Building Relationships in Secondary Mathematics Courses - By Neil Workman

When I first started teaching secondary mathematics, I felt very overwhelmed by the amount of content that was expected to be covered.  As a result, I saw no other way at the time, with my limited experience, than to “stand and deliver” long lessons packed with content. This left very little time for students to practice skills, reflect, discuss and consolidate their learning – all necessary ingredients for learning to take place. The worst part about this approach was that I did not give myself time to actually sit with my students and get to know them – also a necessary ingredient. Something was definitely missing.

Since building relationships is not simply another item to be added to a “to do” list, I had to find ways to make it a part of my daily approach. I needed to give myself and students time with content and with each other and most importantly I really needed to become more of a facilitator than a “knowledge keeper.” I needed to empower my students to manage their learning and develop the necessary skills required to become patient and resilient problem solvers.

So, how can you do both in a genuine and thoughtful way? How can you deliver all of this content and still develop meaningful relationships with students?

Consider the following strategies that can potentially make way for a more relationship-based approach to teaching, even in content-rich subjects like mathematics:

1.     Reconnecting with Guided Peer Discussions:

Students should have a small group to report to immediately at the beginning of class as part of the daily routine, without prompting from the teacher. This short (5-10 minutes), guided discussion time is intended to provide opportunities for students to interact with each other and to specifically talk about their learning and to ask each other for help with the most recently studied topics. The most rewarding part of this time for the teacher is to listen to the way students explain concepts to each other. The teacher can circulate, join conversations, check-in with specific students (see teacher tips below), challenge groups to extend their thinking, provide feedback, receive feedback and just be available. There could be a specific task for this discussion time or simply a more informal moment to connect with each other. Amazing and powerful moments will happen during this important time to reconnect!

2.     The Learning Cycle:

  • Set the context of a new topic with a short introduction and one specific problem to be solved. Do not solve this yet.

  • Ask questions to the entire group and record their thinking (without teaching new concepts or solving the problem). What assumptions are we making? What are the most important pieces of information? What exactly are being asked to do? What might be the first step?

  • Individual time (5 minutes). Give students quiet time to process the problem and organize their thinking.

  • Small group/partner time (5 – 10 minutes). Discuss the problem and work on the solution. This is when you could encourage students to use technology to research and learn with each other. The teacher should be circulating, joining discussions, prompting, challenging and actively interacting during this time.

  • Class time (5-10 minutes). Regroup and have specific groups/students volunteer their solutions. Discuss and acknowledge different approaches that students used. This is when the teacher-centered part of the necessary instruction can then happen. Students take notes, ask questions and get introduced to new skills and concepts. The lesson should be short and specific.

That’s the approach. Try to get through 2-3 cycles of this in one learning block/period if possible and then assign a small amount of practice that will consolidate their learning. At the beginning of the next class, students will have an opportunity in their peer discussion time to review, correct and make conclusions about their learning.

So, what does this instructional approach have to do with building relationships?

It is a framework that will allow time for students to connect with each other, their teacher and the content in a much more meaningful way. It gives equal weight to building relationships and studying mathematics.

Tips for Teachers:

1.     Be intentional about which students you are hoping to connect with during appropriate class time. Plan to sit with a few students each day and ensure that every student gets at least one moment with you each week.

2.     Consider using these moments to assess student understanding by observing and having conversations about their learning. These moments could actually be an alternate to product-based assessments like tests, quizzes and assignments.

3.     Use these moments for informal discussions to build relationships. Consider the following:

  • ask about how they are doing with the content

  • inquire about any questions they may have

  • offer some positive suggestions about something new to try that might help them feel more successful

  • offer opportunities to take on roles of responsibility in the classroom

  • ask if they have ideas about how to improve things in the classroom or if they have anything important to share with you (this may have to continue in a more private environment)

  • acknowledge their interests and ask follow-up questions

The most important part of these conversations is to be an active listener, always remain positive and acknowledge what is important to students in a respectful and professional way.

This approach will allow for genuine and trusting relationships to occur in content-rich subjects like mathematics. The idea is to shift the role of the teacher into more of a facilitator of learning and to empower the students.  I often remind students that “I am only one of many people in this room who can help you.” This will allow more time for students to learn in a relationship-based and positive environment.

Take it easy,


David TranterComment