We talk a lot, in schools, about the impact of the teacher-student relationship on learning. And for good reason. Whether you look at highly energised and engaged classrooms or read the empirical research, strong and positive relationships clearly power-up the learning environment. And when relationships mature over time, and are given the right conditions, we end up with teacher-student interactions that are enriched by forgiveness, integrity, trust, compassion, and hope. This is the foundation for education in its ideal form.
But there are times when this is not possible, when a genuine relationship with a child or a group of students is unable to be established. It may be that you have not had time to build trust yet. Or it may be that the students you are working with are in a difficult mental or social space that precludes them building a genuine relationship with another adult. Or maybe, for some reason, you just don’t ‘click’ with a certain student or group.
In situations like this, there is no rush. Relationships can wait. Maybe a relationship will never develop. And that’s okay. In fact, your students don’t actually need a strong relationship with you to learn effectively.
But they do need to feel connected and they do need to feel safe. Connection and safety are hardwired evolutionary necessities for complex learning.
As hard as we try, we can’t control relationships. But as educators, those two factors – connection and safety – are within our control. They require us to turn up for our students authentically, to listen to them, to see them, to value them.
Sometimes that is all we can do – and sometimes this is everything a child needs.
Teaching, at its best, is both incredibly uplifting and exhausting. The main cause of this uplift and exhaustion is relationships. Great teaching hinges on ‘real’, meaningful connection with students. But each teacher-student relationship, like all meaningful relationships, requires an ongoing investment of emotional and energetic capital.
One of the unique aspects of teaching is that it is, perhaps, the only profession that requires the sustaining of, typically, up to 20 or 30 real-time, simultaneous relationships for a significant proportion of a working day. When you walk into that classroom on Monday morning, there are 25 children looking at you and looking up to you. All of them are your responsibility. Each of them has a need to be directly engaged by you. And if you’re a quality educator, each of these children matter to you deeply.
And so to inspire and educate them, you give your heart and soul to each of these 25 children at the same time. And you do it all day, every day. It’s no wonder teaching is so tiring.
Jacob Kounin was an influential 1970s educational researcher and theorist who coined the term “withitness” (with-it-ness) to describe the ability of top teachers to know what was going on at all times in their classroom. Through remaining connected to each student, withitness enables a teacher to notice subtle signs of understanding or confusion, to respond personally to each student’s needs, and to make students feel almost as if the teacher has eyes in the back if their head. Withitness is still being researched and evaluated today and it might just be the key defining feature that distinguishes outstanding educators from the rest.
If you’re doing teaching well, there is no way to avoid this level of connectedness. Because great teaching is about great relationships, it will always be uplifting, exhausting, and wonderful.