Building Stronger Relationships with Students Requires Relational Trust

It was 2:26, my students were at the library, and I should’ve been grading. Instead I was sitting on the floor next to a table, looking at a child under it. Hunter was wearing his jacket which he had managed to zip over his entire head, raggedly breathing, fists clenched, and a debris of broken pencils all around him.

“You know this has nothing to do with school,” came a mutter.

“I know.”

“You know I’m trying to control myself.”

“I see you calming your breathing.”

“You won’t leave me right?”

“I’m here. When you are ready to talk, I’m here.”

We are in the business of cultivating successful people. In order to do this, we must put each student first every single day to ensure that their human needs are met by truly knowing each and everyone of them. Student success cannot happen without a strong teacher-student relationship, and at the core of this relationship, is trust.

Students who have trust in their educator show greater confidence in themselves, stronger student engagement, and exhibit greater achievement. Trust, or relational trust in education parlance, is built over time through interactions and experiences. Therefore, it is imperative we create relationships from the very first moment of the first day of school.

Slow and steady breathing now comes from the jacket. I reach out and begin to unzip the coat. Tears stream down his face. “I don’t know if I am going to see my dad any longer. I’m really angry about it. I’ve been holding it in but it’s hard. I love him so much. Was it this hard when your parents split Mrs. B?”

“Yes Hunter. It was incredibly hard, but talking about my feelings made me able to overcome a situation I felt powerless in.”

Starting with the moment I meet my class, I chose to show my humanity to my students. This allows them to see me as a real person with thoughts and emotions, just like them. To do so, I must be vulnerable. There is great courage in showing vulnerability to our students.  We ask our students to share their dreams, questions, ideals… how can we ask them to be vulnerable, yet not do so ourselves?

This vulnerability and sharing of self is one way to create trust. Stories are powerful and allow students the opportunity to get to know you. Sharing your life experiences says you trust them with knowledge that may make you look less than perfect as a teacher, but a human they can connect to. You cannot have a relationship without connection.

“I’ve been holding in all the anger I feel. It’s been so stressful. I didn’t mean to lash out or break anything.” A long breath comes, the tears are wiped, and he sits up. “Ok Mrs. B. Here is what happened last night.”

It takes a certain level of trust for a student to open up. Students need to know they can trust you with all aspects of their life. It is the actions and experiences we provide the student with over the course of the year that will determine just how much is shared.

  • Individualized Time: I take time each day to get to know every student one on one. I greet each student every morning, have lunch with them, but also take time throughout the day to give some individualized attention. The time you take to consistently build the relationship will amount in precious moments given back throughout the year.
  • Active Listening: When a situation arises I ensure I am fully present and listening. Often educators want to save their students and solve the problem instantly. Instead, we need to listen and use questions to guide more reflective thinking from our students.
  • Do What You Say: I chose to never say I promise. Our students are filled with life experiences where trust is broken. Be the teacher who is careful with words. Make sure you always do whatever it is you say.
  • Choose Love: Choose to love each child as though they are your own. Our students are with us more hours of the day than they are their own parents. We are the strongest example of a healthy relationship for 188 days. It is our duty to provide them not only with academics, but safety and love.

Twenty-four minutes pass. The air is filled with calm. As Hunter’s story unfolds the rug is cleaned, the pencil debris is tossed in the garbage. He sits beside me relaxed, smiling, but more importantly, he is grateful. He knows he’s understood and not alone. Precious time has passed, but used well. Hunter now knows he has one more person in his corner.

We are more than the academics we teach. We are humans modeling what a healthy relationship is. We have the power to create a lasting positive or negative imprint. This year, let’s all build relationships that empower our students.

By |2019-11-12T17:31:21-05:00November 12, 2019|

About the Author:

“Every child is capable of achieving academic greatness if they know they are loved.” ~K. Rhodes Beland Kristen Rhodes Beland is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Alumi. Kristen is a 4th grade teacher at the Suzanne M. Henseler Quidnessett Elementary School in North Kingstown, RI. She has worked in North Kingstown for 18 years. Previously she served as an integration specialist implementing the SmART program developed by Brown University. As well, she has been involved in the integration of technology into the district, leading professional development in digital citizenship for the N.K. Google Summits. She has also been lead theatrical director, bringing together groups of 75 students to gain confidence through acting. She has given testimony to extended student teaching time to the former RI commissioner, published an op-ed through Medium on Empathy, and has lead her school to become trauma informed. In 2013, she was a Golden Apple Recipient. She graduated with an Interdisciplinary Arts Degree from Salve Regina University.


  1. Sharon Acton November 13, 2019 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    What a wonderful article.
    You certainly were able to bring hone what really is important when dealing with students on a day to day basis.
    It is clear you are an incredible gift to so
    many students and colleagues.
    May you always know how special you are.
    I am so proud to know such a fine young woman.

  2. Donna Burke November 14, 2019 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    A wonderful person as well as teacher with whom I have the pleasure to work!

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