Relationship: ‘relation’ = connection and ‘ship’ = ‘in a state of’.
The mantra of ‘Relationships, relationships, relationships’ is often heard in Northern Territory Schools and particularly in Orientation sessions for teachers joining our ranks. We know that relationships are important, but what this looks like in practice is rarely discussed in detail. As I turn my thoughts to setting our school up for success in 2019, it occurs to me that an examination of the role of relationship in the teaching and learning process is critical.
As teachers wishing to make a profound difference in the life of a child (after all, we work in one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country), we are instinctively drawn to build relationships. However, there are times when our idea of relationship tests the boundaries of our role as educators. When working with at-risk students we can easily fall into the role of social worker, psychologist, parent, friend, provider and well-meaning rescuer. The problem with assuming all of these roles simultaneously is that our primary job of educator will always fall to the bottom of the list when these other functions compete for our time and energy. This imbalance of focus often sees us making excuses for unacceptable behaviour and turning a blind eye to children who leave the school year with the same level of skill and knowledge that they entered it.
When we have high expectations of student behaviour, our message is, “I believe in your capability”. When we insist on neat bookwork and silent work times in our classrooms, our message is “Our learning is important”. When our classrooms are organised, orderly places of learning (yes, with desks assigned to children and placed in rows), our message is, “We mean business and I want you to know what you can expect here”. When we talk with our students about their learning goals and review these goals regularly, we communicate that academic growth is central to what we do in school. When we call family in to discuss a child’s behaviour, growth, difficulties or successes, the children know that we respect their connections with community and their homes.
Children need to know that we are on their side. Like all human beings, they want to feel positive and unconditional regard from people they respect. They also want to be given boundaries, rules, discipline and high expectations. It is often said that learning will not happen without relationships, and that is true. However, we do not need to wait for the relationship to be present before we commence teaching and learning. Building and recognising success in learning is an extremely strong mechanism for building relationship with others. The success becomes the common goal. The support you provide to the student to achieve that goal becomes the connection. The child knows you are with them. They feel supported and important. ‘People who feel good about themselves, produce good results’ feels warm and fuzzy. When we add ‘people who produce good results feel good about themselves’ we get to the heart of our job as teachers.
The focus on teaching and learning also helps us to connect with students who challenge us. It is a universal truth, that we will not connect with every student automatically in the same way. The truth is that some children are easier to ‘like’. They listen. They use manners. They do not hurt or tease others. They sit still. They can learn easily. It is easy to teach these students. Anyone can do it. The real mark of our success is how we build connection and success with and for those students who require the extra effort. Those who are the most vulnerable, for whatever reason.
As we move towards a new school year, the question is what kind of relationships do our students need us to build with them? In short, they need us to be their teachers. They need us to have high expectations for every single member of the class, support them and hold them accountable. They need us to have a firm grasp on curriculum and know how to help them achieve success. Of course, there are times when they need us to provide a quiet place to have a sleep, to give them comfort, tell them they are special or take steps to keep them safe outside of school. Our primary role as educators does not mean we forget our humanity. And when the student wakes up, returns to school or dries their eyes, the question they need us to focus on is, “What are we learning next?”