By Tequila Butler, Emma Raleigh, Crystal Newman

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks shares her personal experience of having teachers who really knew her and her peers as members of a community, a family. 

“My teachers were on a mission… To fulfill that mission, my teachers made sure they “knew” us. They knew our parents, our economic status, where we worshipped, what our homes were like, and how we were treated in the family.”

bell hooks

Teaching to Transgress , (hooks, 1994, p. 2-3)

This type of knowing goes beyond that of grades, scores, and homework completion. This type of knowing is humanizing…being seen as a whole person and valued as such.

As an educator, especially one in an urban landscape, the idea of humanizing rigorous instruction resonates with me. In my experience, I have met countless teachers who set out to create classrooms in which students are comfortable being their whole selves.

In this article, we explore the idea of humanizing rigorous ELA instruction through the process of building relationships with students. To do this, we asked two teachers, Crystal and Emma, from our Network for School Improvement (NSI) Project in Dallas ISD, to share stories from the field. Their stories convey the importance of building relationships with students and how those relationships have led to classroom communities where students feel safe and excel in rigorous learning.

Read on to learn about how Crystal and Emma work to build relationships with their students and humanize rigorous ELA instruction.

What is the NSI Project in Dallas ISD?

For the past five years, the ELA team at the IFL has been engaged an NSI project with Dallas ISD. Throughout that time, we’ve shared and learned many lessons on what rigorous instruction can look like when building a just and equitable classroom. We’ve collaborated with teachers to adapt and improve instructional practices related to academically rigorous instruction. You can check out articles about the NSI work here.

What do we mean by academic rigor?

Academic rigor (in a thinking curriculum) involves commitment to the knowledge core, opportunities to engage in high demand thinking, and active use of knowledge. In other words, teachers design and enact lessons that create opportunities for students to draw on their existing knowledge to deepen and construct new understanding alongside their peers. Students actively reason. They raise questions, press on each other’s ideas, and collaborate. (Resnick et al. (2012).

Why is it important to build relationships?

Crystal’s thoughts…

Relationships have always been a priority for me. During my first year as a teacher of record, my thoughts were confirmed by Rita Pierson. If you haven’t heard of her, you definitely want to look it up and listen to her Ted Talk, “Every kid needs a champion,“ One thing that I learned early on in my career is that students will not learn from a teacher that they don’t like, and for me it confirmed the idea of relationships first. If I have that relationship, I know that my kids will buy in. And for me, I’m always going to put rigor at the top level of Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom, 1956). I’m not going to do lower level or recall things. I want them to think deep and dig below the surface, but in order for them to think and to experiment, they have to feel safe. They have to know that the classroom is a safe space. One thing that I pride myself on is making sure that I have a real relationship with my students. It’s important that kids feel safe so they’re willing to take academic risks. At Zan Holmes we cultivated the sentiment, and that’s how we saw an increase in our scores. Our students were willing to take those risks, and our risk actually paid off! We were able to move from a “C” rated school to a “B” rated school.

As adults, we sometimes forget that kids take risks every day in the classroom. If we want students to participate, we have to acknowledge that for some students, using their voice is a risk. Having the courage to speak up and answer a question when the answer might be wrong, might be a hard thing to do. But, as educators, we can create safe spaces through relationships to support students through this.

Crystal’s story emphasizes the idea that in order for kids to learn, we as educators need to create safe spaces for them to dive deep and take the necessary risks that we ask of them in a rigorous ELA classroom. Her story highlights what great educators such as Rita Pierson have been saying for years, relationships matter. They are a part of the human experience that even allows us as adults to thrive. But what are some ways that teachers can build relationships with students, especially when focused on creating a rigorous ELA classroom?

Watch Every Kid Needs a Champion, Rita Pierson

What are some ways to build relationships with students?

If you Google how to build relationships with students, lots of suggestions will populate. Some of these suggestions will tell you to spend one-on-one time with students and others might suggest you play games. While these are viable ways to build relationships with students, there are options that seamlessly flow with the direction of the class and support rigor.

For instance, both Crystal and Emma use student-centered routines, coupled with high-demand questions and tasks, to support a rigorous ELA curriculum. In their work, they use student-centered routines as the vehicle to help foster relationships with students by showing them that their voice is valuable in the learning process. The student-centered routines work to create a space where trust and responsibility to the learning community can thrive. Crystal and Emma ask their students to compose quick writes and share their quick writes in pair-trio style small groups. They also ask their students to participate in whole group discussions in a manner that encourages students to share, respond, and build off each other.

Below Crystal and Emma share how they use questions and student-centered routines to build relationships with the students while maintaining the flow of a rigorous lesson.

Emma’s thoughts…

We read a lot of novels last year, The Giver being one of them. Within that unit, we used the student-centered routines daily, but we also asked questions that allowed the students to be brought into a deep conversation such as, “How would you interact in this situation? How is this character who lives in a different universe similar to you?”

I wanted students to have a deeper understanding. I didn’t want them to just identify what’s going on. I wanted them to make a connection to it, and for me, that’s valuing their opinion which builds relationships. It also lets me know that they really do comprehend what’s happening in the text beyond just sequencing something or telling me what the figurative language is telling them as the reader. It’s a little bit deeper than that, and with some of the student-centered routines that we do with IFL, such as pair-trio share and whole group discussions, it helps to build rigor and relationships at the same time because it tells them that as their teacher, I value them as an individual, not just as a student. It shows them that as their teacher, I’m learning alongside them, not just telling them what to do or think. It’s not the usual multiple-choice question. But we really value them as individuals and their thoughts. And as the teacher, I would venture to say, you get to see them blossom as intellectuals. But that’s just one way I’d say that you can build relationships with students.

Crystal’s thoughts…

A major component of building relationships with students is really making space for them to be heard and validated. At the beginning of every class, we would have a “spill the tea” session. That was a way for me to provide students with a release for other things that may have hindered their academic progress. This time allowed us to create our classroom culture and our safe space.

I remember teaching a unit with the poem entitled Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri. At the end of the unit, we conducted a Socratic seminar style whole group discussion. The discussion was student led and as the conversation progressed, one student shared the story of her mom’s immigration to the United States. She kept mentioning “coyotes”. The first time she mentioned a coyote, I immediately thought “What does an animal have to do with immigration?” I noticed no one else in my mostly Hispanic class seemed as perplexed as I was. By the third time, I injected myself into the conversation and asked, “What does an animal have to do with your story?” At once, all of my students tilted their heads and gave me a look of confusion. “No Ms! Not the animal! A coyote is a person that helps you cross the border!” exclaimed a student. The safe space we’d cultivated was a catalyst for students to share something that was traumatic for them by way of their parents. Their willingness to share helped me to learn more about the complexities of immigration. But in all, without our “Spill the Tea” sessions, I’m not sure so many students would’ve been comfortable telling stories so personal.

In both Emma and Crystal’s examples of how they build relationships using routines that center students, they also shine a light on what it might mean or look like to value student voices. As previously mentioned, the use of student-centered routines conveys to students that they are trusted and responsible for their learning and that of their community. The regular use of student-centered routines distributes authority to all members of the learning community. Sharing authority with students in this way, invites them into collaborative and rigorous learning experiences where their voices, ideas, and thinking are honored.

What happens when relationship building and rigorous instruction converge?

According to Crystal and Emma, students want to know that we’re listening to them. They have opinions and stories they want to share. However, it is up to us as educators to create a space where they will feel comfortable doing so. Over time, what happens when educators place a focus on both building relationships and rigorous instruction?

Emma’s thoughts…

For several years, my school had a D rating and improvement was required. In the 2021-22 school year, we moved from a D to a C and this was something we’d been working very hard for over the years.

In order to accomplish this sort of move, relationships and rigor had to converge. Specifically, we had to work to make kids feel known, seen, and heard, and that actually started with our principal. She believes in winning the kids. When kids come into the building in the morning, she believes we should make it a point to say their name, look at them and tell them, “Good morning!” and ask them how they are.

She’s always telling us, “You know we need to win the kids in the first two weeks. You need to win the kids and families. When you have the families, they’re going to stick with you, and everything will fall into place. You need to be dedicated to excellence, but if you win them in the beginning and really build those relationships, it won’t be such a fight. It won’t be a challenge.” It’s still challenging, but it’s not as much of a challenge anymore.

Sometimes, it takes me a while to click with my students. I love kids and I’ve been working with kids for twelve years and teaching for six. But, sometimes, it takes me a little longer to get that strong relationship with a group of students. When it finally happens, it’s not only because I took extra time outside of my lessons to do so by speaking in the hallway, but it was also built into my lesson delivery as well. It’s the way I see students as humans and humanize the learning process.

Emma’s story reminds us that kids are human, and learning should be humanized. Making kids feel known, seen, and heard was just as important as providing a rigorous curriculum when moving the school up in ratings. In fact, Emma attributes her school’s success to the convergence of relationships and rigor. But, what happens when the relationship building process is not smooth?

What have you done when the relationship building process wasn’t smooth?

While we’ve established the importance of building relationships and shared some of the impacts relationships can have on learning, we also acknowledge that building relationships is not always a smooth process since students are humans with their own set of feelings, beliefs, and experiences. Because of this, relationships develop at varied paces and will look and feel different with each student. Every student deserves our continued efforts when it comes to relationship building, because it is a vital part of the learning process that everyone needs. Below, Emma and Crystal reflect on how they went about building relationships with students when the process wasn’t smooth.

Emma’s thoughts…

In the one section I teach, I have a student who I knew I had to build a strong relationship with and win them over in order to see the success I knew they could achieve. This student was in a different class and got moved into my section after Thanksgiving break and was upset about it. I’d heard things about this student, but I had also interacted with her previously in the hallways and other school initiatives, and I knew she could be a leader. On multiple occasions I’d always tell her that she had the power to be an influencer. Her attitude was very much to push against authority. But, in my class, that’s not the vibe. That is not how things are done. We value each other’s opinion, and that’s not something that ever had to be written anywhere. I don’t need to have class rules that say we care for each other. Our actions show that we value each other’s opinion. It’s the way I carried myself, and how I interacted with them that they started following suit and cleaning up at the end of the class without being asked to, and just the way that the whole ethos of the class runs. So, before she came into class, I had a one on one with her where I explained to her again that she was a leader but wasn’t using her leadership skills correctly. I explained that I was going to push her because I cared about her, and I knew she could be great. I also let her know that I was excited for her to join the class.

So, on her first day in class, she was really quiet. But, I continued to push her, and we continued to develop the teacher-student relationship. Now, she’s no longer quiet in class. Now, she’s taking charge and posing questions and raising her hand to respond. She’s leading in class discussions, and I think the relationship we built has a big part in this. I think she recognizes what I see in her. She knows that I see her as an asset, not a problem and she’s made the decision to walk in that purpose.

Crystal’s thoughts…

Sometimes, girls in middle school can be rough and it can take a little bit longer for me to gain a relationship. But I got a message from a student, that said “I’m so happy that you were my eighth grade ELAR teacher. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now,” and that just really took me back because I didn’t even know she cared that much. She was tough on me. She was combative, and if you looked at her the wrong way, it may have gone down in the classroom, but we know that is a trauma response! And even still, I continued to love her, and I tried to build a relationship with her.

Other times, we get kids who don’t talk in class. But, after you’ve built a relationship with them, they will open up, and they will talk and explain exactly what you were looking for and go even deeper. And so, when I start to see that, even if they’re wrong, I keep pushing them to validate their thinking and figure out why they feel the way that they do. It’s amazing to me as an educator because I’m not telling them what to think. I’m not telling them whether their response is right or wrong. They are telling me why they think something is right or wrong. They tell me how they feel, and in return, they begin to further develop their own voice. The other side of this though, is if we want them to continue to use their voices, then we have to validate their voices. But I don’t know if we could validate their voices unless we’ve created a safe space with the right relationships.

Emma’s story illustrates that while words matter, it is our actions that communicate expectations and caring. Emma’s students learned class values not because they were written on a chart, but because she exuded those values.

From Crystal we learn that a teacher’s love has no boundaries, it only perseveres. When we as teachers believe in our students and show them that we do, then magic happens. Students are human and come to us with brilliance already inside of them. It is up to us as educators to pull it out and help them to continue developing.

So…How are you building relationships?

Through Emma’s and Crystal’s stories, we have highlighted the importance of building relationships with students, the ways in which relationships can be built through and support rigorous instruction. As their stories convey, building relationships is a human endeavor, and as such, it is not a one size fits all approach. As a community of educators, it is important that we come together and share our stories and triumphs so that we may continue to grow in our practice. In doing so, we invite you to share how you are building relationships with your students that support rigor. Tell your story here.

A Bit About Crystal

A Bit About Crystal

A proud DISD alumna, Crystal Newman is a 2001 graduate of Law Magnet at Townview Magnet Center where she went on to receive her Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. After a brief stint in the healthcare industry, Crystal decided to follow her dreams and start teaching. Crystal secured her first teaching position in Dallas ISD, where she’s spent her entire educational career. As a first-year teacher, she looked out the window of her first classroom and noticed she had the same view as a teacher that she had as a student.

Recently, Ms. Newman transitioned to a school counselor at Zan W. Holmes Middle School in Dallas ISD. Her philosophy is simple, “Relationships are the key to success.” Ms. Newman prides herself on building long-lasting relationships with her students and colleagues, “I never feel like I am at work. I know I am walking in my purpose!”

A Bit About Emma

A Bit About Emma

Emma Raleigh is an English Language Arts educator in Dallas, Texas. Emma received a Bachelor of Arts in History and Italian studies at Smith College where she also studied abroad in Florence, Italy. In 2019, Emma made the transition from 6th grade math to 7th grade ELA at Thomas C. Marsh Preparatory Academy in Dallas ISD. Before teaching, Emma worked as a Student Success Coach with City Year Dallas, and has worked in other educational settings, including museums, art centers, and afterschool programs in the United States and abroad. Emma is passionate about access to excellent education and student achievement.

Recently, Emma transitioned as an instructional lead teacher on her campus where she coaches and supports ELA and social studies teachers on content and best pedagogical practices.


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