I once made a student cry.

Of course, I had all the excuses in the book: I was tired, she hadn’t worked hard enough on the assignment, she seemed only concerned about the grade.

But really, none of that mattered.

While I lined up groups of students in the back of the room to get their feedback on an essay, I told the others to begin reading the next assignment. Mary inched up to me, sure I would hand back her paper with glowing remarks.

“This is terrible,” I said, handing the paper to her.

Her eyes reddened. Standing there for a moment, she seemed unsure how to respond. Suddenly, the tears trickled, and she moved away quickly, returning to her seat.

To this day, I’m not sure why those words fell out of my mouth.

I know teaching is all about relationships. I know we must show authentic care and concern to create opportunities for students to learn. I know people respond better to kindness than hostility or fear.

Yet, that day I made a student cry. The words we use matter.

When I was in ninth grade, a science teacher stood in the front of my classroom holding a test.

“This person will be president one day,” he said sardonically, reading my answer to the question: What is life?

I remember being confused, but realized he was criticizing me. His words rolled around in my brain for years. The words we use matter.


Research is clear on this.

The more positive and supportive relationships we have with students, the better their attitude, work habits, and achievement.

“Positive teacher-student relationships draw students into the process of learning and promote their desire to learn (given that the content material of the class is engaging and age appropriate)” (Rimm-Kauffman, APA).

As I was working on this piece, I noticed a post from Dean Shareski. He references New York Times columnist David Brooks:

“The reality of education is that people learn from people they love. But if you mention the word love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like you’re Oprah,” he says.

So why is it so hard? Why do we hear about teachers who are ill-prepared to show an interest in their students? Why do some teachers maintain a distance in their classrooms?

Sometimes it’s pure incompetence. Other times, we may not realize we have personality conflicts with certain students. I wonder whether my science teacher, for example, just didn’t appreciate my “big picture” personality with all its ambiguities. I tend to live in the gray areas of life, much to the dismay of analytical, linear thinkers. And, finally, we may think too traditionally. For years teachers were “trained” to “manage” classrooms, not smile until Christmas, and control through stern intimidation.

I love the way David Loitz talks about relationships in this post on Cooperative Catalyst.

…we should at least start to try and create opportunities that allow the time and space to support these types of relationships. These types of relationship are not served by organizational systems that do not allow people to get to know each other as the unique persons they are. They are not supported by rigid, narrow paths of learning and experience, by power hierarchy that showcases a lack of trust and respect in people.
It calls for a relationship of persons not a relationship of power.

A relationship of persons not a relationship of power. I love that.

In our quest to define what we need for our students and their future, I argue that it will be in the relationships that we find our humanity.

Out of the blue one day years ago, my twelfth-grade composition teacher told me to try out for the school play.

“You would be perfect for the female role,” she said.

What? Go on stage and act? In front of people? What was she thinking? But she had spent the year building social capital with me. I trusted and admired her. She cared about me.

So, I auditioned and got the part. And it was life changing for me.

Our words matter.

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Susan Carter Morgan

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