Relationships are based on shared experience and knowledge of others. Strong relationships (good or bad) are so because we know a lot about each other.
So, just a question worth pondering occasionally:
How much do my students and colleagues know about me? Too much? Too little? Or just the right amount?
As we mature as an educator, we become better at understanding the lived experience of our students. We start to see patterns and we become more nuanced in our ability to predict and pre-empt. We practise and refine our empathic response and we gain perspective.
Perspective empowers us to see the world through a different lens – through the eyes of our students.
Except, it doesn’t, actually.
When artists first started utilising linear perspective in their paintings in the 15th century, they did so to create an illusion of distance and depth. Perspective in art is a trick of the mind – enabling us to ‘see’ three dimensions on a flat surface.
And when we ‘see’ the world through the eyes of our students, this too is an illusion – a trick of the mind. Whilst we can, and should, try as hard as we can to understand the lives of our students, we are constrained by biological and physical realities. We can never really know what it is like inside their worlds.
However, when we accept this paradox – being obliged to strive for something we can never achieve: true perspective – we invite an enhanced level of respect for the individuality of each of our students and remain more present to their reality.
Each student sees their world through the lens of their unique life journey – their unique perspective. But whilst we can never truly ‘take’ their perspective, and they can never truly ‘share’ it, in classrooms characterised by safety, respect, trust and individualised connection, we can come pretty close. Close enough, that we no longer need tricks of the mind.
We are hardwired social beings. As such, our lives are enmeshed with the lives of the people around us. Our fate is only partly in our own hands. Our inner social circle affects not just the trajectory of our lives but the way with live it and who we are in it.
One of the great 19th century American education reformers, Elizabeth Peabody, once wrote in a letter that:
“No being of a social nature can be entirely beyond the tendency to fall to the level of his associates.”
And so, perhaps we do become the average of the people with whom we most associate.
Look around you. In spaces and lounges in which educators gather in our schools, we see the temptation to cling to people who see the world the same way that we do, or who applaud the same things, or who reflect and amplify a shared sense of injustice. And that’s fine. Or maybe it’s not. It all depends on how you are intending to ‘turn up’ every day and who you hope to become.
The children we teach are young – new to the world. But they have brains that are running two-million-year-old software.
Long before we had written or even spoken language, our ancestors relied on emotional interaction, eye contact, posture, facial expression, and body language to communicate and to catalyse and sustain our connection to our tribe.
These days, we have written and spoken language to help shape our students’ learning and their educational environment. But our students’ sense of safety, connection, and their emotional, physical and neurological state remain heavily affected by our ancient programming that instinctively scans more primeval forms of communication.
We should be careful, planned and deliberate with our words. They matter.
And so do all the many other forms of communication at our disposal.
From the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, you get an unforgettable view of New York City. At this height, you gain a perspective that is impossible to imagine at ground level. The overall layout of the city is revealed with design features such as the Manhattan road grid coming into clear view. It is both breathtaking and educational. It helps reconfigure your mental map of the city.
But you can no longer see what’s happening at ground level.
You can guess, you can make assumptions – because you’ve been down there. But you can no longer actually see what it’s really like.
This is, often, the cost of perspective. As we get older or more experienced or move up in the hierarchy, it’s easy to forget or to lose sight of what it’s really like ‘down there’.
As we mature as educators, we undoubtedly gain perspective. But with each passing year, we move further away from the tangible experience of childhood and adolescence. And this is why the only choice we have is to partner with students to codesign the educational experience.
Otherwise, we can easily end up with a lovely view that is divorced from the needs and reality of student life ‘down there’.
It doesn’t particularly matter which piece of psychological research you read, in regards to relationships, there are two very consistent themes emerging. First, the quality of our relationships has a huge impact on our wellbeing. Second, positive relationships are the result of many accumulated micro-moments of positive interaction that occur over time.
These micro-moments contribute to what University of Washington relationship researcher, John Gottman, calls an emotional bank account. It is a foundational resource when things are going well and a protective investment to draw upon in more difficult times. When a stockpile of positive experience exists in a relationship, we are much more willing to make allowances in disagreements or when we feel wronged.
And that’s why, whenever there is an opportunity to acknowledge even the smallest positive interaction, it is so important, as Gottman writes, that we ‘turn towards’ it – not just to savour the experience but to bank it for later.
“Drop by drop is the water pot filled.” Buddha.
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.