Why, Who, How, What, When; in That Order

“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” – James Comer, Yale University

A few weeks back I wrote about that the importance of getting back to basics. The context of that conversation was that I had become aloof to the practice of purposeful differentiation in the classroom, you can check it out here, and that piece got me thinking even more about the building blocks of education. As a matter of fact the idea of some core group of “fundamentals” in regards to teaching led to my ramblings on grading as well (here). What truly is at the foundation of what we do? As an active twitter user that follows numerous educators and teaching minds I’ve recently noticed a trend. Many have been preaching a sermon with which I identify greatly; it’s all about relationships. I have taken this to heart and have found that the more that I try and let my relationship with students be the vehicle through which I deliver content, as opposed to the content being the vehicle to my relationship, I find that students are far more receptive, inclined to listen, and value the tasks that we do. In short, the mutual respect that we develop creates a more favorable learning environment for all involved.

I believe the hype! Well, in all honesty that has always been my jam. My first position in education was within the Alternative Program at my high school and this unique beginning to my career instilled a great desire to reach people as opposed to teach students. Granted the ratio of students to teacher was 10/1 but that was by design. The State mandated that we maintain a small classroom to ensure the success of the students. (The fact that the State realizes this, that class size matters and plays a role in student success and achievement has infuriated me many times over when arguing, in vain, with my lawmakers. But that’s a conversation for another day.) This freedom allowed me to sit next to a student, regardless of their progress and level, chat with them with little other distractions, and teach. Honestly some of the best “moments” I’ve had in teaching came from that first year. Furthermore some of the strongest relationships that I’ve built with students came from that time as well. So it should come as no surprise that I chalk the bulk of that success up to the amount of time I spent building a meaningful relationship with those bright, beautiful, and unique humans. I was lucky however. I was, after all, a first year teacher with no experience other than the fact that I was 32 and worked my entire life in service. That helped a little but the mentoring that I received from a crack staff of veteran teachers on the fly was by far the most influential in that first year. Their message was get to know them.

I was allowed to get know my kids – and yes, I said my kids. I saw roughly 30 to 40 students for an entire day, that’s it. This allowed me to learn everything that I wanted, or at least that which was shared, about my students. I knew where they worked as most of them did. I knew what their family life was, with whom they lived or didn’t. I knew the influential people in their lives and how those people had affected them. I knew how long they had been in our corporation, in the program, or which middle school they attended. Like I said, I knew a lot about my kids. This allowed me to make the material exponentially more relatable and thereby vastly more memorable. – “You work at a pizza restaurant? Well if your boss brings in more workers to make more pizzas does anyone ever get stuck doing nothing waiting for the oven to bake a pizza? Yeah? I’d like to be that person too. Anyway, this is the concept of decreasing marginal returns. If we add too many workers but don’t change the fixed resources we’re stuck with fewer and fewer pizzas per worker!” – Obviously making connections such as this are paramount to teaching anyway but when those connections can be tailor-made for an individual it’s so much more powerful. This allowed me to get in touch with culture as well. I saw a lot of students with Mexican parentage and spoke both languages well. Often times they weren’t familiar with mythologies of ancient Greece or Egypt but they knew why the eagle was on the cactus on the Mexican flag.

I’m well aware that none of this is groundbreaking stuff however a shift in mindset recently has led me back to these roots and has been paying great dividends. Of all of the aspects of teaching that require time, energy, and emotion none are more rewarding than this. I’m not suggesting that we all start lobbying for smaller class-sizes because, let’s be real, that won’t happen any time soon. What I am suggesting is that we start to rethink our approach. I firmly believe that it’s so much less about what we’re teaching and more about who we’re teaching. This has driven me to purposefully develop relationships with my kids and allow them to realize the positive effect it has had on their understanding (reflecting will be coming soon from Jason). Unfailingly we will meet those students that don’t want to open up, that have a lot of baggage and negative experiences but the only remedy is persistence. “If today’s not the day to get to know you, I’ll try tomorrow.”  In all honesty a lot of my students, especially those I had in the Alternative Program, have never had an adult persistently and consistently show them that they care; it’s a foreign concept. Yet that level of comfort that they eventually feel yields a student with a greater propensity to try, fail, speak, share, and buy-in. Why would we not try and build strong relationships if that’s what we can get in return?