You Can Relate

Oh, no—that word again. Relationships.

Read on to see how I wrestle with Bob Marzano’s Chapter 8 of The Art and Science of Teaching: “What Will I Do to Establish and Maintain Effective Relationships with Students?”


Marzano summarizes the fairly thin research on the relational aspects of teaching and reinforces what we all intuitively understand: the more positive the relationship, the better the behavior and performance of the student. He offers two sets of suggestions for maintaining good relationships with kids: one that communicates “concern and cooperation,” and one that communicates “guidance and control.”

Stuck in My Head:

In my post on Chapter 7, I put forth the theory that the “logical sequence” of the chapters in this tome indicates their relative importance to the teacher. This worked for Chapter 7, but not for 8, I’m afraid. It is my dearest hope that you’re not waiting around until you’re finished writing your rules, administering your consequences, planning your lessons, and arranging your classroom before you put your finger to your lips and wonder, “And now . . . what about my relationships with my students?”

That being said, it is implicit in nearly every chapter up until this point that you really can’t do any of these things successfully without knowing your children as individuals. The first sentence of Chapter 8 states it outright, calling it a “keystone . . . perhaps to all teaching.” But if this is the case, why isn’t this, well, Chapter 1?

My suspicions are twofold. One: because sadly, the relational aspect of teaching, overwhelmed as it is with the teacher’s daily minutiae of managing overcrowded classrooms in a poorly resourced public school system, really does take a backseat in our consciousness most of the given day. Two: Yet again, the major strength of this book is also its weakness. Solid, well-researched qualitative measurements abound, but when it comes to qualitative aspects of teaching, there’s not so much material to work with. This is not Marzano’s fault, but it does make difficult a nuanced and thoughtful discussion of this all-important aspect of teaching .

Playing It Out:

This year, in particular, I am struck over and over again by how the rubber meets the road in middle school. Here, where relatively cozy elementary classes expand to teams of kids well into the 100s, even the best pedagogy falls apart when it is unrealistically supposed that it can be appropriately “scaled up” to work for kids in four times the numbers—with the same amount of teachers: one.

Same goes for relationships. Marzano gives a very (very) quick nod to this fact on page 155, but seems to content himself with patting everyone on the back who manages some kind of personalized contact with a child “at least once during the semester or year.” To state this about “the keystone to all teaching” seems grossly inadequate at best.

But let’s assume, for the sake of evaluating the rest of this chapter on its merits, that overscaling is something we have to bite the bullet and deal with in the upper grades. Given this, Marzano’s suggestions for relationship building through his “action steps” are simple, easy to implement, and intuitively compelling. They’re also not anchored in any cited research, unlike in other chapters, so keep that in mind. They are, in the end, only suggestions.

A theme that runs through them all is considered, sober reflection on one’s contact with students, treating it with the same cool objectivity with which you might (hopefully) treat assigning grades. While this has its internal inconsistencies—Can one truly care for a kid and remain objective?—it also has served me well in the past. In the beginning of the school year, I set up a little binder with rosters by class and jot down every “official” positive contact I have with kids outside of class. These are mainly phone calls home and positive postcards. I make it a goal, happily reinforced by my school culture, to genuinely and positively reinforce a kid at least once a quarter. I don’t always get there gracefully, and my binder would sure not win any awards—but I do generally get there, and the kids notice.

Take Away This:

But I would not assume my huge class load is something I cannot change, actually, and I would urge all readers not to assume it, either.

Given that (a) we all know that students perform better if they feel cared for and (b) the vast majority of teaching professionals I have worked with are caring, loving individuals, the answer to the relationship conundrum after grade 5 or 6 does not seem actually to rest with either tweaking the pedagogy or poking at the teacher, Chapter 8 notwithstanding. Over the years I have come to believe firmly that the first and primary answer is structural. We need much, much smaller schools. Period.

Don’t let the “teacher’s wishful thinking/pie in the sky” feel of smaller schools fool you. The small schools movement has a long history in the United States and has demonstrable success in settings from rural areas to the inner city. In addition, more and more research and data is lending its weight to the importance of small size in education. Its icon is Deborah Meier, who began her work in 1974 and today runs a lively and illuminating blog conversation with Diane Ravitch in Ed Week online—one of the first I check in my RSS reader.

So, yes, write in those dialogue journals. Yes, work hard to smile at your kids, even if you don’t feel like it. And yes— find every way possible, within your school, district, state, region, and nation, to support smaller school structures. Your students, and your groaning bookbag, will thank you for it.


  1. I think the relational piece is the first and foremost responsibility of the teacher.(Second is to validate learning no matter when it occurs — summer, snow days at 11 p.m. Great!) It is the strength of this relational bond that establishes trust. It’s the difference between natural or adoptive parents and foster parents. The latter are dedicated, hardworking and heroic, but they and the kids know that it’s temporary.
    How to do it in the upper grades? Loop! Yes, it can be done in any subject. Keep the same kids for 3 or 4 years and it changes everything. Look at band, ag, speech, drama, FL, glee club and other successful programs in the school. This changes EVERYthing. More to it, but not on a short comment.

  2. Easily, the article is the freshest topic on this related issue. I concur with your conclusions. I will eagerly look forward to your forthcoming updates. Saying thanks will not just be adequate, for the phenomenal clarity in your writing.


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