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.
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.