All Articles Education Insights How teachers can build authentic engagement with students

How teachers can build authentic engagement with students

With so much on their plates, how can teachers best connect with students?

6 min read



Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.


The current education headlines can sometimes appear dire, with significant drops in academic achievement for our most marginalized students, staffing shortages, persistent mental health issues, and more. If public education is going to ascend as a national institution, it’s important to understand how public education is positioned at this moment for us to make strides. While a significant challenge, unfinished learning is a solvable problem and fostering equitable outcomes for all students is a longstanding aspirational goal that we now have the tools to meaningfully move forward.

Education visionary Benjamin Bloom boldly asserted over four decades ago that what one child can do nearly all children can do under highly favorable conditions. Today, we have the resources, understanding, and strategies to create those highly favorable conditions.

After decades of meaningful child development research, we’ve never known more about how the brain learns and students develop. We know highly effective strategies, such as instructional models anchored in standards-aligned or competency-based curriculum, make this research a reality at the point of delivery in the classroom and in our students’ lives.

Learning and human development are bidirectional and so inextricably woven that it’s impossible to separate the two. Education leader Jim Shelton wrote in the Science of Learning and Development forward, “…genes are not destiny, experiences and relationships matter much more.

The importance of building relationships

Research shows that the number of social networks (even casual or informal ones) may be just as important or even more important than an “anchor relationship.” Some research suggests a link between students’ sense of self-worth, resilience, and academic abilities if they can learn how to access those relationships.

Students must have an anchor relationship with someone at their school. In other words, students need a “go-to” adult who they can trust. However, we don’t want to place the success of any educational initiative solely on an already exhausted teaching faculty. Many teachers have well over 100 students, so we must recognize that educators spending more time with students during or after school doesn’t always equate into healthier relationships.  

Now more than ever it is important to see solutions through our “systems” and not individual heroic efforts. So the fundamental question becomes: How do we operationalize healthy relationships?

The connection between relationships, opportunities, and growth 

At the Morris School District in New Jersey, our North Star became crystal clear: to build a tight knit web of healthy, supportive relationships around each child and provide students with the opportunities and skills to access those relationships and networks. Pamela Cantor of Turnaround For Children labels this concept a “Constructive Web”. The first place to start was to identify which existing networks and relationships could be strengthened or nurtured and what new networks or relationships needed to be developed.

Once the goal was clear our “healthy relationships” strategic plan evolved quickly: develop sustained tutoring and mentoring opportunities, especially for marginalized students, increase opportunities for co-curricular participation and monitor data on student participation, leverage “near-peer” connections, enhance and integrate student voice opportunities, strengthen parent-teacher and school partnerships,  introduce trauma-informed training for all staff, redesign the student code of conduct to be more transparent and restorative and less punitive, introduce PBIS programs, create an Equity and Inclusion Action Plan with a focus on increasing social capital, and introduce durable life skills strategies, such as growth mindset and self-efficacy, as important goals among many other steps.

Fast forward. In just four years, ALL subgroups in our middle school progressed from single-digit improvement in reading and writing to double-digit improvements:

  • 2016–2019 grade 8 ELA:
    • IEP +29%
    • Ec Dis +44%
    • White +25%
    • AA/Black +35%
    • Hispanic +51%

Additionally, suspensions dropped by over 75%, honors and AP participation rates (and AP passing rates) rose dramatically for historically marginalized students, and graduation rate gaps disappeared.  

Of course, to effectively address unfinished learning and the tremendous disruption over the last several years, our schools needed to be hyper-focused on teaching the instructional core at grade level, but we needed to be intentional about remembering that students learn best in a community and it’s through healthy networks and relationships where the motivation, inspiration, and resilience necessary for deep learning and rigorous thinking are anchored. 

Most education leaders are familiar with Bloom’s famous research and his search for an answer to the “2 Sigma Problem”. In short, Bloom found that through individual instruction based on mastery learning, students improved by 2 standard deviations (2 Sigma) which equates into achievement better than 98% of peers. So, Bloom sought to figure out a way to replicate this success in the modern classroom. Education researchers and thought leaders—from Marzano to Grant Wiggins and John Hattie—have sought similar answers over the last several decades. One of the most impactful innovations that has come out of the pandemic is our ability to scale live, 1:1 tutoring for the first time with online tutoring solutions—a problem Bloom saw as an intractable obstacle 50 years ago. 

A promising future for education

Providing students ubiquitous access to a community of talented tutors as part of the normal learning cycle and school day is something that schools and districts have never been able to provide in a sustainable manner. Today, it’s possible for students to have immediate access to qualified experts who can give them their undivided attention to nurture their learning through content expertise, learning science strategies, high quality feedback, and human emotional support. To this end, a tight knit “constructive web” of support has become more achievable now than ever before in education. 

We are at a transformative moment.  

While the challenges in education are daunting and sometimes overwhelming, with the right model, resources, and tools there’s reason to be optimistic about the future of education. 


Mackey Pendergrast, the subject matter expert for superintendents at GoGuardian, parent company of TutorMe, began his career in education as a high-school history teacher and he became a superintendent in 2012. In 2014, he was one of 100 superintendents invited to the White House as part of the US Department of Education’s ConnectEd initiative. Pendergrast, who was New Jersey’s Superintendent of the Year in 2020,  has presented and written about the innovative use of data interoperability, targeted technology integration and the centrality of healthy relationships to advance equity and promote inclusion.  


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 



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