The number one factor in student success? Relationships with teachers

By Jennifer Cleary for Learning Sciences International, an ACSA Partner4Purpose


“Relationships teachers build with their students have the power to foster success or failure.”
– Cleary, Morgan, Marzano

Just ask students. In 1996, Mouton et al. conducted a study on students they referred to as “low-attached”—students who lacked a sense of belonging. These students often feel a sense of alienation, which is demonstrated in a number of ways, such as withdrawal from school activities, discipline and attendance issues, negative overall attitudes about school, and dropping out.

Interestingly enough, when students who were labeled as high-risk for these types of school failures succeeded despite their labels, they cited relationships with teachers, counselors, principals, and peers as the ultimate factor in their successes. Students who didn’t succeed cited just the opposite. In the study, they were quoted as saying things like, “Teachers make me feel dumb,” “Teachers don’t want me to do well,” and “Teachers treat me worse than other students” (Mouton et al., 1996). These feelings of alienation have the potential to cause students to give up altogether (Jensen, 2009).

After compiling research for decades, Dr. Robert Marzano came to a similar conclusion:

“The one factor that surfaced as the single most influential component of an effective school is the individual teachers within that school.”

Teachers can promote or stifle academic success. It all hinges on the relationships they build with their students.

This is, however, more easily said than done. Establishing effective relationships requires breaking free from the constraints of an academic world that has attempted to sustain order with formulaic programs, strategies, techniques, and scripts. Establishing relationships with students is an art, not a science.

It required a careful balance between dominance and advocacy

  • Guidance and control (dominance): The teacher is responsible for providing clear purpose and strong guidance regarding both academics and student behavior.
  • Cooperation and concern (advocacy): The teacher and the students communicate and perceive a sense of teamwork. This requires the teacher to be emotionally objective and to demonstrate a true concern for students and a sense of community in the classroom.

A balance of these components creates a powerful overall sense of academic and behavioral purpose while still conveying that the teacher has a personal stake in the success and well-being of the students.

There is no "one size fits all"

There is no “one way” to establish relationships with students. The strategies and techniques used one year may not be necessary in another. Approaches may differ between students, class periods, or subject areas. That’s what is exciting about intentionally building these relationships. The teacher learns about the students and begins to understand what each of them needs individually and what the class needs collectively.

Let’s look at three categories of techniques for establishing effective relationships with students, as highlighted in the book I wrote with Terry Morgan and Dr. Robert Marzano, titled Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction:

1. Understanding students' interests and backgrounds

This category has, in a sense, a boomerang effect. Teachers use strategies to show students they care by asking questions and learning about their lives, as well as what motivates them and what difficulties they may be facing. Although early attempts at this may seem contrived or disingenuous, the outcome is that teachers begin to really understand what makes their students tick so they can further support them individually and as a whole class. Some quick examples of ways to understand student interests and backgrounds are:

  • Distribute opinion polls that ask students about their perspectives on classroom content or issues.
  • Offer one-on-one opportunities for students have conversations about what interests them.
  • Ask students to write an autobiography, but the catch is they can only use six words. Then have them share and explain their autobiographies.
  • For the technology-savvy teachers, ask students to tweet a description of their personalities or interests. They could also create a brief online article about their greatest accomplishment, or respond to a Facebook post sharing their opinions related to the original post.

2. Displaying objectivity and control

I’ll admit this can be difficult, but in my opinion, it is the most important factor for establishing and maintaining effective relationships with students. Objectivity and control need to be consistent enough to be predictable for students. Regardless of emotions, it is the teacher’s responsibility to remain level-headed and in control of his/her emotions. This becomes even more necessary when students’ lives and the emotions of those around them cannot be guaranteed outside of the classroom. Often, our most at-risk students do not have the security of being able to predict responses from their caretakers.

  • Through active listening and speaking, teachers should interact with students in a calm and controlled manner. Remain focused on what the student is saying in order to understand his/her viewpoint. Posture, facial expressions, and gestures should remain neutral. Summarize or acknowledge an understanding of what the student has shared.
  • Reflect daily on consistency in punishment and reward. Determine if interactions with students reflected a balance between the two, as well as a balance between guidance/control and cooperation/concern. Were objectivity and control displayed consistently and do students feel safe in the predictability of emotional responses?

3. Indicating affection

I remember the first time I saw one of my students in public. While on a run, I had accidentally stumbled upon his baseball game, recognized his mom in the stands, and sat down with her. When little Eric looked over at his mom and saw Ms. Cleary sitting there watching him at bat, his eyes lit up and he couldn’t have smiled bigger if he tried.

It’s important that students understand that their teachers care. As I mentioned earlier, this could be the make-it-or-break-it factor in student success. This doesn’t mean teachers need to be out every night of the week attending sporting events—here are some simple ways to show all students affection.

  • Schedule interaction by selecting a few students each day to seek out and talk to, either in class, after class, or during lunch. A schedule helps ensure all students are shown the same level of attention.
  • Attend student functions to show students they are cared for. Let students know you’ll be at the event, and then make an effort to connect with them at it. If that’s not possible, follow up with details to let them know you were there.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of humor. Playful banter, jokes, or self-directed humor are enjoyable, but be sure to keep the humor clean and inoffensive to students. This, again, is when knowing students’ backgrounds is key.

You are your students' number one factor

Think back to your favorite teacher. Mine was Mrs. Nowicki in second grade. I was an at-risk kid.  My dad passed away when I was in kindergarten, and my mom had her hands full with my older sister, who was a bit of a trouble maker. I was no dream for my teachers either – always talking, asking questions, and running around the classroom. I was definitely an active little one!

There was nowhere in the classroom that my desk hadn’t been moved. I was used to being yelled at, having teachers roll their eyes, and spending time in the hallway. Then came Mrs. Nowicki. She was strict. She didn’t tolerate my behavior, but she found a way to show me she cared about my success. She created a systematic way of communicating my progress (or lack thereof) with my mom and stepdad, and I began to want to behave for her.

That was an important year. It was my fork in the road. I was on the cusp of hating school, because I was so used to “getting in trouble.” I credit Mrs. Nowicki with cultivating my love of learning and respecting my individuality. Had she not built and continued to strengthen a relationship with me, perhaps my story wouldn’t be what it is.

Mrs. Nowicki was my number one factor, and because of that, I became my students’ number one factor.

In a sea of responsibilities, we must remember why we started this journey. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of our students.

As educators, we face an increasing list of demands, and continue to be held accountable for the success of our students. We get tethered down with thoughts of content coverage, state testing, and other accountability challenges.

In a sea of responsibilities, we must remember why we started this journey. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of our students.

“The significance and gravity of fostering and maintaining effective teacher-student relationships could not be clearer.” – Cleary, Morgan, Marzano, 2018

The number one factor is you.


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