Caring Enough to Know and Value Individual Students

An excerpt from the Second Edition of Teaching Practices from America’s Best Urban Schools. Available now at all book retailers.
Teaching Practices from America's Best Urban Schools Second Edition Book Cover
Teaching Practices from America’s Best Urban Schools Second Edition

Hattie (2009) synthesized over 800 studies of factors that influenced student achievement. He found that teacher-student relationships have a major influence on student learning, more powerful than most pedagogical practices. While this finding might not surprise many, Klem and Connell (2004) found a lack of urgency on the part of many educators to establish and nurture strong positive relationships with students, even in the face of growing evidence that such relationships influence student academic performance.

In our interviews and focus groups with hundred of students from high-performing urban schools, students used the adjective “caring” to describe their teachers, more than any other descriptor. Students used the metaphor of family more than any other to describe their school. “It’s like a family here. People care about you,” students explained.

A factor that influences positive teacher-student relationships is the extent to which teachers succeed in getting to know and understand the students they teach. Often, in urban schools, teachers come from different racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and linguistic backgrounds than the students they serve. Perhaps, in our typical pre-service and in-service teacher preparation programs, we underestimate the chasms created by these differences. Too often, educators graduate from teacher preparation programs assuming they will teach students who share their backgrounds, interests, curiosities, and motivations. Conversely, too often, educators graduate from teacher preparation programs with assumptions that urban students have dramatically different backgrounds, interests, curiosities, and motivations. Neither set of assumptions is an appropriate substitute for the time and energy necessary to get to know students and their families. The greater the social distance between educators and students, the more essential it is for educators to spend time getting to know who they have the privilege to serve.

Fisher et al. (2018) reported that only 52% of students believe their teachers know their name. Additionally, only 67% of students indicated that they feel accepted at school for who they are. The lack of personal connection and acceptance create major learning barriers for many students. In contrast, students at high-performing urban schools reported that their teachers cared enough to get to know them, to build relationships, and to establish bonds.

For example, at O’Farrell Charter School in San Diego, California, each teacher is assigned a group of students with whom he or she meets daily. Teachers get to know their “homebase” students, their social/emotional needs and strengths, and their families. Similarly, teachers at MacArthur High School in Houston, Texas explained how school administrators took them on tours of the surrounding neighborhood so that teachers could learn more about their students, their families, and the real challenges students faced. Beyond the neighborhood tours, MacArthur administrators expected teachers to make regular phone calls to parents. While these calls might have been difficult for some teachers initially, teachers reported that they came to appreciate how many of the parents were eager to see their child succeed in school (Gonzalez, 2015).

At International Elementary in Long Beach, California, one of the teachers established a mentor program. Almost every staff person at the school serves as a mentor to a student. Teachers meet with their mentees weekly and talk about whatever the student wants to discuss. These and similar efforts help ensure that students feel valued.

When Rose Longoria was assigned to serve as principal of Pace High School in Brownsville, Texas, her first priority was to help her faculty build relationships with their students. She wanted to help teachers spend time getting to know the students. She asserted, “We need to understand our students. We need to build relationships. Let’s find out why they are struggling.” By encouraging teachers to dig deeper to understand the reasons behind student issues, the principal urged teachers beyond aesthetic caring and helped teachers learn more about the strengths, needs, hopes, and fears of students and their families. These effortsto better know and understand the students helped develop stronger relationships between teachers and students.

For example, toward the end of the class period, a Pace teacher enthusiastically asked her students, “How many of you will be at my tutorial session immediately after school?” Many students raised their hands and the teacher cheered while emphasizing what the students would learn during the after-school session. However, the teacher noticed one boy who did not raise his hand. As the period ended and students began to leave, the teacher approached the student who did not raise his hand, smiled and said, “I’m hoping I will see you at the tutorial session this afternoon.”

The student responded, “No, I can’t because I have to work.”

The teacher continued the conversation, saying, “You have been making such great progress and you are so close to mastering this topic. I know if you could attend the tutorial, it would really help you.”

“But, I can’t cause I have to work,” the student said quietly.

The teacher paused for a moment and then offered, “How about if you come in early tomorrow morning and I’ll provide a special tutorial session for you?”

The student looked up at the teacher and quickly said, “I’ll be here. What time?”

The teacher took a little extra time to get to understand the student’s situation. She understood that the student’s job was an important source of income for his family. She also recognized that the student had the potential to break out of the cycle of poverty and excel with the right support.

“The teachers here are great. You feel like they’re always there for you. You know they’re more than just a teacher. They try to get close to you. If you don’t understand something, if they see that you’re down or there’s something wrong, they come up to you and ask, “What’s wrong?” And it’s not only a teacher relationship but also someone you can trust.”


While race, ethnicity, language background, and socio-economic variables often create important barriers that have to be bridged, other relationship barriers are created by the trauma and stress students experience throughout their lives. Duncan-Andrade (2009) described the chronic stresses experienced by some students as a result of violence and loss. Teachers who are oblivious to the pains and frustrations students regularly endure might misinterpret students’ anger as a personal affront or might misunderstand students’ lack of affect as apathy or a lack of appreciation for the feelings of others, when in fact, the students’ behavior may be a direct consequence of chronic stress.

For example, a teacher at Cecil Parker Elementary in Mount Vernon, New York shared about a student who was not coming to school.  One of the adults from the school visited the child’s home and found him alone. After a lengthy discussion, the adult learned that the student was intentionally missing the school bus, because the bus route passed the street corner where his mother worked as a prostitute. The boy was petrified that his friends would recognize his mother on the street corner. In response, the school principal worked with the district transportation director to modify the bus route so that the bus avoided the intersection where the boy’s mother worked. After the route change was made, the student had perfect attendance for the remainder of the year.

In high-performing urban schools, as teachers got to know students, they deliberately helped students feel valued and appreciated. Teachers established and maintained a rapport that helped students perceive teachers as approachable. Teachers demonstrated a genuine interest in their students’ ideas, concerns, and aspirations. “My teachers here know my name and greet me whenever they see me,” a sophomore at MacArthur High School in Houston, Texas, explained. “They make me feel like I’m somebody.” Similarly, a student at Cecil Parker Elementary explained, “When I see my teacher in the hallway or after school, she asks me how my family is doing. She cares about me and she cares about all of us.”

Throughout many interviews, students described how they perceived teachers cared about them personally. For example, a student at Lawndale High School in Los Angeles remarked:

“The teachers here are great. You feel like they’re always there for you. You know they’re more than just a teacher. They try to get close to you. If you don’t understand something, if they see that you’re down or there’s something wrong, they come up to you and ask, “What’s wrong?” And it’s not only a teacher relationship but also someone you can trust.”

When parents were interviewed, many emphasized the power of the personal relationships teachers maintained with students. “My daughter would do anything for that teacher,” a Golden Empire Elementary (Sacramento, California) parent emphasized. “She [the teacher] has built a bond with my child in just a few months. But, that’s like all the teachers here. They just care.” Similarly, a parent at Charles Lunsford Elementary in Rochester, New York, confessed, “Please don’t tell anybody, but we moved to a different neighborhood, and we’re not even supposed to be at this school any more. But, when I tried to suggest to my kids that they would go to a different school, they all had a fit. So I drive across town every day. But it’s worth it. These teachers know my kids. They know what makes them tick.”

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