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Relationships…The Most Important Factor?


I have been reflecting a lot lately on the role of relationships in schools. I have not been able to stop thinking about this topic because it seems educators everywhere are talking about the importance of relationships when it comes to ensuring student success, supporting others in their professional growth, cultivating a positive school culture, or building a successful and credible organization. Unquestionably, relationships matter….they matter a lot. I think most people would agree that one key factor for determining success for any child or organization is rooted in the personal relationships that have been established. But are relationships the most important factor? I acknowledge that personal relationships play a significant role. In fact, I praised the comment by the late Rita Pierson when she adamantly stated, “kids don’t learn from teachers they don’t like!”

How right she was, I applauded. Or was she? So this is where my conflict lies.

Personally, her words not only struck a chord with me, they inspired me. They also caused me to reflect on the role relationships have played in my own educational experience, whether that be as a student, a teacher or a building principal.  But the question I keep asking myself today is this.

What role does skill set have in ensuring student success, supporting others in their professional growth, cultivating a positive school culture,  or building a successful and credible organization?  I would argue that skill set is just as important as relationships when it comes to determining key factors for success. Consider for example the following:

  1. Have you ever approached a speaker after a keynote or a presentation and shared with that individual how you were inspired and moved by their words to make immediate personal change for the better?
  2. Have you ever done a school site visit and met a teacher, staff member, or administrator who shared something with you that immediately helped shape and improve your practices?
  3. Have you ever encountered a teacher who was well-liked by students only to find out that the achievement level of students in the classroom was not consistently at the same level as their peers due to a lack of high expectations and effective teaching strategies?
  4. Have you ever had a supervisor who everyone thought was a “great person” and was well-liked, but the majority of employees did not have the confidence in or believe this person could lead your school, program, office, organization, etc. forward in an efficient and effective manner?
  5. Have you ever experienced a coach or music director that truly cared about his/her players/performers, but it was evident this person did not have the technical skills or the right disposition to help develop and grow their natural talent?
  6. Have you ever sat through an in-service or training and thought to yourself, “I could give this in-service myself?”
  7. Have you ever sat in an interview where somewhere during the interview your mind thought, “Wow, this person “gets it” and has what it takes that can help move our organization forward?”
  8. Have you ever attended a board meeting where others who have never worked in education made decisions that impacted the organization without allowing the very leaders they hired to make these final decisions?
  9. Have you ever worked with a student whom you had never met prior to the initial meeting and felt like you made significant headway and the student asked to see or work with you again?
  10. Have you ever met with an angry parent(s) and after the meeting the parent walked out of an office and offered you a heartfelt thank you?


In each example I shared above, one of four things ultimately shapes the final result.

  1. A relationship has been formed, but the desired impact is not achieved
  2. A prior relationship has not been established, yet a positive impact is still experienced
  3. A high skill set is required to help attain the final outcome
  4. The recognition of what is needed to take a program/school/district to the next level is clear to most

I had never heard of Rita Pierson or even heard her speak. I had no relationship with her whatsoever. But yet her Ted Talk left a significant impression on me.  She had a skill set.  A tremendously high skill set and coupled I am sure with an ability to cultivate genuine relationships with her students, teachers, and colleagues.

My purpose is not to make a case that one is more important than the other or which factor must come first.  To say that there is nothing more important than relationships is short sighted on our part. They are both essential. But if we are all willing to invest more and go deeper in our relationships and those relationships are supported by a credible skill set that is both trusted and respected by all stakeholders, then I believe we will be able to move our organizations forward so that excellence becomes the standard for all schools.

Our goal should be to not only make an impact, but to make the greatest impact possible for all students and schools.

When it comes to the importance of relationships and skill set, where do you stand?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

“Expecting excellence from yourself is a choice.

Striving for excellence each day is a lifestyle.”


  • Rachelle Poth
    2 years ago

    Enjoyed reading this, I think that relationships are very important and for so many reasons. I make it the focus at the start of each year and work on building the relationships throughout. Having those connections, creating opportunities and learning from one another, all of the above and more. Doing some research now on the impact of relationships on student learning, student engagement and motivation, and having read “What Connected Educators do Differently” and other resources, like you said, have led me to engage in more reflection on how I view and build relationships.
    Thanks for the thought provoking questions and inspiration.

  • Kyle
    2 years ago

    The first relationship a teacher needs to build is an authentic one with themselves. I love what you said about skill sets, but how else can a teacher know their skill set unless they know who they are as a person. Otherwise we are teaching from a skill set that is either inadequate or has been imprinted on us by someone else. If a teacher takes hold of their personal development (meaning their life outside of school) their unique skill set will emerge and they will build relationships by sharing that skill set. The best teachers know their authentic skill set and they engage students to develop their own unique skill sets. Student success is a byproduct of the development of their gifts and talents.

  • Karen Wood
    2 years ago

    I agree with your thoughts and am pleased that you have chosen such an important topic to write about . Both relationships and skill sets are essential to getting maximum growth out of our students . Having both will yield the greatest gains, I think .

    In my district we use the Danielson framework as an evaluation tool for our teachers and both respect and rapport is covered as well as classroom instruction . They are heavily weighted in my district as well I believe they should be .

    I love the examples you shared in your article because they allow us to reflect deeply on classroom practices and the culture of our schools . Thank you!


  • Jennifer Hogan
    2 years ago

    Jimmy, I enjoyed reading this. I’ve known teachers who were great at building relationships, but students didn’t learn very much from the teacher. I’ve “known” people who have inspired me, but with whom I had no relationship. I’ve had negative relationships where I’ve reflected upon the relationship after time and realized that I did learn from the other person. I think building relationships is just part of the skill set we need to be effective leaders/educators. It may be the number one factor, but it’s not the only one.
    Thanks for causing me to reflect tonight!

  • Mark McCord
    2 years ago

    Hey Jimmy,

    Great post! Without a doubt a master relationship builder has a special skill set. The foundation of this comes from truly valuing others and the belief that each individual is significant. The first steps to building strong relationships is actively listening. So often we can be so focused on what we want to say, we fail to truly process and ultimately validate what others say. Listen more and speak less!

    Another skill that sets master relationship builders above others is their ability to empathy with others. So often we are quick to sympathize and move to provide advice. This is counter to building a deep connection.

    Once the foundation for a relationship has been laid, we have an opportunity for real talk that moves everyone forward. An organizational climate were everyone plays nice and conflict is avoided does not necessarily reflect good relationships. The ability to lean into the uncomfortable conversations without destroying the relationship is a complex skill. Only at this level of collegiality can we have discourse that shifts the status quo.

  • Don Miller
    2 years ago


    I love the posting and as you know I am a huge relationship person. I have always and probably will continue to see that as the key to success, however, you are also right that skill set is vital to success as well. The example you give of a teacher who develops great relationships with her students but does not set high expectations is perfect. It is not enough to foster solid relationships, we must also couple that with solid learning, in order for our students to grow. Another example would be of an administrator who wants students to like them so they don’t hold students accountable to the discipline they deserve or have earned. When this happens we are doing our students a disservice, because it will not provide them with a learning experience that can guide their future decisions. The ultimate goal of an educator is to develop strong relationships and set high expectations, thus creating a place that students want to come to learn and an opportunity for daily growth as well.

  • Monica Dunn
    2 years ago

    There is a symbiotic relationship between skill set and building relationships with students. When in balance, the best outcomes for students and teachers occur. Students are more apt to trust the direction teachers are going with content, and are more engaged in learning when they have a teacher they have a relationship with. If teachers have a good relationship with their students they enjoy their work more, and this job satisfaction leads to more passionate teaching. The relationship is the glue of good teaching and more engaged learning. It is also the crowbar that allows teachers to help their students move through the roadblocks from their personal lives to journey closer to opening themselves up to the learning process to begin with. As the teaching profession becomes more demanding and student needs become more diverse, what are some strategies we can use to reach students who have already walled themselves in – avoiding the building of relationships?

    • Abby Dalen
      2 years ago

      Monica, I have definitely seen this in my experience as a substitute teacher – those students who have “walled themselves in” and seem resistant to relationships. I think we need to begin through encouragement, as opposed to pushing them harder up against that wall. At the end of the day, everyone has the same basic needs: they seek to feel safe; they seek to feel accepted and understood; they seek to feel growth and to see that they are progressing; and they seek to feel appreciated. In my experience, I have found that resistance to most anything is a result of a lack of experience with whatever they are resistant to. Maybe that student doesn’t have experience with relationships that make them feel safe, understood, appreciated, etc. Don’t let that push you away.

      Although it’s a big pill to swallow, to be sure, this is part of our job as educators. We can’t give up on any of our students if we want to see them succeed. We need to keep striving to make them FEEL how much we care and keep working to erect a relationship even when it seems like it’s not happening. Part of the joy of teaching is getting to see firsthand the growth and accomplishments that result from the relationships we build with students. However, part of the challenge of the profession is accepting that such growth may not become visible until later down the road for other students. That does not mean that our influence now won’t affect their lives later… quite the contrary. I have always said that patience and compassion are the most important qualities in quality teachers; perhaps I should add perseverance to the list.


  • Abby Dalen
    2 years ago

    Jimmy, certainly there is not a dichotomy between the importance of relationships and skill set; they are very much convoluted. I continue to believe that relationships are the most important factor, but I also acknowledge the value of skill set. I think relationships are a prerequisite to making a skill set relevant.

    I think it all starts with taking a step back, evaluating our paradigms and striving to maintain (or change to) a paradigm of leadership as opposed to a paradigm of management. We have all probably heard this before: “Lead people; manage things.” Only by working to develop relationships and building a culture of trust with students and faculty alike can we be effective in releasing the natural talents and strengths of our students and colleagues. Once a relationship is established, skill set begins to matter more. This is, of course, a bit oversimplified, as part of our skill set undoubtedly helps us to develop those relationships in the first place.

    Thank you for continuously challenging my thinking about important topics in today’s national conversation surrounding education and leadership.

    • Abby Dalen
      2 years ago

      Absolutely! As I mentioned in my initial comment, “This is, of course, a bit oversimplified, as part of our skill set undoubtedly helps us to develop those relationships in the first place.”

      Your point is a good one, Jimmy. While my initial instinct was that skill set is not as relevant until relationships are established, the opposite can also be argued. Quality, meaningful relationships cannot be developed without a certain interpersonal skill set.

      Once again, thanks for pushing me outside of my comfort zone and challenging me to reflect upon my own paradigms.


  • Sue Dunlop
    2 years ago

    Jimmy, thanks for challenging the conventional wisdom about relationships. I have experienced all the situations you describe, all of which have a particular context that a skilled communicator can turn into success. For me, the problems arise when people don’t have relationships or don’t think they are important. I think that’s what Rita Piersen might have been trying to communicate. When people don’t feel valued, heard, or important, they will shut down.

  • Dr. Len Tomasello
    1 year ago

    Building relationships with ALL members of the school community is essential to one’s success as a school leader. When positive relationships are formed, the challenges of the position can be achieved in a manner where all parties feel heard and respected. One of my challenges is building positive relationships with students who others view as one of “those kids.” The student who comes to school from a home that is struggling or hangs out with the wrong group of friends. Or the student of very low ability who is struggling with school work and can’t wait to drop out. Or the student who is sent to ISS on a regular basis. These students cannot be forgotten…they need someone to love them and someone who is willing to invest in them…one who cares enough to form a positive relationship with them.

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