The more I think about education and learning, the more I see relationships as the key to what really matters. If I think about all the movies I have seen about “great teaching,” both fictional and those “based on a true story,” while the actually teaching going on in them varies enormously, what they all have in common is a teacher that builds caring strong relationships with their pupils, from “To Sir with Love” “Up the Down Staircase” of the 60s, to more recent movies such as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dangerous Minds.” But of course that portrayal could just be the license of the writers and directors.
But I would say I have found the same in my experience as a teacher. I worked with teachers with many different pedagogical approaches. If you have read my previous columns, you will see it is clear I have strong beliefs abut which are more effective. However, the most consistent thing that I noticed of teachers that appeared to me as more effective was that those teachers all had strong relationships with their students. The students knew their teacher expected them to learn, and was there to help them succeed in doing so.
It was really much for this reason that I decided to become an elementary rather than high school teacher. I did not see it as possible to really build those relationships if every hour I had a new group of students. With elementary school kids I had the same ones all day long. (It is also a reason I have never liked “regrouping” with other teachers—I never saw the trade off as worth the loss in knowing my students fully).
One anecdote. At one place I taught, we were using the Reading Recovery program for our struggling first grade readers. Reading Recovery is a strongly researched based program giving intensive support to the lowest readers in first grade, based on some of the best research of learning to read, with a strong research record of its own, and all the practitioners of it have to be credentialed teachers who have gone through an intensive training in the model. However, as a second grade teacher, my struggling readers did not qualify. So instead we used instructional assistants, who had a rudimentary training in more traditional phonics approaches to work with them. I would argue that second graders who are still struggling with reading are probably actually more difficult candidates, as they have a longer history of failure to overcome.
Yet, in the decidedly non-random and small sample that this consisted of, my instructional assistant succeeded with every one she worked with to at least getting them to the point of breaking the code in learning to read. The same cannot be said of the Reading Recovery program that had about a two-thirds success rate with our students. I attribute it to the strong relationship she built with each of them—letting them know that she believed they each would and could learn to read.
This, maybe, is what worries me most about many of today’s’ educational reforms. They make those relationships more difficult. Scripted curriculum, larger classes and school consolidation. use of technology for instruction, and worst of all, the tactics of fear—trying to scare teachers and students into doing a better job. Each of these, in a different way, makes it slightly more difficult for teacher and students to develop strong relationships.
I am about to embark on teaching an all on-line teacher education course. I will see to what degree this mode allows for and interferes with such relationships.