Connection Versus Control

“You’re their teacher, not their friend.”

Seasoned educators, advisors, and college professors use this phrase often, and all seem to agree: Authority trumps relationship.

Believe me, I am in full agreement that a good teacher maintains authority in the classroom. During my first year teaching, I dealt with too many behavioral issues to come to any other conclusion. It was a constant power struggle! The peaceful classroom culture I was striving for felt unattainable, and I felt helpless and unqualified to create a productive learning environment. 

Academically, students’ abilities in Spanish were far from where I thought they should be. I would spend hours creating engaging lesson plans that would capture their attention, only to have them interrupted and rendered ineffective by behavioral issues. 

Meanwhile, I got along with my students fantastically. Students from all backgrounds stayed after class to talk about their goals, laugh about inside jokes, and confide in me when things weren’t going well at home. If I had taken a step back, I’m sure I would have recognized that as the secret weapon it was; I had developed positive relationships with almost all of my students individually. 

I knew how to earn their trust – at the expense of their respect.

At my wits end, I attended a professional development session. There, a fellow educator unknowingly came to my rescue when she said these words: “It’s never too late to make changes to your classroom environment. Don’t wait until next school year- start over on a Monday.” 

So I did. I faced my fear of being the Big-Bad Wolf, and I started to set better boundaries. Of course, it was a long process, and it took practice, intentionality, and consistency. But do you know what I found? When I combined those relationships with assertion of authority? When I began to hold my students to higher standards, while connecting with them on a human level? 

Trust engenders loyalty

When you create a respect-driven structure for your relationships, students don’t just adapt to that respect-culture – they take it upon themselves to ensure that the boundaries you set for yourself and your classroom are followed by others. Imagine: students who would hang out after class elbowing kids who weren’t following instructions; students who would create distractions refocusing conversations on the content. Assignments becoming more challenging, and grades somehow taking a turn for the better!

Although there’s a lot I would change about my original approach to teaching, I still err on the side of relationship. My students regularly make comments about chaotic days in Spanish class and point out my tendency toward tangents. But in my experience, taking time to feed those relationships (dare I say friendships?) is also a crucial part of an effective classroom environment.

Yes, as teachers, we can expect our students to respect the rules of a classroom. Finish assignments by their due dates. Accept consequences and bounce back. Use class time productively. 

We can challenge students to respect authority and do hard things that will help them grow. 

But not in spite of relationships- because of them.