Most teachers I am connected with on social media know the value of relationships and community in education. That’s part of why they’re on social media in the first place: they know the benefits of finding ways to connect with others. Every time I would say something about relationships and community, I would get hundreds of likes on Facebook and Twitter. Rarely would there be any negative reaction or pushback.
It makes me wonder if this is just a strawman argument. Do we really need to talk up the value of relationships and community in education, or does everyone pretty much get it already?
Then I would sit down and have some in-person conversations. You remember the type. The ones that go beyond 140 characters? And sometimes happen over shared food and beverage consumption experiences? In these conversations, I would hear stories of teachers who don’t think they should get to know their students. I would hear of principals who don’t allow their teachers to take a day off the scripted curriculum to do community-building activities. I would hear from parents who are pretty sure none of their child’s teachers know their child’s name. I would hear from students who feel so lost at school because they feel there’s nobody there who cares about them.
[Sometimes, those students are my own students, and it makes me pause and reflect quite intensely]
I am reminded that this is not just a battle worth fighting, but it is, in fact, a battle that exists.
So: how do we fight it? What are our defenses? What are our weapons?
[Note: I’m going to stop the battle metaphor here; I don’t think it’s appropriate for a post about education]
Here are some things I’ve found that we as teachers can do to support ourselves, our colleagues, and — most importantly — our students, in the conversation about relationships and community.
1. Have Conversations
It really is a conversation, not a battle (sorry, those of you who really wanted that battle metaphor to continue). If you want to effect change, you need to begin with a relationship. It’s really just putting into practice the very idea! If relationships help students learn, then they will also help others learn.
Let’s say the goal is for your colleagues to be more open-minded about and maybe even agree with you about the role of relationships and community in education. You could:
- give them a pile of research that they will probably not read
- tell them they’re wrong and have them shut down every idea you ever give them
- drop subtle hints about how your students enjoy that you get to know them and seem to perform better because of it and have that colleague feel awkwardly passive-aggressively attacked, or
- have a conversation with that colleague.
Which sounds more likely to help you achieve your goals?
The benefit here is that the conversation doesn’t even have to be about the topic at hand! What’s important is that you have a staff that feels comfortable talking with each other. If you can’t even talk about last night’s game or political trends or how excited you are for the weekend, how would you ever be able to talk about topics of disagreement in the education world?
2. Read the Research
Of course, at some point, you are going to go beyond water-cooler talk and get to the important issues of the profession. But it’s tough to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you if you don’t have support for what you’re talking about. Imagine: you have a colleague who is open to talking with you and wants to hear what you have to say — but then you have nothing to back up your arguments! We wouldn’t accept that from our students, and we shouldn’t accept that from each other.
I should start this section by saying I’m not an expert. My master’s degree is in educational technology, and most of my pedagogical research has been in mathematics and literacy. But there are a couple pieces of research on relationships I have found important:
- “Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning” by Sara Rimm-Kaufman, PhD, and Lia Sandilos, PhD, University of Virginia in 2011. Information on their research can be found here: http://www.apa.org/education/k12/relationships.aspx
- “The Intervention is a Relationship” by Kent Pekel, Ed.D, and Peter C. Scales, Ph.D. Information can be found here: http://www.search-institute.org/blog/intervention-is-a-relationship
It’s more than just the research on relationships, though. If relationships are so important, information should be everywhere, right? Well, it turns out that is. So it’s also important that we…
3. Read Other Research with a Relationship Lens
Most things we will be reading for our professional lives will not be directly about relationships. Between reading books our students will be reading, content area pedagogical texts, and other things that are just for us, it’s hard to get a lot in. I know.
But when you’re reading those other pieces of research and pedagogy, look for the relationship piece. I have been, and I’ve been shocked how much it comes up (well, shocked and not shocked — it IS important, after all!).
I have found lots of good sound bytes and anecdotal evidence about the importance of relationships while reading Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Dave Burgess, and George Couros, to name a few. In fact, it seems like more often than not, I’m finding intelligent human beings noting the importance of relationships, whether or not this is the explicit focus of their writing. I read a brain-based learning book last year, and even it had plenty to say about relationships! It’s all around us if we are looking for it.
So look for it.
4. Formally Share Your Findings with Your Colleagues
This, to me, is the big one. If we want to help others realize what we are discovering about the role of relationships and community, we need to put it out there. The informal conversations are vital. There’s a reason I listed them first. But formal presentations probably pack the most punch.
So where to begin? Start with those around you. Does the person in charge of PD for your building have teachers lead internal PD? Sign up. If not: ask if you can do one anyway. It might be a welcome change to the PD culture at the school.
State-level conferences are also great for this. I have been fortunate enough to present on this twice in Michigan at state-level literacy conferences. It was very easy to submit a proposal and they were low-pressure presentations. That said, the first time I presented, there were only 4 people in the room, including me! But the 4 of us got a lot out of it.
You could also start a blog. Or, if you don’t think you have enough for a full blog, but have maybe an idea or two that you’d like to share, get a hold of us here at Classroom Communities to see if we would be open to hosting you. [Spoiler alert: we totally would be]
Which brings me to…
5. Follow, Read, and Share this Blog
We are going to be updating this blog with stories, research, strategies, and questions all focused on the role relationships and community play in education. Keep an eye out for particular posts that will be helpful to you in your own classroom, but also might be good to share to a colleague. Just remember: build that relationship with your colleague first, and then share the link. Because as James Comer said: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”