Relevance vs. Relationships: I’ve Got a Question?



Does having a relationship with a student automatically make an educator relevant to that student in the classroom?

I have had some interesting conversations about this topic, about “Generation Z,” the very students walking our halls right now, and the idea that a relationship does NOT equate to relevance in the classroom.

Let me explain how this all started. As a parent of two “Gen Z” kiddos, I’m trying to understand the balance of technology infused instruction vs. what might be considered traditional methods that will best meet my children’s learning needs. I want my kids to be successful, HAPPY Learners…so I’m trying to do a little research into what works for them now and how this might transition over time. During this “research” (I use that term loosely, considering I’m talking about my own 6 and 11 year olds) a question came up about relationships between students and teachers and how that relates with relevance that I found extremely interesting. I have my own opinion…but I want to hear yours!

Here’s what happened:

I spoke with a veteran teacher who is known for having great relationships with students. This teacher goes above and beyond to make sure her High School students know she is there for them inside and out of her classroom.  She attends every extra-curricular event, remembers all birthdays, guides students through difficult times, and even accompanies students on college visits on her personal time when parents are unavailable/unwilling.  However, she has been very reluctant to change her teaching style to meet the digital learning styles of many “Gen Z” learners who are now entering her classroom. (Let me quantify this by saying she is, in fact a “Good Teacher” & all around good person.)

While her colleagues are using engaging digital tools, students walk into her classroom, put their smartphones away and get out pencil and paper…every single day.  She truly believes her strong relationships with students make it ok for her to continue to employ the stand and deliver lecture method and have students do paper and pencil essay work all day everyday.  She believes her methods are as effective now as they were when she started 25 years ago. She doesn’t think “Digital” is more than a “Fad” and doesn’t want to change what has worked for so long.

I believe she is wrong.  I engaged in a “What if” discussion with her.  I told her I felt relationships were a very important piece of being a successful educator. I also assured her I felt there was a place for some of what she was doing in class. I then told her I didn’t understand how a dedicated educator like herself who I know wants what’s best for her students could limit them by not providing the digital skills they would be required to use when moving forward in college and careers. I suggested a mix of digital tools and her “old school” methods would better serve the students walking the halls today. She “Poo-Poo’ed” this as ridiculous. Then I specifically asked her which college she knew that accepted handwritten essays?

We talked further…I challenged her that having a good relationship with a student, caring about them and knowing them outside of the classroom didn’t translate to students finding your teaching methods to be relevant to their learning style. I suggested that, given the chance, most of her GenZ students would prefer to have a teacher using engaging, innovative practices more in line with what they would be required to use in college and the workforce, to her class, regardless of the level of their relationships with her. Does that mean the student wouldn’t still value this teacher and their relationship? No. It’s just about the way students learns, or prefers to learn.


I believe all students deserve teachers who are willing to stay relevant with their classroom practices and also work to form relationships with them.

But…that’s not my question…I want to know what you think?

“Can JUST RELATIONSHIPS Keep teachers Relevant to students in the classroom?”

Can’t wait to see what you think!





16 Responses to Relevance vs. Relationships: I’ve Got a Question?

  1. Hal Roberts said:

    I think you know what I think. Every teacher must lay a foundation with relationships. If that does not happen, then anything else she does will not engage students. With that being said, I said foundation. Foundation alone will not get the job done. Relevant means so many things from is the teacher relevant, is the subject relevant, is her methods relevant. I think an exemplary teacher must answer yes to all three.
    So obviously she must use this century teaching strategies including all that you mentioned. I think dealing with this educator can be very frustrating. You are absolutely right…as you know you turned a district around with what you speak to. And you would not be a sought out speaker if you didn’t know what works with today’s learners. #IMHO #pirateon

  2. Liz Peña said:

    After nearly 20 years in education I completely agree that our relationships, especially in this generation, are incredibly important. However, that being said, you cannot forgo one for the other in terms of modernizing your classroom. Part of the relationship is meeting your students where they are not just waiting until they figure out that your old-school methods will eventually work. What is that modeling for your students regarding innovation and lifelong learning?

  3. Ian Landy said:

    I strongly believe that the best value educators can get is when they form relationships with students – but not all relationships need to be the same. For some it is important to be seen at extra curricular events; for others such ‘appearances’ can be anxiety inducing. The important part (in my opinion) is to be authentic.
    The tricky balance is ‘how far’ does one go to build and then maintain relationships. In your example, the teacher was very comfortable working with kids when they spoke the same language….unfortunately languages change and evolve (and the good old days become even more fondly reflected on).
    Digital literacy is now becoming more and more important in being a ‘a literate citizen’. We know more about the brain and how different learning styles can be supported by the differentiation that technology can support better than at any point in our history.
    It is tough to make paradigm shifts in our teaching practice – but upon reflection I feel bad for the students I worked with at the start of my career because though relationship wise things worked eell, I know so much different than I did then.
    Relationships often mean meeting people halfway – but sometimes it means going to “where they are” and as good as some textbooks may be….there are so many other ways to consume information and create examples of learning than lecture/essay. Not easy – but then again if teaching was easy, everyone would do it!!

  4. Daisy, I think you make such important points in this blog post. I love it when teachers build strong, positive relationships with students and also stay current in their profession by using tools, references, strategies, and techniques that impact the greatest learning and are relevant to the students. Perhaps you have planted a seed in the teacher that will help her maximize her potential in the classroom!

  5. Barry Dyck said:

    I look to Nel Noddings work on a pedagogy of care to answer this question. I can care for my students and if I care about them, I will also pay attention to what I ask them to do. What do THEY need? If I care I’ll make the learning relevant to their needs.
    Educators today must help students develop their digital literacies. Digital literacies cannot be ignored.

  6. Brian said:

    Relationships alone are not enough, although great relationships alone b/t teacher and student can make for smooth sailing. If by “relevant in the classroom” you mean edtech, I’m not especially worried about that. We talk a lot about getting kids ready for their digital future and making sure that they have the digital skills to do well as they progress through school. However, our students have been living their digital future for a long time. I agree that there is a baseline of skills and knowledge that kids need to have, but they mostly have those digital skills pretty early in life. After that, they will rarely, if ever, rely on a classroom teacher for help with digital tools. The exception would be kids who are actually coding and/or doing web and app development. Our students are not confounded by technology. My bigger concern is that with everything we know about how people learn, this teacher is still relying solely on a certain method of presentation that really only supports/develops a minority of students. That teacher could be doing a lot more to support the kids who learn best when they are not listening and taking notes, reading the chapter and answering the questions. That’s a pretty standard format that is easy to manage for the teacher, but nor terribly effective for the full range of students.

  7. Kristen said:

    Building relationships also means understanding the needs of the students. We are in a digital world and our students need to experience relevant lessons that utilize technology in order to master the objective being taught. The teacher has a strong foundation built. She just needs to build a 21st century structure on top. What a building that would be!

  8. Nic Mounts said:

    I absolutely believe that a teacher can remain relevant based only on relationships.

    Students need to be taught current skills, and, although research has shown that students’ learning “styles” aren’t aren’t as important as we once thought, they need to be instructed in a variety of ways. With that said, I tell our teachers that they don’t have to be experts in a variety of instructional practices. Students get that variety from teacher to teacher, class to class.

    We have polled our students in the past, and the overwhelming majority don’t want to be put into groups or work in collaborative teams all day any more than they want to be lectured to all day.

    We have been successful at our school, not because we employ the latest instructional practices or because we have the fanciest technology, but because our teachers genuinely care about our students and they know it.

  9. Pingback: Technology Integration: My Thoughts | More Strawbabies Please

  10. Jen Marten said:

    Part of building relationships with students is getting to know them as learners. If we do that, then how can we not also change our teaching practices? I think that the use of technology needs to be as well-thought out as any other part of our lesson planning, but it should not be left off the table just because we, as adults, may find it daunting or distracting. This is my 29th year in education, and I continue to grow and change with my students. What worked for me as a student does not necessarily work for them.

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