Relationships Matter: Transformation Through Wayside Teaching

There’s no getting around it—we teach who we are. By our presence in a classroom, it is inevitable that students learn about us. We teach who we are, so who we are matters.

Who we are becomes evident through our relationships with students. Wayside teaching—making the most of sometimes seemingly inconsequential connections with kids—is one way of optimizing our influence as teachers.

Wayside teaching is all about relationships. It is not an add-on, not a program, not fluff, and—very important for teachers, students, and schools—wayside teaching is not anti-accountability. On the contrary, wayside teaching enhances academic learning by providing a sense of belonging and safety that helps free learners to participate more fully in their own education.

We can affect young adolescents in many ways through wayside teaching. Here are some practices to consider.

1. Practice Little Gestures That Matter

  • Stand outside your doorway between classes. This not only makes a difference in terms of orderly transitions, but also provides excellent opportunities to practice wayside teaching. A cheerful “Hi, how was your visit to your grandma’s house this weekend?” or “Boy, that was some game yesterday!” personalizes relationships with kids. We have to want to know our students; we have to do it on purpose.
  • Be 100% present in your classroom. Young adolescents know if you aren’t.

2. Reveal Your Personal Self

  • Tell stories from your past and present. Young adolescents often perceive it their duty to say, “Oh, no. Not another lame story,” when the fact is, the few minutes we spend relating a personal experience to the context of a lesson is a true delight for them. The better they know us, the more they will reveal to us. As we share our own dreams with young adolescents, we may inspire them to dream as well.
  • Show young adolescents that even people in positions of authority and responsibility have dilemmas and problems. They will be much more likely to open up to us when they sense we understand that life can be difficult and that we have questions too.
  • Share your life. Traci Peters, a math teacher at Cario Middle School in South Carolina, has a Mrs. Peters Board where she displays her own seventh grade school picture and report card, family pictures of her childhood, and current family photos of her husband and son. Students who gather around the board can identify with Mrs. Peters. How cool is that?

3. Create and Maintain an Inviting Classroom

  • Make the classroom attractive and interesting. Occasionally play music and have interactive games. Give students reasons to want to come in.
  • Stock up on supplies. Young adolescents are going through the changes of puberty. Making mirrors and simple toiletries such as deodorant or sanitary supplies for girls available can save students from a potentially embarrassing situation. This is wayside teaching at its finest.

4. Promote a Culture of Acceptance and Compassion

  • Accept students for who they are and not for what they do. This will foster their self-acceptance and their acceptance of others.
  • Create a bond. Try this yarn-toss activity: Have everyone stand in a circle. Toss a ball of yarn to someone while holding the end strand. Say his or her name and reveal something you admire about the person. That person grabs the loose strand while tossing the yarn ball to another student. Continue to do this until the ball has been tossed to each student. Make sure everyone has the ball tossed to him or her at least once.
  • When it’s time to stop, have the group pause for one minute, look at the web of yarn, and think about what they have experienced. Then have them write their thoughts anonymously on index cards. Collect the cards and read them to the class. Most students will sense a stronger community bond as a result of the activity.

5. Help Students Find Their Voices

  • Give students choices whenever it’s feasible.
  • Give students opportunities to talk. Here’s an idea: Have students discuss a topic in small informal groups for 15 minutes to help generate ideas and allow even very shy kids to talk. When you convene the whole class for discussion, give each student two chips. Everyone must speak twice, and only twice, each time surrendering a chip. Doing this often builds student voice capacity.
  • Give meaningful writing assignments to help young adolescents find their voices. Consider a variety of formats, including poetry, short stories, editorials, and letters that call for action on topics meaningful to kids.

6. Learn to Listen

Open your ears. Young adolescents are anxious to tell us their stories. They generally don’t want advice, just an open ear and focused attention. Have real conversations with students that involve listening as well as speaking. No, this can’t happen every day with every student, but it should happen as often as possible.

7. Speak Carefully

  • Be role models of civility. Young adolescents are easily offended, even if being offensive may seem to be their specialty. We must be role models of civility, and our speech is the most obvious way to express this. Middle grades kids listen to us while sometimes blatantly perfecting the skill of pretending not to.
  • Be positive. Young adolescents are searching for their identities, and often this search can lead to not-so-positive behaviors. But when we know our students well, we can often compliment them for progress or indications of growth, however small.
  • Bite your tongue. Sarcasm is particularly hurtful for young adolescents whose egos are fragile and whose memories are long.

8. Help Students Become Autonomous, Not Anonymous

  • Remember that alone is not synonymous with autonomous. Autonomy implies self-reliance by choice. Giving students opportunities to know themselves, to explore their own attitudes, motivations, talents, and needs will promote autonomy. For 10- to 15-year-olds, autonomy is positive; alone is just lonely.
  • Find the anonymous kids. Anonymity is a way some young adolescents attempt to solve their problem. If they can simply stay below the radar, they are happy—well, not happy, but at least not in a possibly embarrassing or uncomfortable spotlight. Find those kids. Then go to work finding their strengths and devising ways for them to grow and become independent learners on their way to cognitive, emotional, and social autonomy.

Make Wayside Teaching Habitual

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Making wayside teaching a habit frees us to be even more responsive to our students and their circumstances.

Reforms come and reforms go. Nothing will transform a middle school like purposeful, positive wayside teaching. Awareness is usually all it takes for a wayside teacher to correct an attitude, alter an approach, or initiate or eliminate an action.

John Lounsbury, the extraordinary educator who first coined the phrase wayside teaching, wrote in As I See It (NMSA 1988) about his gardening hobby and his delight at seeing plants take on new life with fresh leaves and buds as a result of being broken free from a pot-bound state and then repotted in nutrient-rich soil.

Applying this analogy to people, he wrote, “Perhaps what is needed for growth and improvement so earnestly sought on every hand is to repot people, to give adequate encouragement to that inherent potential that does exist in all persons, to feed and free those hungry roots from the restrictive psychological pots that bind them.”

Through wayside teaching we can repot our students over and over, freeing them to not only grow, but to flourish in learning and in life.

While acknowledging the power of one wayside teacher to positively affect students and their learning, I am reminded of the adage “An individual can make a difference. A team can make a miracle.” What would happen if your whole team purposefully implemented wayside teaching? How about your whole grade level? Your whole school? I wonder. . . .

Originally published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2011

Sara Davis Powell is a professor and chair of education at Belmont Abbey College. E-mail:


  1. Sara, your use and ideas of creating an inviting classroom has been my favorite section to read. The fact that you highlight how useful stock of young adolescent supplies is a smart and easy way to invite students to gain trust. Your article lays out the perfect examples of what and how we as teachers need to do to love and help our middle schoolers. Finding that student’s voice that you mentioned is one of the greatest tasks for young adolescents and sometimes that idea is not always talked about. Amazing.

    1. Hi, Amy! Obviously there was a glitch and my comment went to Lindsey. Here’s what I wrote:
      Hi, Amy! You obviously recognize that we teach the whole child, not just the cognitive aspects of students. Yes, gaining their trust is the first step in having the most impact possible. They have voices and we can prompt them to think for themselves then use their voices. Best wishes as you move forward and become a classroom teacher! Dr. Powell

  2. Hello Dr. Powell,
    Before reading your article I had never heard of the term “wayside teaching”. I definitely agree in that it is vital teachers take advantage of these opportunities outside of the classroom to build a more personal relationship with their students. My favorite sentence in this entire article is when you stated, “Accept students for who they are, and not for what they do.” All young adolescents want is to fit in and be accepted by everyone. It is our job as educators to make them feel accepted and to forgive and forget their mistakes. I certainly would not want people to only remember me by my mistakes. Teachers must look beyond the mistakes and see their students for who they truly are. Thank you for emphasizing this point. I also loved the idea you had of stocking up on toiletries in the classroom. This is definitely something I want to incorporate in my classroom as I can see how it can be very beneficial especially in a middle school when these students are going through so many bodily changes. Unexpected occurrences happen often and if we can provide students with what they need they will be more susceptible to learn within the classroom. Thank you for all your great advice! I cannot wait to put it into practice!

  3. Hello Dr. Powell,
    Before reading your article I had never heard of the term wayside teaching. However, I definitely agree in that it is vital to success in the classroom. My favorite sentence in this article is “Accept students for who they are and not for what they do.” Many times teachers remember their students mistakes and never really forgive them which creates a negative learning environment. As educators, it is our job to find the potential in every student and bring it out of them. Every student has the ability to succeed but one will not be able to if the teacher does not treat them like they can. Also, I will be taking your advice by keeping a supply of toiletries in my classroom. Unexpected occurrences happen often and many young adolescents become embarrassed in these situations and I want to do anything I can to spare them of that feeling. Because, as you said, part of wayside teaching is maintaining an inviting classroom. Thank you so much for this very well written article! I am glad I got the opportunity to read it and learn from you!

    1. Hi, Amy! You obviously recognize that we teach the whole child, not just the cognitive aspects of students. Yes, gaining their trust is the first step in having the most impact possible. They have voices and we can prompt them to think for themselves then use their voices. Best wishes as you move forward and become a classroom teacher!
      Dr. Powell

    2. Hi, Lindsey! Wayside teaching has shaped my teaching ever since I heard the phrase decades ago from Dr. John Lounsbury. We have the potential to guide and support our students in so many ways if we will only watch and listen and respect growing young adolescents. It’s important to be 100% present when we are with our kids. It’s the only way to be responsive to each and every one. Best wishes to you, Lindsey!
      Dr. Powell

  4. I really enjoyed reading this article. As a soon to be teacher, I find myself stressing about finding ways to help students reach their full potential in every aspect, not just academically. I think that my favorite strategy that you suggested was the yarn tossing activity. This activity is so simple, but it does so much for the students. Being able to hear one thing that they are admired for from a classmate, maybe even one that they aren’t super close to, creates such a feeling of acceptance for all students. I think that for the teacher this can also help learn more about your students. I also liked your statement “Through wayside teaching we can repot our students over and over, freeing them to not only grow, but to flourish in learning and life”. This is, after all, the goal of all teachers. To not just teach students enough to pass a class or a test, but teach them what they need to be successful in every aspect of life.

    1. Hi, Destiny! You already appear to be very wise about what means the most in our teacher-student relationships. I use yarn toss in my college classes every semester. All of us need validation and care. It works! Life lessons are vital to help kids succeed, just as academics propel them. I wish you years of repotting your students to help their roots flourish!
      Dr. Powell

  5. Hi there Professor Powell. My name is Hannah-Lee. I am in Professor Roukema class. I love this advice you gave. I think I best related to telling stories to relate to the content I will be teaching. I am very excited to use these techniques to be paired with content teaching. I know it is so important to be personable with kids to best help them respond to me. These guidelines when followed will definitely help me to make a nice classroom environment.

    1. Hi, Hannah-Lee!
      So often our students “rent” content and processes, and then lose them when the assessment is over. Making what we teach personal helps students “own” what they learn. When being personable it’s important to do so with boundaries. By this I mean you need to repeat “I am the teacher” and understand that being students’ friend can be a slippery slope. Love them and let them know you do by your actions, but always remember your responsibilities. Teaching is the BEST profession. Enjoy it!
      Dr. Powell

  6. Dr. Powell,

    I found this article to be fascinating because it made me go back and review my own personal experiences. I had many teachers who did wayside teaching by letting us listen to music in class or telling stories and remembered small details that students would give about themselves. Hindsight in this case is particularly interesting because I also realized that the wayside teaching often influenced whether I deemed a teacher good or bad. Most of my favorite teachers were the ones who had actively engaged in wayside teaching, while the ones I had an okay-opinion about engaged in some but not a lot, and the ones I really disliked never engaged in wayside teaching at all.
    I was surprised but very happy when I read the “Help Students Become Autonomous, Not Anonymous” section. Students who are very quiet and reserved are often overlooked by teachers because they are not causing problems or bringing attention onto themselves. I know that from personal experience because I was one of the “anonymous” kids in middle school and a good portion of high school I was both extremely introverted and very shy. I did have a few teachers who tried to get me to open up a bit with very limited success, but the majority were content to let me do whatever it was I was doing as long as I did my work and didn’t cause problems. Those very quiet students deserve attention too.
    I am slightly curious about what a teacher should do if they have that one student who just does not respond to anything. I have seen where someone I know hated every subject and disliked every teacher with one or two exceptions. Now, I will never believe that this person just had the worst luck possible and never had any good teachers. Mainly because I already know this person just didn’t care about school, put in little to no effort, and it started in middle school. I don’t believe in just giving up and labelling someone as being a “hopeless case,” especially since stopping after so much effort is worse than never trying at all. At the same time, at some point, enough is enough and there is only so much a person can do.
    I really enjoyed reading this article and it truly was fascinating.


    1. Hi, Rachel! You are way ahead of most of us in the “know thyself” category. All of us should think about our own experiences and learn from them. This also helps us have more natural empathy. Good for you!
      Your friend sounds like an extreme case. But what you describe is part of the beauty of teaming. If a student has 4 or 5 adults working together, if one teachers’ style doesn’t draw out a student’s potential, chances are at least one of the other teachers will. In my teacher ed classes I always emphasize that there are so very many ways to be effective. We all have personalities and ways of relating well with others. The team approach all but guarantees at least one teacher will make that ultimate difference for each child.
      Enjoy your future career and let your students know it’s OK to be shy, while helping each find a voice.
      Dr. Powell

  7. Dr. Powell

    Your tips for teachers (future and present) are so refreshing and show so much passion for educating. Not only are they great to hear, but they spark a sense of excitement to be able to be the educator to do all of these things. Waiting outside of your door to welcome the faces of smiling students is something some teachers take for granted, when really that is such an great way to begin their day on a positive note and only go up from there. I also liked where you said “learn” to listen, because obviously we know we have to hear them, but to listen is something very different. Teachers always are the ones who think their voices are only needed to teach but once you listen to them, only then will you understand what they really need.


  8. Dr. Powell,

    I really enjoyed reading about the different ways I can create a positive learning environment, or Wayside teaching, and why it is so important to cultivate these relationships with my future students and schools. I have always found the key aspects of this Wayside teaching to be important, but I was unaware that there was a word or phrase for it. Some of my favorite memories from school have been Wayside practices. I believe that standing outside your door in between classes and especially in the morning is an important time in the day where teachers are able to make connections and strengthen connections with their students. These individualized relationships with students should be done with purpose, as one adult can change how a middle school student views themselves and school as a whole. If they know that one adult cares for them and is reminded of that every time they transition from classes, it can make all of the difference. Showing one’s personality and their character is something that is meaningful and memorable to students. My favorite teachers in the past were always the ones who let us in on their lives and their interests. They also were the teachers that made students feel comfortable in their classroom and made sure acceptance and compassion was always shown to the students. All of the elements that you spoke on are characteristics that I’d like to have and share with students to make their middle school experience meaningful, much like mine was, and not the stereotypical frightening 3 years that makes people shy away from middle school.