Leveraging relationships

Relationships are critically important in classrooms and schools. Students must have strong positive relationships with each other and with the adults in the school. Relationships are the foundation of a successful school and classroom. Without healthy relationships learning cannot happen. Do these relationships between the adults and students have to be friendly? Not necessarily – but they do have to be mutually respectful.

That being said, the relationship must be positive for both sides. In the absence of a positive relationship, kids will hate going to class and can begin to associate that feeling with the content they are learning. Negative relationships can be a genuine barrier to learning. Taking it one step further, I think teenagers in particular need to perceive that they are not being treated as inferiors.

One of my greatest teacher skills is building strong, trusting relationships with my students. My students genuinely like me and enjoy being in my presence. They come to me on their own time to visit, to share successes, to seek advice or just to hang out. This is something I’ve always done naturally and done well.

So, here is my problem.

Though I naturally build positive relationships with my students, I sometimes struggle to leverage these into enhanced effort and focus.

Let me make it amply clear that I have no desire to manipulate my students. Far from it.

What I’m talking about is building upon the trusting, positive nature of the relationship to squeeze additional effort and focus from a student than they might otherwise give. I’m talking about the concept of the football coach whose players will “run through a wall for him” because they love, trust and respect him so much that his presence causes them to want to be a better version of themselves.

This is precisely my goal – to help students to become the best version of themselves that they can be.

I push myself daily to avoid asking my students to jump through hoops. I have no desire to leverage relationships into compliance. I want to leverage relationships to increased effort and focus. I want to leverage relationships into students being willing to try and fail and try again.

What I’m trying to wrap my brain around is how to maintain the type of relationships I have with my students while becoming more effective at pushing them do their best – or even better than their best.

When I’m able to do this with individual students, the transformation can be amazing. Some kids respond well to a well timed positive “pep talk” and take their learning to a higher level from that point forward. This takes too much time to be done effectively with a class of 30+ kids. I honestly think that if I had time to sit and talk with every kid a few times a week that they’d all be doing much better. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury.

9 thoughts on “Leveraging relationships

  1. Great post. Thanks. Alfie Kohn suggests that learners ( young/old/me/you/whoever) have an A, B, C of need: A= Autonomy: a strong say in how they operate ie. real choice. B = Belonging: a sense of being known for who they are). And C= Competency: the opportunity to be one highly proficient in things which are important to them. B sounds really strong in your practice and I’m sure A and C are too, but might still bear reflection.

    I’ m off to reflect on my B , provoked by your wise words here.

  2. Yossarian,

    I dig the Kohn reference and love his work.

    I think you’re on to something here. I’m constantly pushing myself to give the kids more autonomy. Unfortunately, this often leads to many being off task (some disastrously so). I have convinced myself that this is evidence that they are not used to being given autonomy in class and aren’t sure how to handle it.

    I think standards-based grading is helping my to hit the competency area. Kids get feedback on their level of understanding and have the opportunity to improve. I need to get better at giving this feedback, though. I struggle to find time to do it but when I am able to, the result is always good.

    The phrase that I immediately latched on to in your comment, though, was, “things which are important to them.”

    I’ve been teaching for seven years now and I still find it hard to make all science content which I am required to teach important to the kids.

    This is where I want to be able to leverage my relationship with them to basically say, “you can’t see how this is important right now but trust me, it is. I care about you and I wouldn’t make you learn this if it wasn’t important.”

    I do think that part of the answer is embedding more inquiry in how I attack the state standards.

  3. Interesting! And, again, so very relevant to all of us. Thanks!

    I wonder if co-construction might help. I saw a Science teacher with a class of 15 yr olds two months from an exam show them the content map of what they had to cover and then spend the 2 hours co-constructing the learning plan with them. The dialogue covered what questions they had, how they wanted to approach the different sections and how they wanted to assessments to work to help them check that they had understood everything in depth. It included the class saying to the teacher ” Teach those sections to us but make it high quality and don’t go on for more than 30 minutes; we want to research those bits by ourselves and create posters/ essays to show our learning; we want to write exam papers and answers in groups have other groups sit them and them mark them with feedback so that we can all test/ grow what we know.” Seen this with 13 Yr olds in an English class only. Now this is only a staging post in comparison to your impressive and ( and I think absolutely right) desire to evolve project-based learning, but it might be a staging post nevertheless. What is really interesting also is that it reinforces the relationships your post reflects on ( this is our classroom, not mine…) . Indeed, I wonder whether it forms a sub-species of Project-Based Learning (Content-Led as opposed to Product/Problem-Led or Learner-Led) in itself.

    And again, thanks for the provocations in your post. Appreciated! Got the grey matter going!

  4. Tyler, I totally struggle with this! I read so many posts and articles where 100% of kids are engaged and I feel like, “why can’t I do get that?” I don’t see how you can all kids to do everything we do all the time. That being said, I do want more effort and focus from some students who aren’t giving enough in my opinion.

    I am in your same boat, I get along very well with my kids. I too try to leverage that relationship to get the kids who don’t seem to want to work to get something done. Sometimes it works but mostly doesn’t. If kids aren’t interested in the Science we’re learning then I have nothing. I have kids who would rather do nothing, literally, than engage with the work. Should I force them? I’m beginning to wonder.

    I was in a training in the early 90’s with Lee Canter and what I took away from that training was the bank account theory. Canter equates working with kids as making deposits and withdrawals. Every time we make positive relationships with kids, listen to them, laugh with them, we are making deposits. With some kids the balance is usually in the black. When we need to redirect them, lecture, or ask them to do something they don’t want to do we are making withdrawals. Canter says that we can only make withdrawals when there’s money in the account. We run into problems when we try to make withdrawals, redirection, on kids with a negative balance.

    I find myself hating to use my relationship to get kids to do what they don’t want to do. We get along so well until I have to get them to work. But since I can’t just have them explore anything they want, or socialize, or play games all period I find myself trying to make withdrawals.

    Co-construction sounds like a good idea. I’ve offered some kids choice, that if they preferred to learn some other Science they just needed to make a proposal. Few ever do. I do have 8th graders choose what to study when we learn about plants. The goal is for teams to put together a Science Fair type presentation for the class. Some teams put on great presentations while others put something together last minute and it shows.

    I see this as a constantly changing phenomenon. Sometimes I make just the right withdrawal and sometimes I ask for too much and my withdrawal doesn’t go through.

  5. Yossarian,

    I would love to do more co-construction with my students. There is certainly something to be said for the value of that.

    In practice, I think co-construction is more effective in a humanities or English classroom. Why?

    I have done some co-construction in the past in the form of very open-ended projects. The big downfall that many of these projects encountered was the decided lack of relevant lab activities. Too often they became internet search projects with little genuine science included. If nothing else, the lead time needed to order lab materials was too great – or the budget was prohibitive.

    The way I am attempting to bridge this gap is to introduce my students to a phenomenon, system, or model organism with a “base” activity that provides some background knowledge. This “base” activity can be a lab, demonstration, or observation. The next step is to allow students to branch out from this common starting point with their own lines of inquiry. Finally, each group reports its results back to the class and we work together to make meaning of our findings. My role at this point is to facilitate the connection of the inquiry results to the relevant content.

    When I do this well, engagement is high. Unfortunately, my previous paragraph makes this all sound much easier than it really is – especially in biology.

  6. Al,

    Once again, we are on the same page.

    This struggle especially seems to come into play when the task that I am asking the students to do requires significant critical thinking. Unless I am there with their group, urging them forward with questions, cues, hints, reminders, little progress gets made. Obviously this isn’t true of all groups. The sad reality, though, is that the groups that are quietly on task get little of my attention because I’m so busy trying to keep the others moving forward.

    I have heard of the “bank account” concept of relationships and think it is truly relevant. This is where it becomes important for us to pick our battles in the classroom, huh?

    The fascinating thing about this is that there is no one answer to the question. What works one day may not work the next. What works with one group of students may not work with the next.

    The relationship aspect of teaching is remarkably underrated in teacher training. It is almost completely ignored in the national conversation about ed reform.

  7. Tyler,

    I totally agree with what you said about co-construction in the sciences. I’ve run into that same problem. I love your idea of starting with a model, lab, or demo and have students branch out from there. I think I’ll try that when we do plant experiments and research.

    I also hear you about the struggle when we ask our students to think critically. The more I think about it the more I want to lean towards keeping the relationship intact at the expense of having them learn or do more Science. Here’s my thinking, if I blow the relationship by forcing or coercing or cajoling or calling in favors then the student(s) may do more Science, hey they may even learn more Science. But was it worth it? Wouldn’t I rather have them seek me out later as a Science resource if they need it? How many of our students who just aren’t interested in Science are actually going to need to know what we’re teaching? Sure they need to be scientifically literate but it can’t come before its time. Meaning that if the kid isn’t ready to learn the Science he or she won’t. When it becomes relevant then that kid will learn.

    On the other hand I can’t just sit by and let kids play games, socialize or otherwise disengage in class. Yet they do. I guess I have to work on gently prodding because sometimes I am not so gentle. I get frustrated when my gentle prodding doesn’t work. And I don’t the on task kids to get the idea that they can get off task too. This is complicated. I just think for my sake, their sake, for our relationship I should lay off a bit.

  8. I just had a parent/teacher conference about a student who isn’t doing much work in my 6th grade Science class. The kid is going through a rough time and thank goodness I was explaining to the mother that I have been giving the kid the space to either do or not do. Sure, he’s choosing to not do but we both agreed that even if I started trying to get him to do, or even worse start punishing him to make him work, it wouldn’t do any good. He’s not in a space to do Science work. Is he learning Science? I can easily bet that, yes, he’s learning some Science. Enough to pass a standardized test? Probably not. Enough to get a job in a Science-related field? Maybe, maybe not. Enough to take more high school or even college Science courses? No, probably not. But he’s getting what he needs AND we are getting along quite well.

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