Student-Teacher Relationships Are Everything
I can't overstate this point. In the classroom, relationships are everything.
I learned this early in my teaching career when I was fortunate enough to return to my alma mater to student teach at Auburn High School, in Rockford, Illinois. It was a special feeling, walking the halls and teaching in many of the same rooms where I'd sat as a student. Once a day I would teach in Mr. Brian Ott's room. Ott was, and still is, the head boys' basketball coach and a consummate teacher and mentor to his players. In short, they loved him. During student teaching, Ott would usually leave me to my own devices, but one day he decided stick around to watch. After I finished and the room cleared, I asked, "So, what did you think?"
He said, "Well, the kids like you. Now, you just have to learn how to teach!"
I looked puzzled, not knowing whether to take it as a compliment or critique. He responded quickly by reassuring me. "That's a good thing," he said. "They know you care. Once they know that, you can teach them anything." I have carried Ott's "order of operations" with me for the rest of my career.
The relational part of teaching may very well be its most underrated aspect. It simply does not get the respect it deserves. Teachers don't respect relationship-building as an important part of their praxis. When teachers are good at building relationships with students, the skill is seen more as cover for a lack of content knowledge or wherewithal to instruct with rigor.
I see it differently. I've learned what Mr. Ott knew so well: when students enter a classroom with so many different base-level needs, a certain foundation has to be laid before true learning can take place.
Most beginning teachers are well-schooled on Benjamin Bloom. We've memorized, discussed and written about all of the stages of his taxonomy of the cognitive domain, from Remembering to Creating. In classrooms of our own, we continually push our students to the highest rungs of this cognitive ladder. What we often neglect, however, is that students have needs that transcend academics that must be met for learning to happen. These needs aren't in the standards or curriculum.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow knew this. He theorized that there is a hierarchy of needs that humans constantly strive to meet. Our most basic needs begin with the physiological—food, water, rest, safety. Only when these are met can we concern ourselves with higher needs like social skills, education, esteem and self-actualization.
Our first job as teachers is to make sure that we learn our students, that we connect with them on a real level, showing respect for their culture and affirming their worthiness to receive the best education possible. This foundational relationship has allowed me to stretch, embrace and provoke, when necessary, to help my students reach self-actualization. Their learning and high achievement were just the fruits of this labor. But the truth is before the seed is planted, the ground must first be prepared.
In the classroom, Maslow ALWAYS comes before Bloom. If a student is hungry or doesn't feel safe in school, this will negatively impact their learning. It's hard for young people who don't feel loved or confident in their abilities to truly do their best.
In a time where poverty is rampant, bigotry is widespread and xenophobia has reached a fever pitch, our students may not come hard-wired to perform well. As teachers, it would behoove us to consider the fact that these basic needs don't disappear at the school building's threshold. The stuff that impacts society finds its way in our classrooms. Our students bring it with them. To charge ahead believing we'll just deliver content and neglect the whole-child is a dereliction of duty. Sure, teachers can't be all things to everyone. We know this. But even for the best instructors, it's like Mr. Ott told me. Maslow comes before Bloom.
James Ford is the 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He currently is the Program Director for the Public School Forum of North Carolina and the Principal at Filling the Gap Educational Consultants, LLC.