Do Relationships Equal Learning?

If you’re a young educator or new to twitter, you may be led to believe that relationships with students and colleagues are easily forged and directly translate into meaningful learning experiences and higher test scores. To the average onlooker or twitter chat participant, it may appear as if an educator can purchase a relationship off the grocery store shelf or have one droned to her doorstep with a few Amazon Prime clicks. A first-name greeting in the hallway with that unique handshake should seal the deal, and we’re off to our monthly student lunch and beginning-of-the-year classroom icebreakers.

But with eyes wide open, my research and life experiences are leading me down much different paths. Don’t be scared, but these avenues twist and turn; meander and straighten; ascend and descend; ebb and flow; span longevity; have toll roads requiring reciprocity of personal investment and hard work; and have intermittent roadblock check-ins for long-term accountability and frequent, short-term feedback. Right near roller coaster experiences themselves, genuine relationships are anything BUT neatly organized products with boxes to check off on our teacher-administrator evaluations.

So.. Then… WHY do we sometimes pretend that all is well? Where’s the twitter chat about the student-teacher interactions that do NOT go well? Where are more blogs about how to mend and heal, rather than implement quick fixes to… fix? Where are the strategies to help educators attach student context to curriculum content?

Relationships can be messy processes, no matter how well-intended the educator’s strategies. What I’m finding is that there’s way more to the word relationship than what’s being openly shared, published, and posted online.

The Message: You have to connect before you can correct. Learning is about people. Building relationships with students and fellow educators is the foundation of our learning experiences, and it’s imperative to create, maintain, and sustain relationships throughout our learning journeys. My friend and 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader Basil Marin says: “You gotta know your people!”

The Misconception: Relationships are easy, and they always translate into learning.

Potential Facts: Relationships can be hard to create, maintain, and sustain. Saying Hi to people in the hallway and knowing every student’s name are great starting lines. At NCASCD‘s 2018 #NCASCDImpacts Conference in Pinehurst, NC, Oneil Arrington of Flippen Group elaborated on relational capacity. Genuine relationships require us to fill the cups of relational capacity over a long period of time, which includes: the good times and the bad times; learning the easy concepts and the challenging lessons; and investing time in people beyond the work day.

For these reasons, it’s the classroom teacher that has the most frequent opportunities to directly build relationships with students. Yet, building genuine relationships requires educators to get to know and learn with the intrinsically-motivated students, as well as the kids who don’t aspire to our first attempts in classroom management, teaching styles, flexible seating, and again–those well-intended icebreaker activities for two weeks at the beginning of the year.

In Three Classroom Management Tips for New Teachers, seven-time author and sixth grade science teacher Bill Ferriter even blogged: “Good classroom management starts by building positive relationships with the kids who frustrate you the most.” Also, see Bill’s More Thoughts on Classroom Management.

Truly knowing your people will require hard work. At ASCD’s #Empower18 Conference in Boston, Manny Scott said: “Everything we hope to accomplish in schools must pass through the door of relationships.” He thoroughly walked through several steps between relationships and learning. In fact, there were five huge leaps in building relationships alone, and relationships was just his “R” in how we REACH the #wholechild. Each word below could be an entire book or day-long professional learning conference session, but here was Manny Scott‘s presentation outline:

Relationships: Openness ➡ Acceptance ➡ Trust ➡ Learning ➡ Understanding ➡ Serving

Engagement

Awareness

Convince

Hand

The Opportunity: What if we could build relationships WHILE learning content? What if we could integrate daily life WITH content learning opportunities? What if we could craft curriculum-specific standards and objectives around student interests?

In his book The Balanced Teacher Path, author and fellow North Carolina teacherJustin Ashley describes several examples of beginning with student interests in mind, and then crafting learning experiences around them. Justin elaborates on how implementing these student-centered strategies greatly improved conduct in his classroom, even with the students that other teachers complained about. In addition, Justin sought opportunities to accentuate students’ positive attributes, citing this as definite relationship builder.

In one of his many #hashtag180 videos, Bill Ferriter posted an experience in which he and his daughter were celebrating their relationship while learning specific content. Together. There were at least ten things I liked about this post:

Relationships do not equal learning. But building sustainable relationships can greatly enhance and even transform student learning experiences or change a child’s life. And that matters. Big time.