Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.13.16Competence and Trust Part III: Student-Teacher Relationship Building and TLAC

relationships2 My colleague Dan Cotton has been thinking, and writing about relationships in the classroom.  In previous posts he looked at how a teacher’s instructional competence can directly effect his or her capacity to build trust with students and the manner in which fostering genuine achievement was critical to all enduring teacher-student relationships. In his third and final post he looks more directly at the role of the TLaC technique in building relationships.


This series of posts – and the fundamental question, what do we mean when we stress the importance of building strong relationships with students — was sparked by several conversations I had in the last year with leaders in organizations that are committed users of Teach Like a Champion. They value TLAC as an important set of tools to propel student achievement and we all agree that student-teacher relationships are important. Yet when we spoke, in each of the cases, it seemed the leaders saw student-teacher relationship building as a separate task and set of skills from TLAC.


This surprised me. I wondered: perhaps we hadn’t articulated clearly enough the connection between TLAC techniques and student-teacher relationship building?  Those of us on the team, fortunate to observe and study expert implementation of TLAC every day, see the TLAC techniques as powerful and practical tools to enable and strengthen the student-teacher relationship rather than conceiving of teaching skills and relationship building as two distinct things.


Our team has since had several conversations – drawing on our experience using TLAC techniques in our own teaching, reflecting on the thousands of hours we’ve collectively observed teachers, live and through video, and thinking about our own experience as students. We also reached out to several leaders and teachers to solicit their reflections and insights about relationship building.


The framework below is the result of those conversations.


In the previous posts I proposed that warmth and competency are both necessary to foster strong student-teacher relationships, and that content plays a central role in the dynamic of relationship building between teacher and students. In this post, we’re considering how a strong student-teacher relationship makes a student feel.


  • Successful
  • Safe
  • Known


Successful: Students connect with teachers who support and push them to feel genuine, authentic success. Authentic achievement is key, as students are astute at distinguishing between empty, easy accomplishments and those that have pushed them to new levels. Trust is a byproduct; it emerges when students feel and believe that the teacher is capable of helping them be successful – to successfully navigate the world of school and to advance intellectually. Achievement is the horse and the relationship is the cart.


Safe: Students connect with and believe in teachers that make them feel physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe.


Known: Students respond positively and feel connected when the teacher acknowledges and celebrates what’s distinct about their work or their identity, and when the teacher sees beyond their current behavior or achievement to see who they are and who they may become.


As a team, we see the TLAC techniques as directly fostering these relationship goals.


When facilitating training, or simply reflecting on one’s own practice, it’s worth asking, “What’s the impact on the student-teacher relationship of using this technique?” Here’s a few examples:


Successful: From the earliest descriptions of What to Do, Doug has offered that issuing a consequence to a student when he doesn’t know how to do something erodes the student-teacher relationship. The converse is equally true: Clear teacher directions (and corrections) support student success, and thus strengthen the relationship. All students want to feel successful: It’s innate (see Daniel Pink’s Drive, particularly the chapter on Mastery for a full description of some of the research underpinnings). When students are in a classroom and they know what to do and how to do it well – whether it’s where to keep their backpack or annotating a text – they feel successful (and therefore, also, emotionally safe).


Safe: Creating a classroom that is physically and emotionally safe for students is a fundamental responsibility. To ensure all students meet and exceed high academic standards, a teacher must create a climate of intellectual safety too. This is the essence of Culture of Error in TLAC 2.0: “Create an environment where your students feel safe making and discussing errors.” Praise risk-taking. Where a strong Culture of Error exists, students feel safe to make mistakes, take risks, embrace errors as the normal process of learning , and, as a result, grow.


Known: Acknowledging and celebrating students’ efforts obviously helps students feel connected to their teacher. In TLAC, we offer the technique of “Precise Praise.” “Precise” has as significant an impact on the student-teacher relationship as “praise.” When a teacher pauses behind a student’s desk, takes 10 seconds to read the paragraph she’s just finished, and says, “Wow! Your unpacking of the word, “thorn,” and how those ideas contrast with the previous stanza is powerful. Well done.” — it sends a powerful message to the student: Your individual effort and accomplishment matter to me. The specificity of the feedback and the private moment of attentiveness make the student feel both accomplished and known.


And this maybe gets us to what’s so ironic about perceiving teaching techniques like those in TLaC to be separate from relationship building.   Everyone who enters this profession wants to have good relationships with students, but let’s be honest- not everyone achieves that.  Nobody sets out to be the teacher who is angry or sarcastic, who tolerates or is oblivious to students being mocked for doing their best work.  Most teachers, consciously or unconsciously, want to make their students feel successful, safe, and known.  When strong relationships do not emerge, it’s often not from an absence of desire, but from an absence of technique.


In Judaism the concept “kavanah” is often translated as the intention beneath prayer and everyday acts. We hope that this description of how strong relationships make students feel – successful, safe, known – helps make explicit the intention that we see driving the adept use of Teach Like a Champion techniques by great teachers. Our hope is that leaders and teachers will bring that intention to their use of the techniques to deliberately and productively build strong relationships with students.

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