Four Ways to Build Relationships with Students Through Their Writing

In recent years, research has begun to support what good teachers have known all along: Strong student/teacher relationships generally lead to strong learning outcomes.

For example, John Hattie in Visible Learning argues that establishing a positive teacher/student relationship is one of the most impactful things a teacher can do to speed student learning. His effect size of .72 for strong student/teacher relationship is nearly double his threshold of .40 for a highly effective practice, meaning that a good relationship can inspire nearly two years worth of growth in a single school year.

Image from The Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching

The reasons for this are fairly simple and intuitive: When students feel close to teachers they are more willing to take risks, have higher motivation, and grow more engaged because they see the content of the class as more valuable and the teacher as more credible.

Where it gets tricky is the question of how we are supposed to build those relationships when our classes have so many students and our days have so little time. 

I’ve talked before about how using passing time effectively and holding writing/reading conferences can help to build relationships, but when our student load is 159 students—as mine currently is—the scant minutes available for conversations in passing time and conferences don’t provide enough opportunities for me to build the kind of solid and deep relationships that drive real behavior change with all of my students.

Instead, for that I rely on student writing, which is the location where I most consistently interact one-on-one with students. By being thoughtful in how we respond to student work, we can build strong relationships without adding any meaningful time to how long it takes us to comment on student papers. None of the four techniques here takes longer than a few seconds, and some take no extra time at all, yet the results that they yield can often be remarkable…

  1. Make Genuine Connections

Genuine connections is a Dave Stuart Jr. term for the times where we connect with students in an authentic human way. These genuine connections don’t have to be elaborate; they can be as basic as remembering that a student had a basketball game or mentioning that you like the same musician a student does, and yet what they lack in complexity, they make up for in effectiveness. Just a few genuine connections can dramatically impact the relationship that a student has with us.

In the context of student papers, these genuine connections often come in the form of responses that are authentic, not analytical. What I mean by that is that we often get so caught up analyzing student writing that we forget to also respond in genuine human ways to the ideas and experiences in writing. Of course, most of our response should focus on assessing and analyzing the work, but we can also add targeted little comments to cultivate our relationships when the opportunity arises.

Generally, these genuine connections work best when they are our organic, actual reaction, and because we aren’t manufacturing them, they add almost no time. At the same time because they are sincere, their power can also be quite dramatic.

Here is an example from a student paper I got a few weeks ago reviewing the bass player Victor Wooten’s book The Music Lesson. When the author says that Wooten is “arguably the best electric bass player alive,” I responded in this way (which it is worth noting, is exactly how I feel; see this if you don’t believe me), and ever since that student has grown significantly more engaged in class:

Or there was this student who wrote a narrative about breaking her phone earlier in the week. While I discussed some punctuation issues she had earlier in the piece, I also thought to add this comment to the moment she broke the phone in an attempt to make my otherwise punctuation-heavy response feel more human. Her response was to pour herself into her revision in a way I hadn’t seen before:

2. Connect to Their Goals

My first assignment of every semester is to have the students write me a letter. The basics of the letter are pretty standard: Tell me about your writing and reading history, interests, and your hopes for class, but then I end by asking three questions: What goals do you have this year?

1. What goals do you have this year?

2. What impact do you want to make on the world?

3. What do you hope others will say about you?

I ask these questions because far too many students see school as useless hoop-jumping that must be endured before they get to do what they really want to do. Having these answers arms me with potential points of connection between what students aspire to be and the work of the class. Finding and pointing out these connections is critical because it establishes value for what we are doing, and without that student motivation will only go as far as is needed to get the grade they want, putting a hard cap on how much they will learn.

3. Have Them Speak First in Conferencing

Legendary writing teacher Donald Graves always began writing conferences by doing what he called “receiving” a piece. What he meant by this was that he made sure the students’ voices were heard by having them start the conference because as soon as the teacher starts talking, many students defer to the teacher’s voice and begin seeking ways to please the teacher. If we want students to truly say what is on their minds–which is essential if we want to form strong relationships with them–we need to have them start the talking, while we start by listening closely.

4. Smile

So often our tone when responding to student work is that of the impartial, stoic judge, which is really hard to connect with from a student perspective. When possible, it is worth “smiling” at times in our responses to papers, as a little smile can go a long way (a recent University of Minnesota study found that simply smiling at students when they entered the classroom increased engagement by 20% and decreased disruptive behavior by 9%!).

Here is an example of me quite literally smiling at a joke a student made when I said they needed to have clever headings/titles:

And here I am smiling at a student for a much more serious reason. This student wrote an essay challenging the wide prevalence of Ray Bradbury after a short story unit we had. This was undoubtedly a risk, as my love of Bradbury was clear when we read one of his stories, and while I may not have fully agreed with her point, I was impressed by how thoughtful and reasoned her approach was. I wanted to make sure she understood this, so I made sure to “smile” in the tone of my response to show her that I appreciated her risk, depth, and tone:

Like conversations during passing time or writing/reading conferences, all of these suggestions are small, but taken together and added up over time they can collect like compound interest, leading to relationships that can change the feel of the classroom and even some student’s lives!

Yours in teaching,


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One response to “Four Ways to Build Relationships with Students Through Their Writing”

  1. […] Four Quick and Easy Ways to Build Relationships with Students Through Their Writing – Matthew M. Johnson blog – Matthew M. Johnson (6-minute read) […]


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