One of my favorite teachers of all time wasn’t my teacher—at least not officially. His name was Teacher Tom, and he was my children’s preschool teacher. Somehow, Teacher Tom was consistently able to engage a classroom full of rambunctious three and four-year-olds in rich, meaningful, and conflict-free learning and play. They took turns, they cleaned up their messes, and even the shy, tentative children were relaxed and confident in his classroom. How did he do it? The other preschool parents and I wondered if he might have superpowers.

Teacher Tom wasn’t superhuman, but he did have a way of thinking outside the box. One of the first things he told us was that he didn’t focus too much on rules. He knew rules were necessary to a well-functioning classroom, of course, but he believed everything his students needed to know could be summed up in just three:

  1. Respect Yourself
  2. Respect Others
  3. Respect the Materials

Teacher Tom explained these expectations clearly, and without exception, the children rose to them. This didn’t happen because all the children were remarkably and immediately compliant individuals. (Believe me, there were plenty of boundary-pushing little stinkers—my own children included—in the bunch!) Rather, the children rose to the expectations in Teacher Tom’s classroom because of the philosophy he kept at the core of his teaching: Relationship Is Everything.

Teacher Tom’s main focus was to build a positive relationship with each of his students. When the relationship was solid—when the students felt respected, trusted, understood, and appreciated—they could approach their work and play with confidence and ease. They were eager to reciprocate the respect they received, so they followed the three rules, and their learning took off.

In a world where we measure our success largely by how many boxes we’ve checked off in a day, and where we tend to prize getting it done more than doing, it’s easy for relationship-building to fall by the wayside. But, as Teacher Tom and all other good teachers know, relationships are the most important piece of the puzzle. Everything you want to see in your classroom starts with a positive relationship and builds from there. Relationship IS everything.

As you begin this coming school year, we urge you to focus first and foremost on building meaningful relationships with and amongst your students. Get to know them, and allow them to get to know you. Plan community-building activities that bring the individuals in your classroom closer together. With this as their foundation, your students will soar.

A strong teacher-student relationship is crucial for success in the Read Naturally program, and nobody knows this better than Read Naturally founder Candyce Ihnot. Read her blog post from last year, “Who Signed Me Up For This?”, to learn how she connected with her students on the first day, earned their trust, and set her reading lab up for a year of success.