Kathy King-Dickman's picture

Engaging the Disengaged, Number One

Relationships Matter

Elena was one of those students who had multiple reasons to be disengaged. After four years of instruction with her, I received this letter in the mail the summer of her seventh-grade year:

At the beginning of summer I made a goal to read at least three books. I just completed my ninth book and have already started the tenth. There are still four weeks left of summer…Many people tell me the main character(s) in your favorite books is who you want to act like so you change your personality to be more like that character. I believe them 100%. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss was brave, and I started acting as brave as I could. Books have helped change the way I act towards people and the way I look at problems whether it’s educational wise or emotionally personal wise…Reading and writing has helped me get a hold of my life. For that I wanted to thank you for teaching me to write and read. If you never taught me as you did, I would have never been able to enjoy the wonderful stories these authors have to tell inside the covers of a book. I guess in my own way, I can say you have helped me walk two moons…(Walk Two Moons, the 1995 Newberry Award Winner by Sharon Creech, is Elena’s favorite book, one she has read multiple times discovering something new with each read.)

30 years ago, I heard a presenter share that teachers did not need to love their charges to teach well. I remember sneaking a peak at the audience and wondering if they knew my error: I was crazy about my students. Now, after 32 years of being delighted by children and adolescents I have the courage to say I vehemently disagree.

I learned quickly in my teaching career that kids must love their teacher and feel loved in return if learning is to be maximized. The more I loved and cared for them, the easier it was to get their attention. The easier it was to get their attention, the more they learned.

Because I worked hard to develop a relationship with Elena she was willing to read at home catching up on her much needed reading skills. Because I loved Elena she worked hard at revising her writing to make it more meaningful. Because I loved Elana she tried hard to attend to each of my lessons. Because I loved Elena she came to my class motivated to learn to read and write.

It is fall and school has just begun for most of us. Let’s fall in love with our new students and “do so quickly.” We haven’t a moment to waste.

Please respond to this blog post with any stories of your own about motivating and engaging students. Here are some quotes to inspire you:

Stevie Quate and John McDermott say that:

Because of the centrality of emotions, if students feel as if the teacher doesn’t like them, they often resist the role of learner. In contrast, those students who perceive that their teachers care about them as individuals are more likely to engage and are more likely to worry about letting the teacher down.

Clock Watchers, p 14

And 20 years ago Lucy Calkins said:

One of the challenges we as writing teachers face is that we must begin teaching writing before we’ve grown to love each child. Once we can look at loud, blustery Joel and know the vulnerability and earnestness just beneath the surface, it’s not hard to teach him. Once we have found that quiet Diana has so much to say if only we listen,…it’s not hard to teach them. But in September, when Joel seems loud, Diana withdrawn, and Marcella a stranger, it’s hard to help them write well. Our first objective, then, is to fall in love with our children, and to do so quickly.

The Art of Teaching Writing, p 11

Kathy King-Dickman is a consultant at Center for the Collaborative Classroom.

Read more blogs by Kathy King-Dickman

Comments (28)

  Kathy ~ Thank you for this

  Kathy ~ Thank you for this powerful blog....I agree 100%!!!! This was my philosophy during my 11 years as a 1st grade teacher and continues to guide my work as a Literacy Coach today. If you like your students, and they know it.... they will like you too, try really hard to learn all you have to teach them and make you proud all at the same time!!!! :) I have had tremendous success with this approach ~ and continue to learn about and like the students I see everyday!!  I  am looking forward to reading the rest of the blogs in this series..... thank you so much for sharing! ~Marni 

Marni, I agree--if you like

Marni, I agree--if you like your students, they'll know it and will make you proud.

Kathy,  Well said! I also

Kathy,  Well said! I also love the Lucy quote. I agree 100% and have always strived to make that personal connection with each of my students...even when they are hesitant or uninterested in the beginning. I was giving a demo lesson on "finding seeds" recently and one little boy was not interested in taking part in the task I had assigned. I knelt down next to him, gave him eye contact and built a relationship with him in just a few minutes.  That connection, that personal attention, was all he needed to fill his paper with ideas for me.  Relationships are powerful and critical to our students feeling empowered and loved.  Thank you for reminding us of that!   

Lori, I never needed to

Lori, I never needed to remind you; you are a master of building relationships with your students. 

Aww. thanks Kathy! That means

Aww. thanks Kathy! That means a lot coming from you! 

What a great reminder! I am

What a great reminder! I am now in a situation in which I am making new relationships with students.  Every moment I am reminded that we don't have a minute to waste!  What a challenge to change a disengaged student into an engaged learner.  Thanks for the post!

Thanks Laurie!  

Thanks Laurie!  

Kathy,  I have nearly

Kathy,  I have nearly completed your course, and gleaned so much from it.  However, this post is at the heart and soul of teaching for me.  It's all about the kids.  It brings such satisfaction knowing we have tried to make a positive impact in their lives. I am not so inexperienced to believe that I am going to be loved back by every student I teach, but it is my deepest desire that they know they are unconditionally loved and accepted.  And as you can attest to, success in the classroom is not far behind.  Laura

Yes, we must accept and love

Yes, we must accept and love them UNconditionally as they come with MANY conditions!!!  

Kathy, I really enjoyed

Kathy, I really enjoyed reading this blog!  With a new school year starting and kids arriving at the door on Wednesday (can't wait!), it is so timely!  Being a Special Education teacher for 18 years and now a Reading Intervention Specialist starting this year, I have worked with struggling learners my entire career. I myself struggled with learning as a child and had a favorite teacher who believed in me and would not let me quit.  Mrs. Schmidt made feel like I could do anything even when my self-esteem was so low.  For this reason, I became a teacher.  I felt the need to inspire and make a difference just as Mrs. Schmidt had inspired me.  One of the questions on our problem-solving form that teachers fill out when they have a concern about a students' learning or behavior is "what motivates the child?".  If the teacher cannot answer that question, I ask them to go back and do a interest survey with them to get to know what makes them tick.  If you do not connect with your students early on in the school year and do not know and ask personal information of them, they will not get the sense you care about them.  I am a firm believer that if you love them and they know it, they will love you and work harder than anything to please you and make you proud.  In turn, they will surprise themselves as to what they are capable of.  It's a win-win situation.  Start early and fill them up with love!!

Yes! I love it! "Start early

Yes! I love it! "Start early and fill them up with love!!"

I also completly agree! 

I also completly agree!  Teachers take on almost a parental role in students lives when they show the students love.  Most children want nothing more that to please their parents.  At least, that is what I have felt to be true.  You work harder for people that you believe have a vested interest in your life!

I completely agree with you,

I completely agree with you, Kathy!  Students need to feel loved in order to work their hardest.  I have really enjoyed your course and plan on returning to the classroom with renewed energy!  I love your story about Elena and hope to inspire my own "Elena's".


Thanks Kathy,  I completely

Thanks Kathy,  I completely agree with you, Kathy!  Students need to feel loved in order to work their hardest.  I have really enjoyed your course and plan on returning to the classroom with renewed energy!  I love your story about Elena and hope to inspire my own "Elena's".


Sorry I replied more than

Sorry I replied more than once.  First time responding to a blog :)

Thanks Kathy,  I completely

Thanks Kathy,  I completely agree with you, Kathy!  Students need to feel loved in order to work their hardest.  I have really enjoyed your course and plan on returning to the classroom with renewed energy!  I love your story about Elena and hope to inspire my own "Elena's".


Kathy - If you asked me

Kathy -

If you asked me months ago, I would have said teachers don't need to "love" their students to have them engaged.  But after reading your blog, doing some research of my own, and experimenting within my own classroom, I have seen the levels of engagement increase as my "love" for each student grew.

Your insight should and will be shared with my coworkers!  Thank you for sharing!


Thank you for your comment,

Thank you for your comment, Aubrey. It's truly remarkable how students respond when they know a teacher truly cares about their well being and not just their academic performance. You might find the articles and videos related to social emotional learning and academics on the Inside the Collaborative Classroom resource site helpful when sharing this way of teaching with your coworkers: http://inside.collaborativeclassroom.org/core-principle-resources/sel-and-academics. Let us know what questions you have.

I completely agree that

I completely agree that students will get the most out of learning if they feel loved by their teacher.  Just like in a family, there needs to be support,  love,  and trust.  When this is achieved, students feel safe and comfortable.  They are motivated to do their best. 

It saddens me to think there

It saddens me to think there are teachers out there who don't love their students.  When a teacher loves his/her students, not only do the students work harder to please their teacher, but their teacher finds enjoyment in providing even more engaging and enjoyable lessons for her students.  I believe the proof to this theory is when you have a student who seems to be struggling.  Once that connection is made between teacher and student the student's engagement and scores soar.  It is an amazing feeling.

Hi Kathy,  I agree; we must

Hi Kathy, 

I agree; we must focus on developing a healthy relationship with our students and build trust with them in order to maximize learning. In my own teaching experience, I have found that it is exteremely difficult to encourage learners when they are struggling if I do not have a relationship with them. First, they must know that I care about them, that I believe in them, and then they are more receptive to my guidance as their teacher. 

Thanks for sharing!


Thank you so much for the

Thank you so much for the article and I would have to say that I really need to be reminded just about every morning of how important it is to convey love to my students.  (I tend to be very task oriented.)  I especially liked the input by another reader concerning some quality time and eye contact and how it can turn on a student's motivation.  I've also seen how it can make them excited about seeing you and being in your class.  

It's strange I should need to be reminded, I know people who brighten my day at the sight of them because they have been so loving and accepting toward me.  

I'm thinking of writing a note and putting it on my dash "Start early and fill them up with love!!"


I completely agree that

I completely agree that teachers must love their students to maximize learning.  I work hard to build a relationship with each of my students from the first day.  If we can build trusting relationships not only between teacher and students but also students and students we will be able to get much more accomplished.  

I've become a better teacher

I've become a better teacher since becoming a parent myself. Now I realize that these students have (or should have) someone at home who loves and cares about them, and so should I!

I agree completely.  I can't

I agree completely.  I can't imagine that there are teachers who don't truly love children.  Why would anyone go into teaching if that weren't true?  I know I am always task oriented and seem somedays that that is my number one focus.  I try to remind myself that the amount of time I spend with these students throughout the year can be life changing if I stop from curriculum and just have a conversation with different students each day, letting them know that I care. 

Yes, Kathy! Particularly in

Yes, Kathy! Particularly in Language Arts classrooms, where we ask students to open up through writing, we must create a safe and open environment. By truly getting to know each child and loving who they are and how they contribute, we create space for our children to grow. I'm thinking of my middle school students in particular (though I am sure it is true for all students)--they really want the adults in their life to authentically care about what they think and what they have to say. Once students know that they can trust you, they will work so hard with you. 

I agree with you completely

I agree with you completely on building relationships with students.  There is no doubt in my mind that students respond and learn more if they believe that their teacher cares for them deeply.  In with work I do, this is important also.  Although I have more limitations and set boundaries with the students I work with, I have always believed they have to believe I care about them to receive from me as their teacher.  I am so glad that I've had this opportunity to take this class with you! What an inspiring story of your relationship with this student and I laughed when I realized that you had shared some of this blog in our class! You are very inspiring and I thank you for sharing your wisdom.

I agree that relationships

I agree that relationships can make a world of difference in engaging students. When I have invested in relationships with students that struggle academically and, as a result, have behavioral issues in several classes, they come to my class with a positive attitude and are ready to learn, giving their best effort toward meeting learning targets.  The impact that you've had on your students is inspiring and has provided an important reminder that putting time into building positive and meaningful relationships with all students can change their world for the better. Thanks!