Friday, January 3, 2020

What do we mean when we say it's all about relationships?

It's common now to hear that teaching is all about relationships. I certainly agree, for many reasons, positive relationships are more important in the classroom than ever. At the same time, I hear this so much, even from people on all sides of other issues. That always makes me wonder, do we really agree on what it means? Do the same images come to mind when we hear, "It's about relationships"?

In person, at conferences, at work or through blogs and Tweets, I get the impression most understand these "relationships" to be a sort of openness and friendliness between the adults and students in the school. We chat with kids. We know what their home life is like and what their hobbies are. Though most won't say it, sometimes it comes close to sounding like the students should see us as a "fun" or "cool" people.

Whatever is meant and whatever comes to mind, I fear the rallying cry is ambiguous enough to be largely ineffective. Some hear it, forge ahead with confidence that they they already get it, and nothing changes overall. Other teachers, especially in secondary grades, can be overwhelmed by what the phrase brings to mind. How could they ever have the required meaningful relationships with their 120 or more students?

So this is my attempt to clarify what I mean by it. As an instructional leader writing it here publicly, yes, I am suggesting it as a useful standard for others. It comes with 25 years of experience in education, but also with the open admission that I have much to learn. I'd be glad to hear from others.

This certainly shouldn't be seen as playing down the importance of relationships or somehow lowering the standard for their quality. I just believe the serious work of education (that which teachers are being paid to accomplish and students depend on for future success) deserves more careful attention be brought upon all of our popular phrases and trends.

I suggest the defining characteristic of an effective teacher-student relationship is the trust the student has for the teacher. And I'll add two thoughts to be sure the focus is on student learning:
  • The students must trust they are accepted by the teacher as capable learners. (That is, they know the teacher believes in their ability to learn. See my previous post about a powerful study on this topic.)
  • The students must trust the teacher's motives are for the good of the students.
That first aspect addresses the idea that, as some say, "Students need to feel liked by their teacher." I've certainly seen that with my own students over the years. Chatting about their personal interests, asking how the game went the night before and being sensitive to matters outside of school are essential. Ultimately there's a job to be done in school, though. We must use those interactions to lay the foundation for trust that increases the chances the real job will get done.

We know a teacher can tell a class, "I believe in you," from the heart every day, but many struggling learners don't naturally feel they are part of the intended audience. They won't hear the message until they also feel they belong. Recognizing them as individuals and showing we care about their personal lives lends credibility to the words. 

Then the second aspect requires the teacher to be open and sold out on the value of what he or she is offering the students each day. In the pursuit of preparing the younger generation to someday take the wheel, a compliance-based approach to school often rears its head. Teaching becomes a power struggle as the adults in school demand a level of respect and other behaviors, always proclaiming that the students will need those someday on the job.

While there's certainly truth behind the approach, it increasingly is not an effective way to sell the learning. I'd suggest the power struggle is a sign that trust is lacking in the relationship.

What if we instead look for ways to show with our lives that we know something valuable about being successful? Can we be open about our personal lives in ways that look appealing to the diverse students we teach? Be real so they trust us and the value of what we're trying to teach. I think this type of trust what people are observing when they say effective teachers are liked by their students.

So I probably won't just say, "It's all about relationships." I'm more likely to say, "Tell students we believe in them and act like it until they believe it too." 

I hope no one thinks I'm saying that makes the task easy. It will always be a difficult part of what it takes to teach in today's world.

In the way of some final practical advice, I can only suggest that you lay the foundation for the message from the first time you address a class. When it was my first day as the teacher and now, when I'm working with the regular teacher for a project, I let students see how and why my work excites me. I look them in the eyes and I tell them how the task at hand will make them successful. One on one, I try to always treat each with kindness, behaving as if I have their best interests in mind as we head into the challenging task of learning together. 

I'll be glad to hear any comments in support of, against or in addition to what I've said here. Please leave a comment below or let me know by email.

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