It all goes back to relationships!




Relationships are the essential element in our schools. The old adage, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is true especially in today’s society when kids are used to so much choice in their world. Also, in today’s busy world, it’s important for teachers and school staff to make positive connections with students. We must be intentional and taking time with these relationships must be purposeful.


Members of the Compelled Tribe have teamed up to share practical ways for educators to build relationships with students. As connected educators we also embrace the notion that it is the power of the team that drives much of what we do. How do you build relationships with those that you serve? See the list below for ideas to add to what you may be already doing in the buildings and districts in which you work.


  1. Greet students at the door. Smile and call them by name. Tell them you are glad to see them.
  2. Ask your students to share three things about themselves. Let them choose what they share. Keep them on index cards to help make connections throughout the year.
  3. Know your students families. As important as it is to know the students, make the connection to home. Great relationships with your kids starts where they kick off their day. As the year continues and both the good and bad arise, having that connection will be crucial to getting the results you are seeking.
  4. Journal writing is an activity to get to know your students well and give students a voice in the classroom.
  5. Make positive phone calls home especially within the first two weeks of the school year.
  6. Genius Hour/Passion Projects really give teachers an opportunity to learn about student passions.
  7. Have kids make something that represents them out of Play-dough and share.
  8. In the first couple of days of school, learn the first name of every student in your first class of the day, and something personal and unique about them that has nothing to do with your first class of the day.
  9. Be vulnerable!  Let your guard down and show your students that you are a learner, you make mistakes, and persevere.  They will see you as a person, opening the door for a relationship built on trust. Share stories about yourself as a learner or challenges you’ve faced when you were there age and help them see what it took to overcome it. It’s easy to forget how much a simple connection can make the difference.
  10. Eat together.  Have breakfast with a small group of kids or join them at the lunch table.  Gathering around meal time provides an informal way to have conversations and get to know your students.
  11. Hold Monday morning meetings (We call them “Weekend News Updates”).  Ask each student to share about their weekend – good or bad.  Ask questions.  Be sure to share about your weekend too!  Occasionally bring in breakfast or make hot chocolate.
  12. Laugh with them. Frequently. Show them that school, and your class, is just not about learning stuff. It is about sharing an experience. Tell them you missed them if they were out.
  13. Keep in touch with past students.  Show past students that you do not have a 1 year contract with them.  The ongoing relationship will also model to your current students the value of a positive classroom community.
  14. At the elementary level — hold morning meeting everyday as a class and stick to the routine of greeting, sharing, team building activity, and morning message.  This is a sacred time to build and maintain a culture of risk tasking and building relationships.
  15. Send positive postcards home to every child. Have them address it on the first day of the quarter, keep them and challenge yourself to find at least one thing each quarter to celebrate about your students, let them and their parents know.
  16. Find their interests and what motivates them! Sometimes it may take a bit to break down barriers and build trust, but through being genuine and authentic with them this will happen in no time.
  17. Make personal phone calls to parents. Find one good thing to say about the children in your class.  It can be how they contributed to a class discussion or how well mannered they are in class or in the halls. For older students it can be how diligent a student is at learning challenging content.
  18. Share something about yourself that they will find relevant or interesting to extend your relationships with students.
  19. Tell a story from a time you were their age. This approach allows students to see teachers as they once were and make connections easier to establish and maintain.
  20. Create a unique handshake or symbol for each of your students.  Use it when you greet them at the door or say goodbye.
  21. Eat lunch with a group of kids throughout the week. They will enjoy a time dedicated just to them. (And you will enjoy a peaceful lunch!)
  22. As a school, hold monthly celebrations to recognize students and educators their accomplishments.
  23. Take pictures with students. Print. Write a special note on the back to the student.
  24. At the end of a term or year, write a thank you to students telling them what you have learned from them. Be specific and honest – authenticity goes a long way. Try to make the note handwritten if possible, but email works well too.
  25. Each day write two students a personal  note about something that you have noticed about them.  Go into some detail and be specific. Keep track of who you reach out to over the year and try and reach as many students as you can. The time you spend doing this will deepen connections and pay off 10 fold.
  26. Have dance parties! It is so fun to let loose and get down with students. Students love seeing you have fun with them, and the saying goes, “The class that dances together, stays together”.
  27. Play with students at recess or during a free time. Climb the monkey bars, play kickball, or tag. Students will never forget you connecting with them on the playground.
  28. Hang out in the hall to give high fives or to have quick conversations with students. Relationship-building can be squeezed into any time of the day.
  29. Notice students having a bad day. Ask questions without prying. Show that you care. Follow up the next day, week, etc.
  30. When a student is having a rough day, ask if he/she has eaten. We are all more unreasonable when we are hungry. Keep a supply of snacks on hand (ex: breakfast bars, crackers, etc).
  31. Go see students at their events: sports, theater, dance, volunteering. Meet parents and families.
  32. When a student stops to say “Hello” and has a friend in tow, introduce yourself and be sure that the guest feels important.
  33. Stop class from time to time with a comment such as, “Hey, everyone, Katie just asked me a great question. I think you’ll all benefit from this. Katie, could you repeat that for everyone?”
  34. Sing “Happy Birthday” to students; send birthday emails (I use “Boomerang” to schedule my birthday emails each month).
  35. Say “I missed you yesterday” when a student has been absent. Be sincere.
  36. We have to make time to grow relationships with our students. This time can not always be in a planner or a calendar. Sometimes, this simply means just being there for your students.
  37. Mail them a postcard for their birthday. They are always amazed to receive personal mail!
  38. In a leadership position, learn as many names as you can. Greet students by their name as often as you are able.
  39. Music! Bond with your students over music. Play soft classical music while they are working. Incorporate music/songs into special events or lessons.
  40. Classroom: Start a compliment jar. Share comments at the end of class or randomly throughout the day. School: Do shout-outs during morning (or afternoon) announcements/news show.
  41. Smile and make eye contact.  “Good morning”, “Good afternoon”.  Something as simple as a greeting in the hall with smile and eye contact conveys both warmth & safety.  Try it tomorrow.
  42. First day of math class have them choose 10 numbers that are significant to them (3 for number of cats, 1 for brothers, 20 for number of hours they work, etc.).  Everyone shares out.  You will learn lots about all your students in one day.
  43. Cut them some slack every now and then.  “What were you doing?  What should you have been doing?  Can you do that for me next time?”  We all make mistakes.
  44. Hold class celebrations and have students develop unique cheers for various accomplishments…these can be anything from a sports team victory, to being selected for something, to earning a grade, and they need not be school related.
  45. Allen Mendler’s 2×10 strategy for challenging students. Spend 2 minutes per day for 10 consecutive days talking to a student about something not academic.
  46. Share your own goals, successes/failures. Don’t be a mystery to your students.
  47. After morning announcements have students participate in a daily discussion question.  Have a student read the question and set a timer for two and a half minutes.  Each person turns to a partner and answers the question then volunteers share with the whole class.  Each question, in some way, will help you get to know your students.
  48. Halfway through the year, have your parents and students fill out a feedback form.  In my classroom, these forms look different.  Allow them to evaluate you so you can keep what works and change things that aren’t working.
  49. In your summer introduction letter, include a letter asking parents to write about their children in 1,000,000 words or less.  Keep the assignment voluntary and open so they tell you what is most important to them.
  50. Don’t be too busy to truly listen.  Listen to understand, not to respond.  Are you starting a lesson when a student interrupts and tells you they are moving?  Take the minute to hear them out.  That time will mean more to the student than the first minute of the lesson ever will.
  51. When students get stuck in class, teach the other students to cheer them on.  We do a simple, “Come on, [Name], you can do it,” followed by three seconds of clapping.
  52. Teach students call and responses to uplift each other.  When a student responds with something profound and someone loves it, that student gets to start the cheer.
  53. When you check in with groups to give them feedback or see how it’s going, make sure you are seeing them eye-to-eye.  If they’re sitting, don’t stand.  Pull up a chair next to them.  If they’re sitting on the floor, sit down on the floor next to them to avoid standing over them.
  54. Give honest feedback even when it may not be positive.  Your students will appreciate that you expect more out of them than they’re showing.
  55. Create a “You Matter” wall.  Take fun pictures of each of your students.  Print each photo and put each student’s photo in an 8×10 frame.  Hang them all on your wall under a “You Matter” heading.  At the end of the year, send the photos home with students.
  56. Tell them what was hard for you when you went through school and how you worked to overcome the challenges.  It shows they aren’t the only ones who struggle.
  57. Defend your students in front of other people.
  58. Take risks so students feel comfortable doing the same.  Don’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do.
  59. Create something that is unique to your class.  For us, it’s a house competition.  It’s something that connects my past students and current students.  It’s also a family bond that only the students who have been in my class understand.
  60. Apologize when you make a mistake.
  61. Cook together and then you can eat family style in the classroom. Some fun and easy crockpot meals: applesauce, vegetable soup, chicken and dumplings. Then, make cupcakes for dessert!
  62. Every so often, take the pulse of your building according to students. Convene a volunteer roundtable with student reps from various groups (athletes, scholars, quiet, loud) and ask them for critical feedback about topics you are working on. Some ideas I’ve seen discussed in this format include schoolwide incentives (assemblies, sledding event, etc.), dress code, and discussing recess options for winter.
  63. During your informal walk throughs, saddle up right next to students and ask them the purpose of the lesson they are involved in. Why do you think the teacher is asking you to work on this? You’ll be more than surprised with the honest feedback.
  64. Bring board games back! Add a few games like Checkers, Uno or Chess to your lunch table options. See if any students are willing to play a game or two with you and others.
  65. Use sidewalk chalk to decorate the entry of your building with positive messages to students. Have teachers help you write and draw the notes!
  66. Leave nice notes on post-its for students on the outside of their lockers. Recruit other students to help spread the kindness throughout many lockers!
  67. Forgive them when they make mistakes. Remind them that mistakes are opportunities for learning. Don’t hold grudges against misbehavior and don’t allow other adults to hold them either.
  68. Make time for dismissal. Tell them you can’t wait to see them tomorrow and share high fives on the way out!
  69. Notice which students still don’t have money to pay for lunch. Help them out when you can. Treat them to a snack they don’t usually get to purchase at lunch time.
  70. Find special projects that need to be done around school and recruit the most unlikely helpers.
  71. Remind your students you and your staff were all kids once too. Have your team bring in pictures of themselves as children (at the ages you have in your school). Post them and have a contest allowing students to guess which teacher is which. Those 80s pictures are the most popular!
  72. My favorite question to ask my students or any student I come in contact with is what are you into lately? This opens communication with your students and let’s them know you are interested.
  73. Allow students to do a job shadow. Give them a peek into what you do and how you make daily decisions.
  74. Host an ice cream social for students that meet certain goals.


The list will grow as our experiences and our connections grow. Feel free to reach out to any of the Tribe members listed below to learn more about the power of our team and how our tribe constantly supports each other in our teaching, leading and learning.


Compelled Tribe Contributors:


Jennifer Hogan, The Compelled Educator  @Jennifer_Hogan

Jonathon Wennstrom, Spark of Learning  @jon_wennstrom

Craig Vroom, Fueling Education, @Vroom6

Allyson Apsey, Serendipity in Education, @allysonapsey

Sandy King Inspiring The Light @sandeeteach

Gary Kidd Reflections and Rants from the Asst Principal, @hinotewailer

Jacie Maslyk    @DrJacieMaslyk

Jodie Pierpoint  Journey In Learning @jodiepierpoint

Jim Cordery   Mr. Cordery’s Blog  @jcordery

Allie Bond   The Positive Teacher @Abond013

Angie Murphy ConnectED to Learning @RoyalMurph_RRMS

Karen Wood @karenwoodedu

Lindsey Bohler @Lindsey_Bohler

Starr Sackstein @MsSackstein

Debbie Campbell The Curious Educator @DebraLCamp

Michael McDonough M Squared at the Microphone @m_squaredBHS

Barbara Kurtz @BJKURTZ

Stephanie Jacobs @MsClassNSession

Michael Todd Clinton Motivated teacher blog  @MotivatedThe

Cathy Jacobs @cathyjacobs5

Reed Gillespie Mr. Gillespie’s Office @rggillespie

Molly Babcock Sweet Tea and a Live Oak Tree @MollyBabcock

Lisa Meade Reflections @LisaMeade23


Innovation and Imagination

Fascinating conversation in my office with a parent the other day.

“Some important decisions are made in this room”, he started. “I hope they are the right ones”, was my response. “I can’t imagine all you have to think about.” “In this room, you have to imagine it.”

My district has jumped the hoops, paid consultants, sought input and ideas from all stakeholders, crafted and adopted the Holy Strategic Plan.*

We are doing our best to prepare our students for the “real world” they will enter when they leave us.


*I have had the pleasure of sitting in Mike Schmoker’s presentation a couple of times. One of his slides says that strategic plans are about as effective as dancing naked around a campfire. He is spot on. The important lessons learned happen during the planning process, not in the implementation of the plan.

This wasn’t a consideration when we were developing our Strategic Plan. It should have been.

Twenty-five years ago, I was one of fifty principals from across Colorado who were invited to spend a week with IBM. It ranks as one of the most intense, and effective, professional learning experiences of my career. One of our days was spent talking about Visioning, and planning for the future.

We thought the planning equation was really quite simple. Past + Present = Future. What we have learned added to what we are learning allows us to create the future. Every teacher wants to create or touch the future.  Except that the world doesn’t work that way. The equation should look like this: Past + Imagined Future = Present.

We don’t prepare students for the present, we prepare learners for the imagined future. In order to prepare our students for their futures, we have to imagine them. The variable in the equation is the Present, what are we going to do today. And we all know that the equation can’t be solved unless the variable is isolated.

A recent post from Greg Satell, “Here’s Why You Should Think Twice Before Listening To Business Gurus” starts with this sentence – “Probably the hardest thing in business is to innovate consistently, year after year and decade after decade.” We have all had similar conversations in various leadership contexts. None of us want to work in a district or school that isn’t “Innovative!”

One of the lessons learned during the week with IBM is that innovation is all about creating systems and processes that did not exist at the time. They called them Zero-based systems, created from the ground up, not tweaking or adding on to something that was already in place.

In my experience, the innovations started by identifying problems that needed to be solved. I have written about that experience in a previous post. As stated in that post, not many schools were invested in technology integration in 1993. We didn’t do it because we wanted to buy a bunch of computers and stuff. We did it in order to meet our identified educational goals, and we believed the new tools would help us.

It worked.

Not because we had a bunch of cool new toys, but because a very dedicated group of professional educators, playing with those cool new toys, immersed in some very intensive staff development, created new ways to solve our problems and help us grow. We were able to consider new solutions and new courses of action.

We started by identifying problems to solve, then began dreaming of ways to approach them. At that time, we didn’t have a Strategic Plan. But we had some big dreams. None of which were in our budget.

We used dreams and vision interchangeably. We believed the budget should be a tool of our vision, it should not determine the extent of our vision. You can’t put a price on vision.

There is a big difference between dreams and goals. Like most creative functions, dreams are housed in the right hemisphere of the brain, along with passion, imagination, and emotions. Goals are formed in the left hemisphere. They are rational, linear, and measurable. The dream is the ideal state and the goal is the realistic state. The dream supplies the vigor, vision and direction; the goal, a specific, short-term target and the strategies for hitting it. The goal is a step toward the dream.

The dream is a goal with wings.

A dream supplies meaning and intrinsic value. It is our deepest expression of what we want, a declaration of a desired future. A dream is an ideal involving a sense of possibilities rather than probabilities, of potential rather than limits. The passion is missing when we work with only our rational left brain. Without passion, there is little enthusiasm and vitality. A dream is a wellspring of passion, giving us direction and pointing us to lofty heights. It is an expression of optimism, hope and values lofty enough to capture the imagination and engage the spirit. Dreams are capable of lifting us to new heights and overcoming self-imposed limitations. Dreams aren’t limited by what you think can or cannot be done, or by what your rational mind tells you is or isn’t possible. It represents something that you really want, as opposed to something you think you can get. Goals are tangible, dreams are intangible.

Dr. King said, “I have a dream.” He didn’t say, “I have a strategic plan.”

Dreams can empower people as nothing else. When we have a dream and pursue it, nothing is impossible. We tap into power, personal resources, and creativity that we never thought we had. We can accomplish what had previously been considered impossible.

Budgets and strategic plans are goals. Goals have a place, second place, following dreams. They serve a purpose, they give us something specific to shoot at and provide feedback to tell us how we are doing. They are a way of keeping score. But if goals are to be beneficial for enhancing performance, productivity, and motivation, they must be guided by something larger and more encompassing, something that inspires us and infuses us with passion, creativity, and courage. The tunnel vision of goals blinds us to opportunities for innovation and creativity. It prevents us from seeing other possibilities and options – alternative routes that may appear as a consequence of change, new technologies, or an unpredicted circumstance.

Effective schools are all about relationships. Programs don’t solve problems, people do.

Effective schools are filled with people who are not interested in red tape, fixed mindsets, low expectations, or blending in. They are solution seekers, ethical decision makers, communicators, creative thinkers, collaborators and innovators. They are building something exceptional. Every day, they bring the work of their hands, the wisdom of their minds, and the discernment of their hearts.

They imagine, and they dream.

And we are all better for them.

Admittedly, A Personal Problem

Like most districts, we have posted our beliefs and core values, we have a vision statement and a strategic plan. And to be honest, like most districts, many of us have not internalized those statements. We operate from our annual School Improvement Plans and trust that our actions will reflect our beliefs and values.

Our posted Values include:

  • Students as our priority;
  • Community and families as our partners; and
  • Our community’s acceptance of diversity.

Lofty, flowery language. Inspiring words. We talk the talk well.

As for walking the talk, we may need to consider adding a line or two.

One of our focus areas this year is training all of our staff in the Run, Lock, Fight program. Evidently, we also believe that some of our prioritized students, or partners in the community, are a threat to harm us.  So now many of us are teaching behind closed doors.

For purposes of full disclosure, our posted values also include:

  • Optimizing the highest levels of respect, responsibility and integrity for all; and
  • Learning and working in a safe environment

I have internalized these more along the lines of the “safe environment” being built on the values of respect, responsibility; the emotional aspects of life more than any threat of physical harm. In other words, we will respect our students as learners, hold them and ourselves responsible for the decisions we make, and always work from a foundation of integrity. We will not harm them, emotionally or physically as learners, they will respect us as adults who always have their best interests in mind.

Just as I trust that none in our student body or community poses an imminent threat to harm us, I also trust that we will also do no harm to them through our indifference, pride, vanity, complacency, certainty, or lack of imagination and creativity. I trust that we always remember that great schools are defined by quality of relationships, not by test scores.

Continuing the theme of full disclosure, for two years while I was employed by the Department of Defense Education Activity, I was assigned to the Ft. Knox Community Schools. My primary title was Instructional Systems Specialist-Curriculum and Instruction. I was also designated the Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer for the schools. The 9/11 attacks occurred while I was there. The Gold Depository was the target of an airliner that day, fortunately, that plane was grounded before it reached us. I understand how it feels to work in a place that many in the world refer to as “target.” Both our facilities and our people. We were trained to respond to both internal and external threats, and our training paid off both that day and in the weeks that followed.

We did not teach behind locked classroom doors.

Before we can unlock our classroom doors, we must unlock our attitudes, which will unlock our behavior.

Our District Leadership Team completed the Run, Lock, Fight training last August, before school opened. My session notes from that day started, with all due respect to Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, with the following:

“There must be some kind of way out of here,

Said the Joker to the Thief.

There’s too much confusion,

I can’t get no relief.”

And so it goes…