My grandmom is wise. And at 91 years old, she’s still as curious as ever. Yesterday we were having a discussion about the work we are doing in my school district right now, and my thoughts on where education and learning are going in the future.

The questions were fascinating, but even more so was the dialogue. She asked me whether or not I thought the increasing use of devices was taking away from face-to-face conversations like the one we were having. We engaged in a back-and-forth on the “pros and cons” of having so much attention put on our phones and technology.

But, this was not a one-sided debate where I was trying to convince her of the benefits of technology. My grandmom is still as active as ever, working in both the US and England throughout the year, while often traveling to Spain (and sometimes India) to do mission work. Medical issues have tried to slow her down over the years, but she keeps moving, talking, and traveling more than most of us do!

She built an email list over the years (way before it was cool to build an email list) and regularly communicates with her friends, family, and those interested in the work she is doing. She has seen the power of technology to connect people but also realizes that it is often a “starting place” for relationships or a “continuing” place for information.

Then she hit me with the quote that I was thinking about all night:

“It all comes back to relationships. Whether you use technology or have face-to-face conversations, it has to be about building that relationship if anything different is going to happen.”

Boom. Drop the mic grandmom!

Great Schools and Great Teachers Focus on Relationships

I’ve been lucky enough to be in some amazing schools and teacher classrooms over the past few years. Without fail, the #1 trait I see in each of these places is a focus on relationships. The relationships come from having opportunities for inquiry, challenging students, solving problems together, and doing work that is meaningful. But they also come from small side conversations, moments in the hallway, supporting outside of the classroom, and taking longer than expected to talk about an issue in class.

There has been a tremendous amount of pressure put on teachers and administrators to focus on everything else in education. The focus has been ramped up on data, differentiation, and individualized instruction.

Yet, we can talk about all the data we want, but it won’t make a difference if you don’t have relationships with those teachers, and if those teachers don’t have relationships with their students.

We can differentiate instruction all we want, but as the late great Rita Pierson said:

A colleague said to me, ‘They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to teach a lesson. I should teach it. They should learn it. Case closed.’

Well, I said to her, ‘You know, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.’

She said, ‘That’s a bunch of hooey.’

And I said to her, ‘Well, your year is going to be long and arduous dear.’

It’s not only the kids where relationships matter. It’s all of us. Think of the best teachers you’ve had. Think of the best leaders you’ve had. Think of the best colleagues you’ve had.

In my case, they all put the focus on relationships first, and everything else second.

It’s easy to get caught up in the “future of learning” and miss out on what has always worked when it comes to learning: relationships.

Yet, in 2016 relationships can look very different. The human and social lens of learning has never been more important, but there has also never been more ways to build, sustain, and cultivate a relationship around learning.

Gary Vaynerchuck put this into perfect perspective today when talking about relationships built with technology:
How are you building relationships?

Are you using today’s technology to build learning relationships? Are you meeting kids where they are? Are you meeting teachers where they are? Are you meeting parents where they are?

The future of learning is a lot like the past of learning, it centers around the human/social side of curiosity, creativity, and adaptation.

But the one thing that is very different is how many avenues we have for reaching and growing the human/social side of learning. My grandma said it right: The focus on relationships never should change, even if the way to build those relationships does change.

Kids don't learn from people they don't like


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  • Anaa says:

    Relationships is the “big idea.” Thank you for reminding me. The relationship light bulb can’t be turned off and on, but must be constant and authentic.

  • Jim says:

    The Great Teacher said, “Come, Follow Me.”

  • Julie says:

    The first thing that came to my mind when I read your blog – how I wish my father was still here. I had the same kind of conversation with my Dad as a teenager and when I was already teaching. I would say I owe my motivation to keep learning to my Dad. I am now on my 43rd year of teaching and I am learning and loving technology. Not being one of those tech-savvy being, but I am loving it and using it to make learning engaging for my young students. Your grandma is right, use technology to continue to build your relationships – technology is making it easier for me to reach my children, my colleagues, my college friends and even my mentors. Thanks for sharing the wonderful story about your grandma.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Love this quote: “Technology is making it easier for me to reach my children, my colleagues, my college friends and even my mentors.” It definitely makes it easier, but often we don’t use it for that purpose. Thanks for your response and I would have loved to been a fly on the wall for some of those conversations!

  • Mahera says:

    Grandma’s kitchen always has the best recipes.! Lovely to wake up to something that is non instructional 🙂

    Thank you AJ!

  • Gautam Khandelwal says:

    You so rightly mentioned that a lot of emphasis is now on data, ‘managing’ relationships with the client, the parent, rather than building a strong bond with the student.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Yes, that has to be our focus. Data can help, but only so much. Relationships break boundaries and open up new pathways for success.

  • Enjoyed reading your blog post today. Your grandmom sound like a lovely lady….and very smart! Loved her quote. Relationships are key to all we do in life. They bring down walls, foster collaboration, and help us discover ourselves in many ways.

  • Marisa Sergnese says:

    Wonderful reflections and such an important reminder about the influence of our mindset!

  • Sarah says:

    Thanks AJ! Good reminder and so true about life in and out of the classroom. Appreciate your posts.

  • Kate says:

    Thank you, AJ, for a reaffirming message of how humanity can and should co-exist successfully within the web of technology! I teach digital media literacy and the general consensus is that the course is completely driven by technology and apps. In fact, creating media is all about building relationships. It begins on the first day of class, learning students’ names and addressing them by name in that first hour, asking what motivates them, flashing a smile, offering a simple positive comment, saying thank you for their questions and their attention – these are all very easy yet meaningful ways to say, “I value your comments and contributions – let’s learn together!” Throughout the course, I stress the importance of respect, empathy, and understanding when working with contributors on camera. How do you honor their stories in a concise, meaningful and ethical manner? Humanity should be the core element of anything we teach and produce.

  • Cindy says:

    Some great thoughts here regarding technology and relationships. Relationships must always come first, and we should be careful to leverage technology in order to make existing relationships stronger and/or forge new relationships. I love technology (well, to be honest I love it when it works…which is most of the time) however, I often worry that others may not see the value in building relationships through the use of technology and relationships suffer as a result. As humans we are wired to connect. According to Lieberman, this is a fundamental need greater than our need for food or shelter! So many implications for educators as we consider our students and build a positive learning environment.

  • Tiffany Roos Verhoosel says:

    I was excited to read your article on relationships. I teach special education and at the beginning of the year it is sometimes difficult to get my students to engage and trust me during lessons until I build relationships with them. Once we develop that trust and relationship the students are able to accomplish so much more. It reminds me of what Dr. James Comer said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” For me relationships with my students are everything, once it is built it drives me to make great and engaging lessons that I know they like and it engages them in wanting to do their best for me. I also love that Ted Talk with Rita Pierson, it is the best! Thanks for sharing and reminding me of this in an age when all we talk about are deep diving into the data and looking at only student test scores.

  • Nicole S. says:

    I agree with your assessment regarding the importance of relationships. We can use technology to foster meaningful relationships and enhance learning. Mutual respect between instructors and students is crucial. Without this foundation, learning can become a chore rather than an enriching experience. It is also important to get to know students on a personal level. Going to a school sporting event and cheering on your students can leave a lasting impression. Technology provides educators with the flexibility to individualize instruction and learning. In order to accomplish this, we must build relationships with our students. For example, knowing each student’s learning style can have a positive effect and should drive the delivery of the content. We should not underestimate the impact the student-teacher relationship can have on academic outcomes.

  • Cooker says:

    “Aint nothin like the real thing baby!” Tech is cool but there is nothing like spending real face time with students, friends, and family. Cook a meal and and dine together. Play some tennis. Walk the beach. I see too many people enslaved to their devices and ignoring life and people around them. Yes there are good benefits from it all, just perhaps a little more balance. I definitely agree that developing good relationships with your students leads to great teaching and learning.
    Listen to them you may learn something!

  • Claudia Paganelli says:

    Hi AJ,
    I was drawn to this blog post from the fact that it was shared more than 800 times compared to other posts which have been shared a few hundred times. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of relationships and how essential they are to make us better educators. Relationships with our colleagues, with our students and their parents are vital for successful. Technology can provide avenues to reach out to parents and discuss even in situations where face-to-face meetings are not a possibility. The public schools in Baltimore County (MD) use ClassDojo to create a positive culture with parents and also keep them engaged. Parents can download the app version of the classroom management platform, create an account and send text messages to their kids’ teachers. It is very easy to use and it is a great way for both parties to communicate without sharing each other personal phone number.

  • P.Agu says:

    Hi, AJ,
    Thank you for your post! I could not agree more. I ran across Rita Pierson’s TED Talk my first year as a teacher, and completely resonated with it. Ideally, we want students to learn from us if they do not like us, however, that is far from reality. I have students who hate my content, but because they like me they put effort into their work. I think this is the differentiating factor. When students like you, they will try to put their best foot forward even if they struggle. This makes a huge difference when we talk about classroom culture and environment.

  • Betty says:

    There must be something about that generation. My father will turn 92 in October and is still very physically and mentally active. He taught me that you need to build relationships with everyone you work with. Your relationship with the janitor is just as important, maybe even more so, as your relationship with colleagues and your administration/boss. Growing up I watched him live it. He made time to ask about personal lives and actively listened to what they said. When we celebrated his 90th birthday there were well wishes and stories from all over the United States from past students and friends from work. It was amazing how those relationships were so important to the people he connected with even decades later.

  • Patricia Maya says:

    Sometimes teaching is secondary… If I can make my students laugh and enjoy the moment they are in class , the rest is a bonus! They never forget the lessons where there was that true connection. Some days that’s exactly what they need….

  • Bryan Taylor says:

    Kia ora AJ.

    “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

    Ka kite āno.


  • Thank you for your post! Be as positive as you can! Make relationships important. Then comes learning and it will blossom!
    Thank you for sharing your insights!

  • FS Thompson says:

    Wish my mum was still here to share this with; thanks very much, wise words!

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