Module 17a: Building Relationships with Individuals

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Module 16: (In)Equity in Libraries
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Module 17a: Building Relationships With Individuals
Module 17b: Building Relationships With the Community

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Explain why taking time to develop and nurture relationships with BIYOC is important to developing equitable and inclusive library programs and services.
  • Implement strategies for building positive relationships with BIYOC.


At one time, librarians and educators lived in the communities in which they worked. They shopped there, attended community events, ate at local restaurants, and so forth. They knew the community because they were part of the community. They also knew the young people they worked with because they interacted with them frequently – at their place of worship, at the recreation center, or at local community events. Today, this is often not the case. Many educators or librarians no longer live in the communities where they work. As a result, their interactions with youth are limited to when the young people are at school or visiting the library. And they seldom interact informally with members of the community.

In this module and the next module, we will develop a shared understanding of why getting to know the BIPOC community and BIYOC you serve is important to developing inclusive and equitable library services.  We will also explore some concrete strategies you can use to engage with BIYOC and their families.

Building Relationships With Individuals

I think schools in many ways have put the cart before the horse. What they’ve done is they want to jump right into academics and really dismiss or minimize the importance of relationships.

Tyrone Howard, Professor, UCLA

I’ve … learned that taking time to get to know your students will better help communicate the formal aspects of your curriculum. It helps facilitate the possible connections you make. It alerts each student that he or she is seen as another being and, in response, makes them all more attentive. By slowing down and maybe not getting through the entire scope of your curriculum, you create opportunities to go deeper.

Stacey Goodman, Teacher

In this era of accountability, many educators, including librarians, don’t think they have time to spend building relationships with youth. While they might spend time at the beginning of the year engaging in “get to know you” or “team-building” activities, after the first day or week of school, they dive straight into instruction as soon as the students enter the classroom or library. Teacher Stacey Goodman explains it this way, “If I wasn’t directly addressing the lesson at hand, but instead talking about Hakim’s interest in the ukulele, then I was wasting time. There was always the next lesson to cover and a limited amount of time to get through the curriculum.”

By not taking time to build relationships with youth, educators are overlooking the proven connection between positive relationships and increased youth engagement, increased youth motivation, and increased youth achievement (Baker, Grant, & Morlock, 2008; Hughes, Cavell, & Jackson, 1999). By not taking time to learn about the experiences and backgrounds of the youth they work with, they are missing opportunities to create lessons and programs that are relevant to their students’ lives (Steinberg, Allensworth, & Johnson, 2011).  By not taking time to get to know youth, they are overlooking important knowledge that would allow them to “make better decisions about the curriculum, instructional strategies, classroom management, assessment, pacing, and the list goes on” (Larry Ferlazzo).

While the research shows that relationships with teachers are critical, not all young people have access to strong teacher-student relationships.  This is especially true for BIYOC.  Consider the following research:

  • School Relationships Foster Success for African American Students, a study conducted by ACT (2002), found that “African American students were not forming strong interpersonal relationships with school staff (as were white students) that could propel them toward postsecondary education” (p. 13).
  • Studies based on observations from actual classrooms found that often Black students with white teachers receive less attention, are praised less, and are disciplined more often than their white counterparts (Dee, 2004).
  • A recent study from Johns Hopkins and American University researchers found when Black and white teachers were asked about the same student, white teachers had comparatively negative predictions for their students of color (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016).
  • Garza (2007) found that Latino students often say they experience teacher-student relationships that feel artificial. Recent immigrants and unassimilated Latino students report being the targets of negative teacher comments, uninviting body language, and low expectations.
  • In her research, Donna Deyhle (2013) found that Navajo youth often feel “unseen” by their teachers and school administrators. They want teachers who not only care and respect them, but also who know who they are and are open to learning from them and their families.

When asked, “What is the most important thing white teachers need to understand about Black students?”, Asa Hilliard III, an influential African American psychologist and scholar, responded: “You have to start with ‘the who.’ Of course, it is important to know your content and your curriculum, but you can’t truly reach the children if you don’t first start by getting to know who they are as people” (cited in Rome and Douglas, 2018, p. 261). Principal Baruti Kafele argues that teachers must commit to learning about their students of color and their cultural history so they can build relationships that are truly meaningful. “Relationships coupled with compassion are so crucial. I have so many teachers who were superstars because they were so committed to those kids by forming solid bonds and getting to know them beyond their names, getting to know their history and their culture, and putting themselves in position to even teach them those things.” Gloria Ladson Billings adds, “We need teachers who view their students of color as whole people.”

Strong teacher-student relationships are clearly critical to learning for BIYOC; however, the burden should be on the teacher to cultivate positive relationships with BIYOC, not on the student.  As Chris Avery (2018) reminds us, “there is something to be said about the teacher who goes the extra mile to get to know a student’s likes, dislikes, and cultural background” (p. 257).

In this section, we provide resources and activities to help you gain a better understanding of how to form meaningful relationships with youth of color and Indigenous youth.


Before you get started, reflect on your own experiences. Which teachers or librarians do you remember fondly?  Why do you remember them? What did those teachers or librarians have in common? What made them different from other teachers or librarians you interacted with? As you do this, also consider your own identities and experiences. To what extent did the teachers and librarians you identified above share your identities and experiences?


The following three videos address the importance of building relationships with BIYOC. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  • Why is it important to build relationships rather than focusing only on academic or literary activities?
  • What are some of the techniques we have available to help us build relationships?
  • What are the outcomes of building relationships with BIYOC?

In this keynote address, Brittany Packnett explains the origin of her name and challenges teachers to get to know their students and to love them.

In this TED Talk, Rita Pierson, a teacher for 40 years, passionately calls on educators to believe in their students and connect with them on a real, human, personal level.

In this presentation, filmed when she was a high school student, Erika Franco-Quiroz gives her perspective on being an immigrant child and the impact teachers had on her life when they took time to build relationships with her and her family. In 2018, Erika, who now goes by her middle name Rubi, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The transcript for this video can be located here.



Does your school or library prioritize forming positive relationships with youth?  Does your school or library explicitly build time into the schedule to get to know youth? Has your school or library ever provided professional development focused on building relationships specifically with BIYOC?


For one week, be an observer in your school or library. Notice how and when teachers, library staff, and other adults interact with youth of color. What is the context of these interactions? What is the tone of the interactions? What kind of information is communicated (academic, personal, etc.)? Once you have a list of these interactions, put a plus by the ones that are positive and a minus by the ones that are negative. Reflect on this experience in light of the previous two modules. Take notes about your experience in your journal.

As an extension to this activity, spend another week observing interactions between BIYOC and white students. As you did above, categorize and reflect on these observations at the end of the week.

Images of Practice - Icon by Adrien Coquet from Noun ProjectImages of Practice

How can we get to know our students on more than a superficial level? In the video below, veteran educator and Director of Student Services for Wake County’s (NC) Office of Equity Affairs Teresa Bunner discusses some of the strategies that have worked for her.


The Critical Piece: Building Relationships with Teens of Color and Native Youth: Creating Inclusive Library Spaces and Programs [PDF] – In this article, school librarian Julie Stivers discusses how she works to build relationships with BIYOC. [Note: The link will take you to the Winter 2017 issue of YALSA’s journal YALS. The article starts on page 12.]


Need tips for how to build relationships with BIYOC? Take a look at these resources. While they may not address your specific setting or the age level you work with most often, many of the ideas are adaptable to school libraries and public libraries and all age levels.


As part of YALSA’s Teen Services Competencies for Library staff webinar series, librarians Megan Burton and Valerie Tagoe discuss how they effectively build relationships with teens. Below we’ve highlighted a few of their recommendations. To learn more, watch the full webinar here.

  • Be yourself.
  • Listen.
  • Show respect “right off the bat.” It’s not about respect being earned over time.
  • Be transparent: communicate the what and why.
  • Acknowledge your bias. Know you are going to be coming into any interaction with youth with your own baggage.
  • Practice and model high trust with boundaries.
  • Take advantage of informal one-on-one conversations to talk with youth about what is important to them, what they care about, and what interests them.
  • Facilitate group conversations that provide opportunities for youth to interact not only with you, but also with each other so that they can build peer-to-peer relationships.
  • Begin each program with a welcome circle: form a circle and have each person introduce themselves, their pronouns, and answer a question prompt developed by the youth.
  • See youth as persons, not problems.


One of the best ways to learn more about building relationships with BIYOC is to connect with other educators and librarians. Use your social media of choice to share ways that you successfully build relationships with youth of color. Use the hashtag #StudentTeacherRelationships.


Now that you’ve completed this module, set three goals for getting to know the BIYOC you work with as individuals: one short-term goal that you can accomplish immediately, one medium-term goal that you can accomplish over the next several weeks, and one long-term goal that you can accomplish over the next year.

BUT Wait!

In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

When the students come to the school library, I only have a limited amount of time to get through the lesson. I don't have time to build relationships.
As Teresa Bunner explained in her Images of Practice video in this module, getting to know students doesn’t have to be time-consuming. There are simple, quick strategies you can use each day that only take 3-5 minutes (or even less) to help you get to know the students, to help the students get to know you, and to help the students get to know each other.

And remember, building relationships doesn’t only have to happen when students are in the library for a lesson or a program. Think about other opportunities you have to interact with students both formally and informally. When students are in the library before or after school, at lunch, or during study hall, spend time chatting with them informally. During class changes, stand out in the hall, smile, be friendly, and talk to the students as they walk by the library door. Attend their afterschool events – debate club, sporting events, plays. Host student clubs in the library; give students time and space to meet. Create a display outside the library where you post things about yourself: the title of a book you’re reading, the title of a movie you saw over the weekend, a new musical artist you just discovered, a picture of your pet, etc. Invite students to come into the library to share their favorite book or movie, or talk about their pets with you.


I have tried to form connections with youth of color, but it has been challenging. I feel a sense of distrust and a wall comes up. They don’t want to connect with me.
Forming relationships takes time and requires trust to be established.  This is especially true for many BIYOC who have experienced discrimination and had negative experiences with adults on a daily basis, including teachers and library staff. Couple that with the recent high profile cases in which Black youth have been murdered by police officers and immigrant families have been separated and targeted by ICE, and it is easy to understand why many youth of color mistrust adults, especially adults outside their racial/ethnic group.

Developing relationships with BIYOC requires us to 1) do our own work to identify our implicit biases, 2) meet each individual BIYOC where they are – don’t make assumptions about who they are, what they are interested in, what they want or need, and 3) be authentic – youth are gifted at discerning what is real or fake.


ACT. (2002). School relationships foster success for African American students: ACT policy report. Iowa City, Iowa.

Baker, J.A., Grant, S., and Morlock, L. (2008). The teacher-student relationship as a developmental context for children with internalizing or externalizing behavior problems. School Psychology Quarterly, 23(1), 3-15.

Dee, T. S. (2004). “The race connection: Are teachers more effective with students who share their ethnicity?Education Next, 4(2).

Dehyle, D. (2013). Listening to lives: Lessons learned from American Indian youth. In J. Reyhner, J, Martin, L. Lockard & W.S. Gilbert. (Eds.), Honoring Our Children: Culturally Appropriate Approaches for Teaching Indigenous Students (pp. 1-10). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University.

Garza, R. (2007). “She teaches you like if she were your friend:” Latino high school students describe attributes of a caring teacher. Journal of Border Educational Research, 6(1), 81-92.

Gershenson, S., Holt, S.B., & Papageorge, N.W. (2016). Who believes in me? The effect of student-teacher demographic match on teacher expectations. Economics of Education Review, 52, 209-224.

Hughes, J.N., Cavell, T.A., & Jackson, T. (1999). The influence of the teacher-student relationship on childhood conduct problems: A prospective study. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 28(2), 173-84.

Rome, S., & Douglas, T. (2018). Belief, pedagogy, and practice: Strategies for building powerful classroom communities. In E. Moore, Jr., A. Michael, & M. W. Penick-Parks (Eds.), The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys (pp. 261-266). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Steinberg, M.P., Allensworth, E., & Johnson, D.W. (2011). Student and teacher safety in Chicago Public Schools: The roles of community context and school social organization. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Go Back:
Module 16: (In)Equity in Libraries
You Are Here:
Module 17a: Building Relationships With Individuals
Module 17b: Building Relationships With the Community