will let them off the hook for bad behavior, it means you care.  It means you want to help them get better so that they know better options for next time.

Quick-Connect Tools to quickly build relationships with students.

  • One and Done: Do one favor, make one connection, or show empathy that is so powerful that an individual or whole class remembers it.
  • Two for Ten: Identify one or two students, who most need a connection, for ten consecutive days, invest two minutes a day in connecting time to talk about anything.
  • Three in Thirty: Ask just enough questions, through any conversation, to discover three things about every student you have in class.

Connect early. Connect late.

  • Connect Early:  during the first few minutes, either right before you start or once class has started, make the “rounds”.  Take a minute to check in with them emotionally.
  • Connect Late: Watch students’ non-verbal cues and body language and be ready to “check in” when those cues tell you something is wrong.

Writing assignments:

  • #1 (from student to student): “What my peers don’t know about my life away from school…”
  • #2 (from student to teacher): “What I wish my teacher knew about me…”


Be an Ally, not an Adversary!


Note: We would love to hear your comments!  Please click on the blog title at the top of the posting, which will open up the blog on a new page.  From there, scroll to the bottom where you can like, share and comment. Thanks!