Skip to content

“Relationships are like muscle tissue, the more they are engaged, the stronger and more valuable they become.” - Ted Rubin

We have all been told that the key to reaching students is building relationships first. Want better classroom management? Build relationships. Want students to respect you? Build relationships. Want to engage students to the point they are eager to arrive and sad to leave your classroom? Build relationships.

This is nothing new. And I’m not about to try to argue against relationships. As a third grade teacher, one of the first things I did was work side by side with each student to lay a foundation on which our relationship could be built. Not only that, but I also put the time and energy into building a relationship with their families, too. After all, it takes support from all angles to properly attend to a student.

I did the same thing when I was a first grade teacher. As a building- and then district-level administrator, I still built relationships with students, staff, parents, and community members. I also could easily point out which teachers did not value relationship building. They were the ones who struggled managing students. They were the ones quick to say that so and so were just bad students. A sure sign of someone who has written a student off rather than investing in a relationship with them.

The key is discovering how to build relationships. We can read books on how to do it. There are plenty available; many of them are good reads. Sometimes we need to see it in action. I might have found an alternative—possibly even better than what we can find in the classroom—if we are not willing to ask a colleague who is a relationship-building master. I am talking about bartenders.

I like to travel. Day trips or even an overnight trip to a new city a few hours away is an adventure. When I travel alone and go out to eat, I typically sit at the bar. It usually always has a seat available with an unobstructed view of a television. Sitting at the bar prevents me from taking up a booth or table for just me when maybe a couple or a small family has to wait. Sitting at the bar also gives me a chance to observe bartenders and realize how much we could really learn from them.

It Starts with Questions

America’s favorite bartender, Sam Malone, owner of Cheers—where everyone knows your name—showed us how simple questions could engage a patron whether a regular (NORM!) or someone just passing through. A bartender is quick to ask your name. They often refer to your name as they check on you throughout your meal. In my experience, the name is just the beginning.

I am often asked if I am from the area. When I inform them that I’m just passing through, they begin asking more questions. Where am I from? What part of Illinois is that? (Mostly, where am I in relation to Chicago?) What do I do for a living? What brought me to the area? 

Notice the questions we are asked by the bartender give them a rough sketch of who the person is sitting at their bar. They don’t go right into probing and personal questions. I’ll cover that towards the end of this post. You cannot learn about someone if you do not ask questions. The same goes for students. 

From the first meeting, you need to have questions prepared to ask students. Questions such as what is your favorite part of school? Did you ride a bus to get here? Who picks you up after school? These are foundational questions that are easy for students to answer. And when they answer PE, music, art, or recess for their favorite part of school, it serves to tell us where maybe their interests are. 

These foundation building questions allow you to begin framing a structure for each student that will become your relationship house down the road.


Proximity is the go-to when handling challenging behaviors. To see it done expertly, watch a veteran bartender. In a well-lit room surrounded by lights and glows of TVs, bartenders seemingly fade into the non-existent shadows. But as my water glass gets low, they’re right there to fill it up. 

The eras of phones have changed the way we communicate with others when out. I try to keep my phone put away or face down when out. I have found that bartenders notice this as well and will be more apt to check in or hold a conversation if the phone is not the main focus. But above all else, they maintain a good read on people to decide who is there to talk and who isn’t. 

The classroom is no different. If we have challenging behaviors, we will not get anywhere by hovering over the student. Nor will we find a lot of success by turning a blind eye and ignoring them all the time. It’s all about proximity. A well-managed classroom environment allows for proximity. We often hear people say that the classroom belongs to the students. So let them feel at home without it feeling like you’re hovering. Think of how a bar is laid out. The bartender can easily get a feel of how everyone is doing with one subtle sweep of the eyes. 

Challenging behaviors, or other problems, often come with an antecedent. Building a relationship and proximity are great starts, but predicting the antecedent before it happens is key.


A bartender and I can have a flowing conversation, but I am rarely the only person there. As we talk, they are keeping a watchful eye on the other patrons to make sure their needs are being met as well. Not only that, they’re also making sure that the environment is remaining welcoming to all, taking care of shutting down unruly patrons in a quiet and respectful manner.

Many daytime bartenders are also charged with some surrounding tables if the lunch crowd is slower. And most of the time they have to provide the beverages for the waitstaff to deliver out into the restaurant. They do all of this without being overt, keeping in mind proximity and respecting the relationship they’ve been building.

We’ve all heard the idiom having eyes in the back of your head. This is being watchful in the room. It’s knowing how to do a sweep of the room to determine needs and struggles. For me, it is watching 19 students typing away on their Chromebook but seeing one student sitting with fingers still. I don’t call out this student, but rather attend to their needs privately, one-on-one to get them going again.

Being watchful will condition you to recognize antecedents on behaviors and work to redirect or shift the behavior before it escalates. I’ve been through three different crisis prevention programs on managing student behavior over my time in education. I became a certified Safety Care trainer three years ago. The three day, intense training involved recognizing antecedent and how that impacted the behavior. The skills learned from this can be applied in many situations with all students.

Last Call

This idea came to me while out to dinner one night. I didn’t immediately write it. Instead, I just became more aware of the bartender’s role. Some might be thinking I could have used a waiter or waitress instead of a bartender. In reflecting on that, I am taken back to a lunch I had while sitting at the bar of a restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska called LeadBelly. 

As I was enjoying my California Dreamin’ Grilled Chicken Breast sandwich, a young man came in and had a conversation with the manager at the bar. The man was interested in becoming a bartender. It appeared, at least on the surface, that he had some knowledge of one aspect of the job. The manager was quite clear though, everyone who starts there begins as the waitstaff. Once proven successful out on the restaurant floor, then they can be promoted to behind the bar. 

A successful restaurant knows how valuable the bartender is. They will be a big factor in why people will or will not return. A bartender knows how to show empathy, how to not just ask questions but be attentive to the answers. They will serve as mentors to the up and coming staff. 

So like a good bartender, you, too, can use these same qualities listed above to enhance your practice in your classroom. It’s asking the right questions. And listening to the answers. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Sherry Slankard, a school counselor who appeared on episode 24 of Anchored in Education. She talked about a young student who kept falling asleep in class. The student’s teacher went on and on to Sherry about how disrespectful it was. But when Sherry showed empathy and asked the right questions, she found that the student wasn’t sleeping  at night because they were afraid of the snakes that came through the holes in her floor at night.

Teachers really are mentors to a classroom full of kids year after year.  We show them how to get along with each other and be respectful. We encourage them to like school and to want to come back everyday. Just like Norm from Cheers. Sure, we teach them things, but we also teach them how to learn and provide them with skills that will help them grow and become functional adults.