One of the attributes of a great teacher is the ability to open up new possibilities for their students. Every young person deserves to feel empowered to pursue opportunities, but students can’t reach for options they don’t know exist. Successful teachers enable students to become their best selves by revealing what’s possible for them in college, careers, and life. To initiate this experience, however, educators must first establish trusting relationships and hold their students to high expectations.

The importance of building trusting relationships has been emphasized in K–12 education in recent years. After all, the more we know about our students, the more they know we care. But it’s not enough to simply know our students — we have to use that knowledge to impact instructional practice. This active step is what makes the learning meaningful and inspires engagement.

Connections and relationships develop over time when our interactions are based on respect, trust, and authenticity — this is what AVID defines as building relational capacity. And it is especially important when working with students from communities of color and marginalized identities.


Classroom-ready Ways to Build Trusting Relationships

Here are six effective, teacher-tested strategies you can use today in the classroom to help establish trust and build relational capacity.

  1. Earn your students’ trust by sharing about your life first. Bring in photos of your pet, hobby or favorite foods, then ask students to share about theirs. Provide many low-stakes opportunities for students to share about themselves.
  2. Give students choices that allow for their voices. For example, have them help in creating classroom norms. Allow them to decorate the classroom. Rotate classroom duties and tasks, so everyone is involved. Ask for feedback about a class activity or assignment.
  3. Use the “2x10” strategy. Set a goal to engage in a 2-minute conversation, preferably about something not class related, with one student for 10 consecutive school days. This is especially helpful with students who are hard to reach.
  4. Connect the topic first to the students, then to the task. For example, before doing a character analysis in English class, have students do one about themselves. They’ll write one overarching statement about themselves, then provide three key points to support that statement, before trying a character analysis.
  5. Help students develop a positive self-identity and mindset. When you sincerely compliment students on something they’ve done well, it can motivate them to work even harder at it. It also helps them discover and develop their talents.
  6. Celebrate as a class. When you celebrate a class achievement or milestone, it brings the class together and honors the work you’ve done collectively. These moments can be both planned and spontaneous.


Holding Students to High Expectations

Every learner has the ability to reach difficult goals or milestones. However, we can’t expect students to be successful in school if we don’t challenge them with curriculum and activities that inspire engagement and deep thinking. The goal isn’t to adjust our expectations for student excellence — it’s to adjust the support that each student gets in order to succeed.

Try these five strategies to challenge and empower every student to develop greater ownership of their learning.

  1. Make sure students are doing most of the work. Increase the rigor by shifting more of the responsibility for learning to the students. The more learner-centered we can make the classroom, the more opportunities students will have to own the learning. It is through this ownership that they will be challenged with cognitively complex decision-making and rigorous learning experiences.
  2. Maintain grade-level standards. Begin your planning with grade-level standards as your academic targets. For students to grow, they must continue to be challenged at grade-level rigor. If students only spend time remediating earlier standards, they will continue to fall further behind.
  3. Create Collaborative Study Groups. In Collaborative Study Groups (CSGs), students identify a specific question from a content area and collaborate in small groups to develop and deepen their understanding through inquiry. They can then apply their new learning to enhance classroom performance.
  4. Use the “Show What You Know” strategy. With this entry point into student choice, students find creative ways to “teach back” what they have learned. Ideally, they will apply it at a higher level, but even a simple reteaching of a concept can help cement the learning while also giving room for the higher-level cognitive tasks of creation and choice.
  5. Launch “Apply Your Learning for students.This is just like it sounds, with students creating something that reflects what they have learned. The more authentic this application is, the more meaningful the work will become. For instance, students studying journalism might create a newspaper or a TV newscast. Students in a welding class might use their skills to create something that they can use at home.


The Goal: Activate Opportunity Knowledge

Ultimately, if we want to accelerate learning, we must challenge our students to grow. This begins when they start to trust us, and it includes providing rigorous, cognitively complex learning experiences. Students need to be challenged experientially and academically to increasingly stretch their abilities as learners and thinkers.

When students research opportunities, set goals, and make choices that support their long-term aspirations, they build opportunity knowledge. When they are successful with a rigorous curriculum, are engaged, begin to work their inquiry muscles, and start identifying what is interesting to them, they become willing and able to open their minds — and their hearts — to new possibilities.


About the author

Abby Dorsey is a Content Marketing & Social Media Specialist at AVID. With over five years of experience managing social media, email marketing, and digital fundraising campaigns, Abby has a passion for bringing content to life.

These tips and strategies were developed and tested by AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). If you want to learn more about how AVID works to close the opportunity gap and improve engagement and success for all students, visit