Developing the “Tri” in Trifecta of Teaching for Student Learning

In my last post I ended it by discussing, what I called, the Trifecta of Teaching for Student Learning. It was basically a combination of Lee Shulman’s work on pedagogical content knowledge with a teacher’s understanding about how to build positive relationships with their students.  This is how I wrote about it last time:

In the mid 1980’s Lee Shulman introduced a term for the knowledge that teachers needed to be successful in the classroom as “pedagogical content knowledge” referring to the knowledge of the specific nature of the subject matter needed for teaching (Shulman, 1986). “Conceived as complementary to general pedagogical knowledge and general knowledge of subject matter, the concept of pedagogical content knowledge was thought to include familiarity with topics children find interesting or difficult, the representations most useful for teaching a specific content idea, and learners’ typical errors and misconceptions” (Hill, Ball & Schilling, nd, p.5).  I agree with Shulman that teachers need to have pedagogical content knowledge, but I also feel that there is a vital part missing, teachers building relationships with their students.  This may be even more important that pedagogy and content knowledge.  Teachers need to build positive relationships with their students, care about their students’ well being, and know where each student is coming from.  With this addition, teachers would know the content (what to teach), the pedagogy (how to teach), and relationships with students (who they are teaching).  This is a trifecta of teaching for student learning, which is a lofty aspiration, but one that I am willing to chase instead of just gaming the system.

But how do we, as educational leaders, get our teachers to embrace all three aspects of the trifecta?  Through my experiences, I know that I have participated in either college courses or professional development sessions that have covered different strategies or methods for teaching specific content, which is pedagogy.  I have also attended PD sessions and courses about the content material that I was either currently teaching or would be teaching in the future, the content knowledge that I needed.  But I know that I have never had a class or PD session specifically about how to build positive relationships with students.  Think about it, have you ever attended a learning opportunity specifically about building positive relationships with students?  If you have, I would love to hear about them in the comments section.  Now don’t get me wrong, I have attended many sessions where student relationships were brought up or mentioned as being important, but I haven’t seen it specifically offered.  Jimmy Casas and Joy Kelly presented one that came very close about building school culture. (By the way, if you haven’t heard of Jimmy and Joy, you should look into them.  They are doing amazing things in education in Iowa and on the Internet.  I suggest you follow them on Twitter: ‪@casas_jimmy ‪@joykelly05) Jimmy & Joy’s session made me think about how to best create a positive culture at school.  They shared the importance of the Three R’s: Relationships, Relationships, and Relationships!  In my opinion, that rule is THE RULE when it comes to education (most likely in every facet of business or other careers as well) and yet this aspect of education is rarely presented to teachers in a way that they could learn strategies on how to build positive relationships with students.

That got me thinking as I wrote about the Trifecta of Teaching for Student Learning. Why do we as educational leaders not assist our teachers in building positive relationships?  It probably has something to do with the finite amount of time that teachers have and how important content and pedagogical knowledge are to teaching.  But in my mind, if teachers built positive relationships with students, it would be easier to use pedagogy and allow for the learning of the content.  In my experience, it would also cut down on the time spent on classroom management and would probably increase the amount of student engagement taking place in the classroom.  This is all well and good, but you might be asking, “Well smart guy, you have said that you think relationships are so important to teaching, how do we assist our teachers in building these relationships?”  That is a great question (and not just because I wrote it myself)!  I want to share with you what I have purposefully done in my teaching career that has helped to build positive relationships with my students.

  1.  Ask your students questions – specifically about what they are interested in or what they like.

It sounds simple, and it really is.  Get to know your students.  What do they like to do outside of the classroom, what do they want to be when they grow up?  What are they excited about?  Then follow the student answers up with follow up questions. This shows that you are interested in the students’ lives.  But you must be sincere.  Kids know when teachers are just asking general questions and aren’t really paying attention.  If you want to build a relationship, it starts with you as the adult, modeling how relationships begin.  It begins with getting to know the other person and then connecting with them.  You might even share a passion with the student, as I found with some of my students.  I know a lot about sports, Star Wars, Transformers, super heroes, Harry Potter, video games, etc. (you may have noticed, and yes, I am a bit of a nerd).  This common interest can be used to begin building a positive relationship and many of your students will be amazed that you are a real person with actual thoughts not about the class you teach.

  1.  Listen to your students and learn from your students.

This connects to the previous action of asking questions.  You MUST listen to your students’ responses to the questions you ask them.  It is one thing to ask your students questions about their lives, but it is another thing all together to actually listen to the responses and take note of the responses.  I previously mentioned that I have shared some common interests with former students, which made the connection easier.  But believe me, there are many more times that a student begins telling me about their interests and I have no idea what they are talking about.  Some examples of these are: Pokémon, WWE wrestling, Mine craft, One Direction, Selena Gomez, Snap Chat, and many more. But you know what I did when a student brought up something that I had no idea what they were taking about?  I asked them to tell me more about it and then I, once again, listened.  You have no idea how much I have learned from my students about Pop Culture and technology.  This action also shows my students that I do not know everything, am not scared to admit that I don’t know everything, and that I value their knowledge!  I believe this action also begins to build relationships.

  1.  Smile!

Yes, this sounds silly.  But trust me, it is a very positive action and one that can be underutilized by teachers.  Not all teachers, but think about those days in late October. The freshness of the new year has worn off, it seems like the next break is a million years away, and both students and teachers are a little tired and used to each other.  Are you smiling at every student during those days?  Probably not, and I am not talking about walking around with a creepy “Joker” smile on your face which probably makes you look like you need a straight jacket!  I am also not talking about a grin that looks like you are judging everyone and that you can’t believe what he or she just said.  I am talking about a genuine smile that tells people/students that you are actually happy to see them.  This will take some work, especially with some specific students who you may be thinking about right now.  But these are the kids that need to see a smile the most.  They might not see a smile all day unless you do it.  These students may be used to all adults scowling at them or just looking indifferently in their direction.  Believe me, a genuine smile can go along way in building a positive relationship.  Think about when you are walking down the street and you come across another person, you look up at them and they are smiling.  That little gesture can have a positive effect on you for the rest of the day and it only took milliseconds and minimal effort.

  1.  Model positive relationships.

You are the teacher in the class and the adult who has much more experience with building relationships, so use this to help show your students how relationships work.  Let them know that everyone will screw up at some point in their life, some more than others.  But model how people handle this in a positive way.  Take them aside and discuss the behavior that was incorrect and discuss how the student should have handled the situation.  By doing this, it shows the student that you are not happy with the choice that they made, but it also shows that you care about the student.  You care so much, that you don’t want them to make the same mistake again.  Yes there may be consequences due to the student’s choices, but you must discuss with the student the expectations that you have for them and why you have them.  You can explain that you believe the student is capable of achieving great things, but it depends on the choices of the child.  This allows the student to understand that they have some control and you are there to help out when needed.  The child doesn’t disappoint you, the child’s choice does.  This is a HUGE difference.  When you have a positive relationship with your students, classroom management comes down to expectations and following up with the students.  In my experiences, the worst thing I have ever said to a student was, “I am disappointed in the choice you have made.”  The reason I say this was the “worst” thing I said to kids was because of the relationship we had and that they didn’t want to disappoint me.  I attempted to model for the child how they could have handled the situation differently and most of the time, they responded positively.

  1.  Follow up or check in with the student often!

This is one that I learned from Jimmy Casas.  He mentioned how after working with a child, he would make sure that he followed up with the student to see how things were going, weather this was after a discipline issue, a personal tragedy, or a positive experience the student just went through.  Casas also mentioned a 1-2-3 method: Write a personal note, followed by a personal conversation, followed by another face to face visit.  This seems like a lot for one single issue, but think about it from the student’s aspect.  Not only did you show you cared the first time you talked, but you followed up three more times.  You are NOT an adult who says they care at first, but then forget about the kid.  You truly care and will continue to care for as long as you are near the student.  This is huge and I feel can lead to a long lasting positive relationship with the student.

I know that there are probably other aspects of building positive relationships with students, but I believe that these are the 5 most important and it keeps it easy to remember for teachers.  These are not steps to be followed in order, but in generally they happen in the above sequence. It also depends on the student and what they need.  As educators we know that it is easier to build positive relationships with certain students compared to others.  But in my mind, those “other” students are the ones who are in most need of a positive relationship with an adult.  Believe me, it will take longer to build a relationship with those students because they are wary of adults who say that they care about them, because they are the kids who have been burned by adults in the past.  That is why #5 is so important.  It shows that you haven’t forgot about them and that you want to know how things are going on a consistent basis.

Thinking back about the Trifecta of Teaching for Student Learning, most education leaders help teachers with content and pedagogy, but maybe the five tips above can help start conversations about the third part of the trifecta: building relationships with students.  Just as it takes people time to become experts in either content or pedagogy, it may take time for teachers to feel comfortable with connecting with students.  Please understand, I am not stating that teachers should be friends with their students, as I think this is a mistake some young teachers make.  I am suggesting that teachers must show that they care for each and every one of their students and their well-being.  Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  Teaching is much more about content and pedagogy.  It is about caring for all our students and ensuring that they are on the path to becoming well-rounded individuals, which includes building positive relationships with others.

I know that these are just my thoughts, but I would love to hear what you believe could be added to the five tips I listed for building positive relationships with students. Leave a comment, as I know I can learn much from your expertise.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.


4 thoughts on “Developing the “Tri” in Trifecta of Teaching for Student Learning

  1. I really enjoyed the message you presented, and I plan to put Casas’ 1-2-3 Method into practice. Thanks so much for sharing what you have learned and putting your thoughts out there! Have you heard of the 40 assets approach from the Search Institute? The 40 assets are elements of healthy development broken down into 8 asset categories. The 4 external assets are support, empowerment, boundaries/expectations, and constructive use of time; while the 4 internal assets are commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity. All of these are supported through the 5 suggestions you made for building student relationships. I will look for professional development opportunities with Jimmy and Joy.


  2. Absolutely, relationship building is critical to learning (and working). When I reflect upon my favorite classes from school they are also the ones where the teacher took time to be interested in me as a young person. Did I really love Chemistry over English? Or was it Dr Boeneke’s humor and the fact that he knew my name and listened to our crazy theories about the rebellious 60s. . There’s great power in speaking to a student by name. I think teachers want to know their students but so much is crammed into the curriculum and teaching styles are still often lecture. 😦 One obstacle today is assigning 180+ students to secondary teachers. As an educational culture we need to encourage relationship building…..even if it starts with “so how was your weekend”.


  3. I am enjoying your blog- very thought provoking. Working with ELA students, I am fully aware that my students need positive relationships with their teacher. Students can easily feel “dumb” in an ELA class. We, as a society, think it’s cool to not get math or bomb chemistry. Not being able to read or write? That labels a child. I often say that our content is the scariest for struggling learners. They are most vulnerable with us. For these reasons, we spend almost half a day in our secondary writing workshop training focused on strategies and structures that will help in building positive relationships with students. That half day doesn’t feel like nearly enough, though.
    I’d love to develop a training that strictly taught building positve relationships, but it’s difficult getting secondary teachers to attend trainings.


  4. Hooray, Jon!! Thank you for sharing such crucial information. I remember early in my teaching career how I was constantly criticized for using important “teaching time” for developing these soft skills with my 7th and 8th graders. BUT! My investment in building relationships and honing my listening skills have paid dividends beyond measure.

    As an educator and lifelong learner, being an expert in content knowledge should be a given. Additionally, a deep and rock-solid foundation in effective pedagogy (with the expectation that building on that foundation is a non-negotiable) should be as well. But, as you so effectively share, neither skill can be utilized to its fullest without the relationship that puts together all of the pieces of the individual student 🙂


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