Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.25.18“It’s the Most Important Tool for Building Relationships,” and Other Insights About Check For Understanding

How to connect…


Yesterday was one of the most intellectually intense days I’ve had in some time, and I came to realize some important things about Check for Understanding.

I’m going to try to summarize some of them here.

1) Check for Understanding is quite possibly the single most important group of techniques in terms of building relationships with students–I had never fully made that connection before and I suspect many other teachers hadn’t either.

I realized this over the course of a meeting with our TLAC Fellows in which we set out to discuss and study building relationships in the classroom- something my team and I are interested in studying because we think it’s an important topic and because we think it’s an oft-misunderstood or misapplied topic.

The first thing we realized was that many teachers focused their relationship building efforts on what happens outside of the core teaching–greeting students in the hallway and asking them about their interests.

Far more important and genuine is something we called relational teaching–using the way you teach to build a trusting relationship.  What happens inside the classroom–inside the teaching within the classroom–is the first and foremost driver of relationships. The Fellows were emphatic on this point and on the idea that Check for Understanding, done well, was critical because it constantly communicated a message to each student. We summarized that message as follows:

  • Your success is important to me
  • I believe in you
  • I am highly aware of your progress in this endeavor
  • I will help you succeed


You can see that in this video…. three examples of teachers Tracking Not Watching… where that message is communicated by a process of careful observation of student work and quick feedback.

As an aside two of the teachers here, Denarius Frazier and Tamesha McGuire, are TLAC Fellows and yes that makes us just a little bit proud.

EA.CFU.GRM.’Relationship building.’Clip2792 from TLAC Blog on Vimeo.

Ironically the first clip, while truly wonderful, offers a bit of a distraction. The interactions are warm and endearing but it’s the feedback as much as the warm affect that builds the relationship.

Anyway our takeaway was that relationship building starts in the classroom with attentiveness to the the craft of teaching and with attentiveness to the progress and experience of the learner.  What happens inside the classroom is more profound than the outside the classroom efforts at connections that teachers may make.  Some of those are also valuable.  But without the in-class dynamic none of that moves the needle.  If I am struggling and you go blithely on unaware, well, you can ask me about all the movies you like but…

2) On the way to the train station, I had the opportunity to chat with Denarius about one of our favorite CFU clips.  This one.

EA.CFU.GR11.Frazier.’Remainder.’Clip2594 from TLAC Blog on Vimeo.

Denarius shared how critical his seating plan is to its success.  The two front corners of the room are the places he always starts his observational laps of the room. The first four students he comes across there are essentially a small statistical sample of the room. Two students who often struggle, one student who’s about average and one high performer.

“After looking at four kids’ work I often have a decent hypothesis for how the room over all is doing.  I’m testing that hypothesis already as I work the first column, and by the second column I’m deciding what to do about it.”

He also shared this thought re. the tracking of student work he’s doing–you can see him making notes on his clipboard.

“A lot of people think I’m tracking who got it right and who got it wrong. I’ve stopped doing that.  I now track the nature of the errors I see. When i finish my observations, knowing what they misunderstand rather than what number of kids got it right is much more useful. And that too helps me develop my plan to re-teach as I work.”

Brilliant and fascinating stuff.


10 Responses to ““It’s the Most Important Tool for Building Relationships,” and Other Insights About Check For Understanding”

  1. Luke
    September 25, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    Very similar to Jon Saphier’s three key messages:

    1. This is important.
    2. With effective effort, you can do it.
    3. I will support you.

  2. Matthew Fox
    September 26, 2018 at 7:44 pm

    Hi Doug
    Goes without saying but love everything you do & everything you stand for.
    A question:
    All 3 teachers have clipboards. What are they doing with them? Darius let’s on about looking for errors. Perfect. The others.

    So inadequate, but thanks is all I can give!

    • Doug Lemov
      October 4, 2018 at 5:25 pm

      Hi, Matthew. Great question. Yes they use the clipboards to track the data on what errors their students are making–or what they’re doing well at. The idea is that it’s too much data–and too important–to leave what you remember to chance. And thank you also for your kind words.

  3. Julia
    September 27, 2018 at 6:23 am

    I’m always jealous of the amazing behaviour displayed in these clips – by the students. I’ve never known a British classroom to be so quiet, calm and ordered (I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but I’ve never seen it).

  4. October 17, 2018 at 9:38 pm

    Hi Doug,
    Loved the idea that fthe front corners of the seating plan represent statistical samples of the class. This would give the teacher a quick representation of the class population’s misconceptions.
    Seating plans would clearly need to be flexible but in principle this would give great teacher feedback at speed.

  5. Dan
    October 18, 2018 at 11:23 pm

    I get how this quick check works for math, but could this work regarding writing?

  6. stefania
    October 30, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    hi doug
    I am writing to you from italy
    I can’t help admire your team and your work
    I am trying to use some resources of yours, especially “right now”
    it’s amazing! it works!

    • Doug Lemov
      October 31, 2018 at 3:32 pm

      Thank you! Very happy to know the tools are useful to you.

  7. Paul
    January 22, 2019 at 8:46 pm

    Hi Doug,
    To me, the most important part of this post is the notion that the four students in the front are a sample of your students. Seating plans are critical for succes, but this is a new way of looking at them for me. Are seating plans part of the TLAC techniques? Worth a seperate technique?
    Thanks for this post (and the blog).

    • Doug Lemov
      January 23, 2019 at 12:59 pm

      yeah. it’s not the first time we’ve seen this sort of strategic seating. It’s not something we’ve formally discussed in the TLAC books but it’s something we’ve mentioned in the blog from time to time (search within the blog for “front table” for example) but really it’s such a credit to teachers and the details they attend to in designing and engineering the ideal classroom. thanks for your comment!

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