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.
I travelled from Melbourne to Hong Kong today. The trip was fine. I got to the airport, scanned my boarding pass, got on the plane, arrived, collected my luggage, showed my passport and checked into the hotel.
And now, as I think back across my day, it’s impossible to even begin to count the number of people who enabled me to do what I did. Everyone from the taxi driver to the customs officials to the luggage handlers to the people who designed the tyres for the plane.
It might be one of society’s most interesting paradoxes – that we continue to exalt, celebrate and glorify independence – whilst becoming increasingly dependent on others for our independence.
However, when I got off the plane at Hong Kong, there was a mother travelling with three young children. As they exited the plane, each with their own little suitcase on wheels, all three children smiled and thanked the flight attendant for looking after them. And in that little moment, the paradox subsided. It might be, that in mindful gratitude, an interdependent-independence can exist.
Students learn best when they feel connected to their teacher. And connection involves feeling seen, heard, and valued.
There is nothing more important to do in the first moments of a lesson than seeing each student, hearing each student and directly acknowledging their worth.
It doesn’t take much time or effort to look each student in the eye, greet them warmly by name, and check in with them.
Whatever else is planned for the lesson comes second.
When you turn on the shower and the water takes a minute to warm up before you can get in, that is a total waste of energy and resources.
When you a walk into a classroom and take a few minutes to warm up your students by greeting them enthusiastically or checking how they are feeling or sharing a short story or laugh, that is not at all a waste of energy and resources. In fact, this type of direct investment in relationships and connection at the start of a lesson is common amongst almost all of the great teachers we see.
Great teachers choose to spend this precious time engaging in this way with their students because they realise that the return on investment, in terms or relational and learning outcomes, far outweighs the few minutes initially spent. The best educators literally care first and teach second.
You can have a cold shower, but you can’t teach cold kids.
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.
Human memory is such an incredible tool. It is an effectively unlimited repository that not only stores procedures and instructions that enable us to walk, ride a bike and play the piano but it records a summarised version of each episode in our life. Ultimately, these collective, memorised episodes shape who we are and guide our decisions through life.
But we also regularly experience the limitations of our memory. Can you recall what you were doing this time last week, last month, last year? Do you remember all the details of the last phone conversation you had with a friend. Have you ever forgotten where you left your wallet, keys or car?
When we look back on our life, why is it that some experiences remain vivid and distinct yet others have faded completely? What is it that distinguishes those unforgettable moments?
In researching these extraordinary moments, brothers Chip and Dan Heath, from Stanford and Duke Universities respectively, noticed that, across different people, positive defining moments commonly shared four elements:
- Elevation – feeling intense positive emotion and a deep sense of engagement;
- Insight – experiences of profound realisation, and ‘aha’ moments;
- Pride – feeling that we have contributed to something worthwhile, being acknowledged by others for our work;
- Connection – feeling a powerful bond with others due to a common experience or shared struggle or goal.
Are these elements present in your most vivid positive memories?
These features sometimes occur incidentally or serendipitously but they can also be cultivated. Next time you really want to create an unforgettable experience for yourself, someone else, or a group of people, check to make sure there is opportunity for elevation, insight, pride and connection.
Gratitude is a beautiful concept and one of our most frequently experienced positive emotions. When felt and acknowledged, it has a powerful effect on relationships and on our behaviour. And, because humans are unable to experience two opposite emotions at the same time, it cancels out resentment.
Dr Kerry Howells, from the University of Tasmania, defines gratitude as “the act of acknowledging what we receive from others and being motivated to give back out of this acknowledgement“. In other words, we feel appreciation for a gift, and we feel compelled to act on that appreciation in some way.
It is the second part of Howells’ definition that is the key behavioural component of true gratitude. This compulsion to act fuels a virtuous upward spiral that can significantly amplify the positive impact of the initial kind act or gift. It is this amplification effect that makes gratitude immensely powerful and makes it qualitatively different from simple appreciation. And because gratitude focusses our attention on the gifts we receive from others, it reinforces our sense of interconnection with our community and energises us to connect even further.
As educators, our work is immensely challenging and stressful. Things go wrong and we can always find something or someone to complain about. And, as educators, we have the most wonderful job in the world; shepherding and inspiring the lives of children. Things go right so often and we have so much to be grateful for.
It doesn’t always feel like it, but gratitude is a choice. And the choice we make affects our behaviour, our relationships and our students.