Being a public school counselor can feel like barely contained chaos. In the large urban school where I worked, I was constantly interrupted by students in distress, lock-down drills, teachers who needed support, and parents seeking guidance. I often joked that the position was giving me Attention Deficit Disorder.
However, there was one predictable part of my day: when “Ben,” a 12th grade Haitian student, would come into my room to “post up” during fourth period. Every day, Ben made himself at home in my office, shot jumpers on the door-mounted basketball hoop, played me his favorite songs on Spotify, and lamented the Boston Celtics performance the night before. Rain or shine, he never missed a visit.
In my office, Ben was charismatic, kind, and possessing a sense of humor beyond his 20 years. But outside of my office, he was often in trouble, cutting classes, getting into arguments with teachers, and coming late to school. Throughout high school, he failed the majority of his classes and attended summer school every year. I wasn’t sure he would graduate.
Because of this, my colleagues wondered why I spent so much energy on him. Weren’t there other students more “worthy” of my support? Shouldn’t I be focusing my efforts on those who were college-bound?
To some, the relationship might have looked like a waste of time; but in my heart I felt its importance. I learned that Ben lived alone with his grandma and worked 30 hours a week at a fast food restaurant. He was remarkably independent, but he didn’t have a strong support network. Sometimes, he would open up about his past struggles and his uncertain future.
Unfortunately, conversations like these are rare in high schools. Without time and support, it can feel nearly impossible for educators to build meaningful relationships with their students and learn about their lives. Educators are not evaluated on how they relate to students, but on the rigor of their academic curriculum, college entrance rates, or standardized test scores. When society defines success as wealth, power, and status, it can be difficult for students and teachers alike to see the importance of meaningful relationships.
But the essential new book Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks provides compelling evidence for the centrality of relationships in schools. Julia Freeland Fisher and Daniel Fisher make the bold argument that building strong relationships, like the one I built with Ben, should be the central mission of every school and educational organization—not an afterthought.
Why relationships matter so much
In their book, the Fishers cite innovative research from The Search Institute, an organization that has spent over 70 years interviewing and tracking tens of thousands of students to better understand the importance of relationships across children’s development. The Institute’s findings show that when children have strong relationships with caring adults, they are more likely to be engaged at school and more motivated to succeed academically.
But what exactly is a caring relationship? The report found that meaningful relationships share five critical aspects that help students thrive: adults showing students they care about them, challenging them to become their best selves while providing ongoing support, sharing power and showing respect, and expanding their sense of possibilities and opportunities. When teachers build relationships with students that include these elements, the outcomes are powerful: Students engage with hard academic tasks longer, enjoy working hard, and think that it is okay to make mistakes while pursuing their academic goals.
Other research supports the Search Institute’s findings. One study found that adolescents who have stronger relationships with non-family adults have higher levels of positive support, engage in less risky behavior, and have increased levels of overall well-being. A review of the research suggests that student-teacher relationships increase students’ motivation in school and, in turn, increase their ability to master academic materials. Ultimately, students with strong relationships in school have higher psychological and physiological well-being.
These findings led the Search Institute to a simple yet profound conclusion: “Nothing has more impact in the life of a child than positive relationships.”
But what about students like Ben who have very few meaningful relationships with adults? Clearly, my relationship wasn’t making him more academically successful.
Or was it?
As Fisher and Fisher write, relationships can mitigate risk and serve as a buffer against students dropping out or getting into even bigger kinds of trouble. Students who don’t have supportive relationships are more likely to drop out of school altogether, often because they’ve not reached out to anyone for help. This same scenario plays out in higher education, too, where college students cite a lack of social supports as one of the main reasons they drop out. And, after college, relationships play another major role, helping job seekers connect with work opportunities.
For black and low-income students like Ben, these relationships are even more critical, explain the Fishers: Black students are almost twice as likely to say they wish they had more helpful adults in their lives than white students, and low-income students are 10 percent less likely than their peers to have caring adults in their lives.
The Fishers’ book articulates precisely the importance of my relationship with Ben. In a place where he was viewed by the adults and his peers as a failure, my tiny office was an oasis. He often told me that our fourth-period meetings were the only reason he came to school.
However, just because I was Ben’s only meaningful adult relationship at school doesn’t mean that other people didn’t care about him. Many educators just don’t have the capacity to reach out.
How to make relationships a priority
This is a nationwide problem. Currently, the average school counselor has a caseload of 482 students, 92 percent higher than federal recommendations. For marginalized and historically underserved students, the situation is even worse. Low-income students are less likely to have access to quality college and career counseling than their high-income peers. Minority students are more likely than white students to be among the estimated 1.6 million U.S. students who attend a school that has a police officer but no counselors.
My experience with these systemic barriers led me to an ironic realization: Like our students, schools and educators often lack the relationships and support they need to thrive and be available to others.
I saw this happening at my school, and it’s why I left my position to join Project Wayfinder, an organization providing the capacity, skills, and resources educators need to build meaningful relationships with their students. Project Wayfinder furnishes partner schools with an evidence-based curriculum designed to help students connect to their teachers and peers through in-class activities, discussion topics, and beyond-class experiments focused on developing purpose.
Thankfully, Project Wayfinder is not a lone organization in this space, as programs like City Year, Communities in School, and Spark are also providing essential supports to our most under-resourced schools. All of these programs offer students a supportive network of caring adults and access to academic resources and opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
One of my proudest moments as an educator was connecting Ben to Year Up, a program that builds a network of support around its students. Not surprisingly (to me anyway), Ben thrived in the program. He’s now graduated from Year Up and has enrolled in a local community college with the intention of getting a bachelor’s degree in business.
His story shows why Fisher and Fisher’s book is so critical. By making an evidence-based case for the power of relationships, it gives teachers permission to focus on relationship building with their students. As more and more research emerges showing why relationships matter, we must empower educators and provide them with the capacity and resources to build them. That way, we can make education work for everyone.