Saturday / June 22

The Relationship Factor in “Classroom Management”

Early in my career as a high school English teacher, I learned the importance of building relationships with my students. I discovered that in order for me to teach and learn with my students, I had to build a dialogic, which would allow me to learn about them – their interests, their struggles, their pain, their humanity – while simultaneously sharing aspects of my own with them. The relationship factor, as I will call it throughout this essay, would allow me to construct rigorous, robust, and responsive instructional practices with my students. The relationship factor would allow me to facilitate assessment practices that aligned with my student learning and development over time. And it was the relationship factor that would allow me to help de-escalate conflicts between my students and me, conflicts that emerged between them and other students, as well as conflicts that I would sometimes observe between students and other teachers. It was the relationship factor indeed that would allow me to work with families and communities to support students inside of our classroom.

As a university professor, I have attempted to study the pedagogical, curricular, and ultimately relational dimensions of teachers’ practices from pre-K-to-grade 12. What I have learned is that teachers who are most successful in their practices are those who frame and co-construct their classroom ethos from a relationship anchor. As I have learned as a researcher and practitioner, the most effective educators with students – regardless of the demographics, zip code, grade level, or subject matter being taught – were those who centered their work from, through, and around relationships.

For instance, a middle school science teacher I studied who worked in an urban, high-poverty environment improved his practices over time and became an effective teacher in his school because he realized the role and salience of relationship building and cultivation with his students. As a White male teacher who had not thought much about race in his work or life more generally, he began his teaching career focused on wanting his students to simply “fall in love with science.” However, he was open and astute enough to realize that he could not teach science until he deeply understood to whom he was teaching science. Moreover, he struggled early in his career with “classroom management,” as his students tended to work against his expectations. His students made it clear to him that he had to get to know them and see them as real people before he could be successful. Other teachers, indeed, understand the importance of building relationships with their students. But I have observed for many of them, they believe they can engage in some superficial relationship-building exercises with their students at the beginning of the academic year and then “get on” with the real business of teaching and learning. However, effective teachers realize that the relationship factor is permanently paramount every single day in our classrooms (Milner, 2010).

Many teachers face challenges in “classroom management.” Although there may or may not be a course or courses that address classroom management as teachers are learning to teach, teachers still report serious challenges in this area. In fact, my colleagues and I consistently hear teachers express the following: “These kids are out of control” (Milner, Cunningham, Delale-O’Connor & Kestenberg, 2018). The teachers who describe their students as out of control (1) rarely recognize the assets of their students, (2) place the onus of academic and social challenges on students and their families, and (3) ultimately do not realize and acknowledge the role of relationships in their practices. But we believe that students should not be “controlled” and that when relationships are at the core of a learning environments, students and teachers succeed.

In one middle school classroom, I observed the following interaction between a teacher and student, Christine, who came into Ms. Shaw’s social studies classroom to receive assignments to complete during her In-School Suspension (ISS) punishment.

Christine: Ms. Shaw, fill this [assignment sheet] out. They [the administration] put me in ISS. [Tears started to flow.]

Ms. Shaw: Christine, what’s going on?

Christine: I just don’t like her [referring to one of her other teachers].

Ms. Shaw: Well Christine, you will meet a lot of folks in your life you don’t like. You’ve got to learn to work with people you don’t like. It’s going to be all right, though, because you are smart, and you’ve got to let that situation roll off your back.

Christine: I knew you were going to say that, but I still don’t like her.

Christine still looked like she was deeply troubled and hurt either by being sent to ISS or by the situation she experienced with the teacher, whom she declared she “doesn’t like.” While gathering assignments to occupy Christine’s time in ISS, Ms. Shaw studied the troubled look on her student’s face. Christine was taking the situation very seriously, and she was clearly emotionally distressed.

Ms. Shaw: OK Christine, sit down. Just hang out in here with me for a-while. You don’t need to go to ISS in the state you’re in. How is your sister doing? You know I have taught all your older sisters, and you are all smart girls. What would Tonya say if she saw you all upset like this?

Christine: She would tell me to calm down.

Ms. Shaw: Exactly. Just shake off this situation, Christine. It is so not the end of the world. You will bounce back from this. How is Tonya?

Christine: She is fine. She just got married.

What was evident from my observation was the power of the relationship between Christine and Ms. Shaw. Although Christine was still headed to ISS for her punishment, her interaction with Ms. Shaw brought about a level of restoration and hope for Christine. Rather than just allowing Christine to leave the classroom in such an emotionally strenuous manner, Ms. Shaw was deliberate in her desire to support this student.

As other teachers work to address “classroom management” challenges in their practices, I would recommend the following:

1. Talk to and with students.

Teachers sometimes spend infinite amounts of time talking about students to their colleagues or to students’ parents but minimal time actually talking to and with students themselves. This strategy suggests that teachers engage in conversations with students themselves to learn from and about them.

2. Self-Reflective Assignments. 

In language arts, assignments might include journal writing or essay writing. In social studies, assignments might include family history projects or local community-studies projects. In mathematics or science, assignments might include student-constructed word problems or community-based inquiry projects where students investigate the effects of environmental realities on health, crime, and/or poverty in their community.

3. Dialogue with Students at the Center.

The point is to cultivate a classroom culture where students actually talk. Teachers should not always be at the center of discussions but should allow students to share events and experiences from home and their community. Students should be allowed to share whatever information they feel comfortable discussing. When I taught high school English, I used to facilitate what I came to call “rap sessions” that allowed students to have conversations with each other about what was happening in their lives inside and outside of school.

4. Attend Extracurricular Activities Featuring Students.

It means something to students when teachers take time out of their schedules to visit an activity they are involved in. I shall never forget the time my third-grade teacher attended my football game at a city park. Needless to say, I played at my highest capacity that game, and I remember feeling a great sense of pride that my teacher had supported me in this way. In the third-grade classroom, I remember putting forth more effort after this experience and looking at my teacher with an intensified level of respect. It is important for teachers to attend students’ activities—such as their plays or sporting events—even when they are not on duty as coaches, chaperones, directors, or sponsors. Teachers from elementary through high school should feel a sense of responsibility to be present at events that help complete students’ educational experiences such as those connected to extra-curricular activities.

5. Visit sites and invest in students’ community. 

When teachers immerse themselves in a student’s community, they get a firsthand view of the student’s life outside the learning environment. I recall that my mother, who owned a beauty salon in my community, saw my second-grade teacher every other Thursday when my mother styled her hair. Moreover, other teachers who taught my sister, me, and many of my friends also received services from my mother’s beauty salon. Of course, I am completely confident that there were conversations about my academic performance during those appointments when my mother styled my teacher’s hair. My second-grade teacher was building knowledge about me, the community, and other students in the community because my friends’ parents also visited my mother’s shop for services.

6. Community Immersion.

In her research on pre-desegregation schools, Vanessa Siddle Walker (2000) has highlighted the value of teachers living in the communities in which they taught. Such residential arrangements can provide for powerful trusting relationships and layers of knowledge through experience that educators are able to incorporate in their work. When they live in students’ communities, teachers are able to build lessons and come up with meaningful examples that bridge content, instruction, and learning. Living in the area can also help educators understand the nuances of the community in ways that allow them to make better professional judgments.

7. Community Engagement.

Even when they are not able to live in the same neighborhood as their school, educators can build knowledge about the community by reading and talking about the goings-on in students’ lives and by immersing themselves in the fabric of the community. They can attend community meetings, council meetings, religious ceremonies, and community events and deliberatively reflect on their own lived experiences as educators in relation to those of their students. Engagement in the life of a community, as opposed to mere participation or observation, is the key. Engagement means that there is real commitment—long term, persistent, and consistent immersion in the actual affairs of the community for learning, understanding, and development.

8. Community Attendance.

When teachers immerse themselves in a student’s community, they get a first-hand view of the student’s life outside of the school environment. I have learned in my work with teachers that some of them believe that their involvement with students should end after the school day (or perhaps after they have coached basketball or lacrosse practice or directed a band concert or school play). But attending students’ activities outside of school— from baptisms or bar mitzvahs to Little League events or even a pickup basketball game—is a necessary aspect of professional learning for educators at all grade levels. Such attendance allows educators to learn about students’ interests and talents outside of school, demonstrates a level of care to parents and students (a necessary feature of building trust), and gives educators an opportunity to engage in informal conversations that can enhance knowledge and inform lessons.

9. Community Investment.

Educators can also build community knowledge and show real commitment by advocating for business and economic development in their schools’ and students’ neighborhoods. In addition to their time, educators should spend some of their economic resources in the community—at grocery stores, gyms, and gas stations. I recall that my mother, who owned a beauty salon in our community, dressed several of my teachers’ hair when I was a student. Of course, I am confident there were conversations about my academic performance during those appointments—but that investment showed a real level of commitment on the part of my teachers. They were building knowledge about me, the community, and other students in the community, because my friends’ parents also visited my mother’s shop.


Milner, H. R., Cunningham, H. B., Delale-O’Connor, L., & Kestenberg, E. G. (2018). These kids are out of control:” Why we must reimagine “classroom management” for equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Milner, H.R. (2010). Start where you are but don’t stay there: Understanding diversity, opportunity gaps, and teaching in today’s classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Siddle Walker, V. (2000). Valued segregated schools for African American children in the South, 1935–1969: A review of com- mon themes and characteristics. Review of Educational Research, 70(3), 253–285.

Written by

H. Richard Milner IV is Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education and Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. He is coauthor of These Kids Are Out of Control”: Why We Must Reimagine “Classroom Management” for Equity (Corwin, 2018)

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