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Relationship and Rigor

By Chick Moorman

The following story was shared with me at a workshop somewhere on the West Coast. The name of the school and the storyteller went through the wash in the pocket of my pants and are gone forever unless the teacher reads this and contacts me. The incident is real and happened in a middle school building that educated sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Let's call it Washington Middle School.
A year ago the staff at Washington Middle School set a school goal of improving relationships between teachers and students. The teachers hold high expectations for their students academically. They expect them to achieve, and they know that demanding rigor from students without having them feel connected to teachers is folly. So they set out to improve the relationship portion of the relationship/rigor connection.
At the beginning of the year all the seventh graders were surveyed in an effort to find out how many students felt they were in a positive relationship with a teacher and how many felt they were not. The students were supplied with a list of teachers' names and were asked to circle the ones they felt they had a positive relationship with. Having a positive relationship was defined as being able to talk to the teacher and feeling comfortable asking for their help. It also included a feeling that the teacher liked them based on the interest the teacher showed in the student.
One hundred and twenty-one students filled out the forms. Some students listed several teachers. Others mentioned one or two. Twenty-five middle schoolers listed no teacher they felt they had a positive relationship with.
The information gleaned from the survey was tabulated and shared with the teachers. The teachers were provided with two sheets of information. One had a list of the twenty-five students who listed no teacher. The other sheet had the teacher’s name at the top and listed the students who identified them as someone they felt they had a positive relationship with.
"So some teachers got a page that showed that no student selected them?" I asked. "Yes," the storyteller informed me. "We thought every teacher needed to know how they were perceived by the students. We simply gave them the information."
At this point each professional staff member was asked to select one student from the list who had indicated no relationship with a teacher. Care was taken to make sure each student was selected by someone. Throughout the year teachers were asked to reach out in special ways to this student. Their efforts included:
1. Send three "I noticed…." statements a week.
2. Give one eye-hug a day (sustained eye contact ending with a smile).
3. Give two physical touches a week (high-five, pat on the back, shoulder squeeze, handshake).
4. Use the person's name every day.
5. Be in their proximity three times a week (other than in the classroom).
6. Ask them for help once a week.
7. Ask their opinion about something once a week.
This process went on for an entire year. The following year, students completed the survey again. Now, as eighth graders, EVERY STUDENT indicated that he or she was in a positive relationship with at least one teacher. Many listed more than one teacher. In addition, EVERY TEACHER was named by one or more students.
Every student and every teacher was on someone else's list. Congratulations Washington Middle School staff! Rigor now has a better chance of having an impact on these young people, thanks to you and your understanding of the important connection between rigor and relationship. Take a bow.

Chick Moorman is the author of Spirit Whisperers: Teachers Who Nourish a Child’s Spirit. He is one of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. For more information on how he can help you achieve your staff development goals, visit