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Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall – Who’s the Greatest of Them All? (Part 2)

It’s that time again! Time to look in the mirror and see what impact YOU are making (so far). We started with Part 1 in May on being a LEARNER as a teacher, so let’s continue with Part 2 today on CONNECTIONS.

Based on my interactions with thousands of educators, just like you, I know that your magic mirror might ask, “MIRROR, MIRROR on the wall, Am I making a difference AT ALL?” Never wonder, “Am I making a difference?” Your answer key is below. Keep reading to learn how to evaluate the impact you truly are making. Looking in the mirror might be easier than you think.

The Research

Teachers who are willing to look themselves in the mirror are most effective. I’m not talking about looking in the mirror to make sure you don’t have a piece of kale from your green smoothie stuck in your teeth – I’m talking about really looking at yourself as a teacher – your mindset, habits, and teaching practices. These “reflective teachers” spend time thinking about their role as an educator and about learning.

This month’s reflective theme is about the relational culture you create in your classroom with your students. I know, I know. You already know it is important to have positive teacher-student relationships. But do you really understand the influence the relationship you have with your students has on their brain?

Yes! Relationships impact their brain, and hence their learning. Here is how:

When our brain perceives any sort of uncertainty from another person, it is registered by our amygdala as a “concern” that could potentially become a threat. Your students’ brains are constantly registering information they gather from interactions with you – tone of voice, facial expressions, proximity, gestures, volume, positive vs. negative language patterns, and so much more (Adolphs, 2010). Their amygdala filters through all that information to make a neurological decision as to whether you will be a source of negative academic emotions (anxiety, stress, threat, shame, anger, fear, hopelessness) or positive academic emotions (enjoyment, pride, relief, hope, excitement, happiness, calmness) (Lei, Cui, & Chiu, 2018).

In other words, how students feel about you as their teacher is constantly being assessed and updated. One positive interaction with a student in October will not have the lasting affects you might hope for. The amygdala’s role in evaluating the stimuli it receives is highly dynamic and context-sensitive.

This is great news when you consider the possibility to “correct” an interaction with a student when you didn’t show up as your best self. This also means, though, that you must be vigilant in constantly feeding your students’ amygdala positive emotional stimuli.

Why? Because their learning depends on it!

When the amygdala is aroused (in other words, dealing with too much negative emotional stimuli), the frontal lobe functions can become compromised. And the frontal lobe manages cognitive processing … aka LEARNING!

So, your relationship with your students is producing emotions somewhere on the scale between enjoyment and anxiety. Students with positive teacher relationships experience more enjoyment (and thus learning). Students who report negative teacher relationships experience anxiety (and thus little to no learning) (Ahmed, Minnaert, Werf, & Kuyper, 2008).

This is why teacher-student relationships has an effect size of 0.74 (Hattie, 2017). That means your relationship with your students has the potential to improve their academic achievement by nearly 1.5 academic years. If you’re wondering how to best spend your time in between classes or during lunch, THAT is your answer. Step away from the technology (laminator, copy machine, smart phone) and STEP IN to your students’ lives. Investing in those relationships will yield much higher results than most any other activity.

Masterful teachers prioritize relational culture-building. Here are a few of the questions EXCEPTIONAL teachers ask themselves in the mirror and confidently answer with a resounding YES with regards to relationships and culture.

1. Am I a connecter who fosters relationships based on trust, respect, and empathy where mistakes are safe? (Students often ask, “Can I make mistakes, or will my teacher think I’m stupid?”)

When a trusting relationship exists between student and teacher, the student is more likely to ask for help with their learning and feel safe enough to make a mistake. They will feel confident that they won’t be teased or looked down upon if they fail the first time they try something.

Want to get better?

  • Invest time in the students you don’t connect with as naturally as others. Learn about their lives. Listen. Ask questions. Then listen some more. There is evidence that spending just a few minutes a day with individual at-risk students can improve the teacher’s view of that student (Driscoll & Pianta, 2010).
  • Focus on building trust. If you say you’ll have their papers graded by Friday, have them graded by Friday. If you promise five extra minutes of outside time, be true to your word. Broken promises erode your credibility as a teacher (Kidd, Palmeri, & Aslin, 2013). Trust is built slowly through continuous acts of being true to your word. It can, however, be broken in a single moment.
  • Create a classroom culture where respect is paramount. There is absolutely no room for bullying, teasing, or demeaning sarcasm in a learning environment. Create a zero-tolerance policy for these behaviors to foster respect and safety.
  • Model making mistakes. You don’t have to intentionally mess up, but when you do … acknowledge it and share what you learned from it.
  • When a student makes an error, acknowledge the effort given and support them in correcting their error.

2. Am I a reliable ally (vs. adversary, criticizer or enemy) of my students? (Students often ask, “Is my teacher and ally or adversary?”)

Students who ask for help perform better academically (Ryan & Shin, 2011). And, low achieving students are less likely to ask for help than their high achieving classmates. With an effect size of 0.72, “help-seeking” demonstrates the HUGE advantage students have when they reach out and ask for help (Hattie, 2017). The smart get smarter, and the strugglers just struggle more. But in order for students to feel safe enough to ask for help they must believe YOU are their ally in learning. 

Want to get better?

  • There is a prevailing mindset among students that asking questions means you are not smart (Hicks & Liu, 2016). It begins to emerge in the early years of schooling and progresses from there. Be diligent is shifting this belief. Celebrate the curiosity and desire to understand that drives help-seeking.
  • When a student exhibits undesirable behavior, get down on their level and say something like, “David – I want you to succeed in this class. I am concerned about your learning. It seems like you are getting distracted regularly by (fill in the blank: friends, technology, etc.) around you. I want to help. Let’s spend a couple minutes after class today finding a solution to help protect your learning.” Notice the focus on David’s learning and the “we are going to work on this together” approach.
  • Create systems in your class that promote emotional safety for “help-seeking”. Students can place a small object on their desk to indicate they need extra assistance; Each student can have a wooden block on their table – one half painted red, the other green. Red side up means, “I need help!” Green side up means, “I’m good right now.”; Use a digital messaging system to allow students to ask for help in a non-threatening way.

3. Am I a community builder by fostering a daily sense of belonging, respect and for every student in my class? (Students always ask, “Do I really belong in this academic community?”)

For some students, their classroom community at school is the only group they feel connected to. When familial stability or connection is low, the teacher-student relationship can mitigate the effects of a poor home environment (Benner & Mistry, 2007).

You don’t have to be their teacher AND their parent – just offer the same safety and warmth that every child should feel at home. Students can detect, quite accurately, the emotional climate and warmth of a teacher – and they can do it in a matter of seconds, based on the teacher’s nonverbal cues (Babad, Avni-Babad, & Rosenthal, 2003).

Want to get better?

  • Notice when a student is absent. Let them know they were missed, and support them in getting caught up.
  • Tell students directly: “I am so glad you are a part of our class.”
  • Create traditions that are unique to just your class. It can be a special class handshake on Amazing Monday, Thankful Thursdays with pass-around affirmations, “joke-telling time” the last 5 minutes of every Wild Wednesday, and celebrations on Fabulous Friday.
  • Give students responsibilities that help them feel like they are needed and belong in your learning community. Have a student be the greeter for the week that welcomes each student into class. Another student can be the DJ for the week with the responsibility of playing music at appropriate times. A student can collect or distribute supplies, erase the board, post the assignment on the class website, send out a digital reminder of an upcoming deadline, etc.

4. Am I culturally responsive?(Students often ask, “Am I welcomed? Do I and my culture get acknowledged, valued and respected in this academic community?”)

Before you jump in with a quick, “Of course, I am!” on this one, consider this: the majority of minority students perceive they are discriminated against by their teachers! And because of this common perception, minority students commonly report feeling their academic efforts are pointless (D’Hondt, Eccles, Houtte, & Stevens, 2016). Make the connection between their effort and academic success AND life success. Why? Most students never make that connection.

The well-established “empathy-gap” between teachers and students of different cultures creates a barrier to learning worthy of attention. Recognizing and respecting all cultures in your classroom will yield high results both relationally and academically.

Want to get better?

  • Do your homework. Learn about your students and the cultures they come from. Ask parents at the beginning of the year to write you a letter or email explaining the uniqueness of their child and cultures they come from that are especially meaningful to them.
  • Use culturally specific holidays or events as an opportunity to teach the rest of the class about a cultural tradition. Knowledge and awareness are the seeds from which tolerance and compassion grow.
  • Always be looking out for any unintentional preferences or biases in your interactions with students. Assume you have them and notice them weekly. The research is too solid on this topic for teachers to play blind.

Before you begin each day, pause, and ask yourself these four questions as you stand in front of an imaginary classroom mirror:

Am I a connector?
Am I an ally?
Am I a community builder?
Am I culturally responsive?

It begins with caring for your students – all of them … individually. At the elementary level, get to know just two students a week pretty well. You’ll know all of them well by mid-year.

At the secondary level, let’s say you have 150 students total. You’ll know pretty early on which students need an adult (you) to connect with, or are at-risk for misbehaviors. Aim to lock in on one student per class, per week. At that pace, every “extra needy” student will leave the school year knowing you cared about them and their learning. Care about them as a person first, and then as a learner second. Keep your focus in that order and the learning will come.


Adolphs, R. (2010). What does the amygdala contribute to social cognition? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1191(1), 42-61.

Ahmed, W., Minnaert, A., Werf, G. V., & Kuyper, H. (2008). Perceived Social Support and Early Adolescents’ Achievement: The Mediational Roles of Motivational Beliefs and Emotions. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,39(1), 36-46.

Babad, E., Avni-Babad, D., & Rosenthal, R. (2003). Teachers brief nonverbal behaviors in defined instructional situations can predict students’ evaluations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 553-562.

Benner, A. D., & Mistry, R. S. (2007). Congruence of mother and teacher educational expectations and low-income youth’s academic competence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(1), 140-153.

Driscoll, K. C., & Pianta, R. C. (2010). Banking Time in Head Start: Early Efficacy of an Intervention Designed to Promote Supportive Teacher–Child Relationships. Early Education & Development, 21(1), 38-64.

D’Hondt, F., Eccles, J. S., Houtte, M. V., & Stevens, P. A. (2016). Perceived Ethnic Discrimination by Teachers and Ethnic Minority Students’ Academic Futility: Can Parents Prepare Their Youth for Better or for Worse? Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(6), 1075-1089.

Hattie, J. (December 2017). Hattie’s 2018 updated list of factors related to student achievement: 252 influences and effect sizes (Cohen’s d). Retrieved from

Hicks, C. M., & Liu, D. (2016). Young Children Selectively Expect Failure Disclosure to High-achieving Peers. Infant and Child Development, 26(2).

Kidd, C., Palmeri, H., & Aslin, R. N. (2013). Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition, 126(1), 109-114.

Lei, H., Cui, Y., & Chiu, M. M. (2018). The Relationship between Teacher Support and Students Academic Emotions: A Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

Ryan, A. M., & Shin, H. (2011). Help-seeking tendencies during early adolescence: An examination of motivational correlates and consequences for achievement. Learning and Instruction, 21(2), 247-256.

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