Teaching is all about relationships

Over the past several months I’ve asked some of my colleagues about what they’ve learned from their time spent engaged in remote learning. It was a steep learning curve, but I was curious, what takeaways did they have? What did they learn about themselves? Their teaching? I wanted to use what they said to help learn about myself.

A lot of people I spoke to mentioned their newfound fluency with tech tools like Padlet or Desmos Activity Builder. From content to assessment to organization, these tools changed their pedagogy in major ways. This made sense. Besides, technology was everything for us teaching when it came to reaching our students.

With that said, most of the people I talked to didn’t mention technology as their biggest takeaway from remote teaching. It wasn’t the tech that they would be carrying with them back to the classroom in-person learning resumed. Instead, they highlighted the relationships they learned to foster with students.

Over and over, the need to cultivate positive, authentic relationships with students was what my colleagues rambled on and on about. They talked about how remote teaching revealed to them the importance of connecting with students as people in order to help them learn. This meant prioritizing things like compassion and getting to know students in ways that they had not done in the past.

Implicit in all of my discussions was a glaring dichotomy between content and relationships. In other words, in a classroom, there are issues content and issues of relationship building. They are interdependent, but evolve separately. And for most of my colleagues, after remote learning, there was a need to better balance these two aspects of their teaching.

As a relationship-heavy teacher, I bought into what they were saying. But the more people I spoke to, the closer I got to my own grand revelation.

After hearing so many people profess the necessity of relationships, I realized that the perceived dichotomy of content and relationships is not really what’s going on. At least not for me. t’s not that we have to strive for the perfect balance of content and relationships in the classroom. Instead, teaching is relationships. What I mean is that teaching is, by its very nature, all about caring for and attending to relationships.

It centers itself on the obvious relationship I have with my students, yes, but it’s also about the myriad other relationships that exist inside and outside the classroom. And it is how I help nurture these relationships that defines my role as an educator. Here are some of the relationships that come to mind.

  • There is my students’ relationship with the content and instruction. How well do they understand the mathematics? To what extent can they use it? How do they feel about it? What’s their history with it? How do I measure all this? How much input do my students have with what happens in class? How are their voices reflected in classroom decisions?
  • There is my students’ relationships with one another. How well do they work together? Are students’ learning from each other? How do they view other students in our class? What’s the classroom culture like?
  • There is my students’ relationship to the classroom itself. Whether it is a physical or virtual space, do they like it? Is it welcoming? Does it represent them? How does it help them learn? Is it equitable?
  • There is my relationship with the content and instruction. How well do I really know the mathematics I’m charged to teach? How much am I pushing myself to help my students experience it in different ways and through different representations? How is technology showing up? Am I settling or uncovering new ways to stretch myself and my pedagogy? Is my pedagogy getting proximate to my students, distancing itself from them, or meandering somewhere in the middle?
  • There are the relationships I have with my colleagues, which Includes administrators. How do out myself in position to collaborate with them? Is our collaboration mutually beneficial? How much are we learning from each other? Have I even put the right people around me?
  • There are the relationships I have with parents and guardians. How am I including them in their child’s learning experiences? Am I only doing outreach when there’s something that needs to be improved? What am I doing to better understand and get to know my students’ parents or guardians?
  • There is the relationship I have with myself. Have I discovered and interrogated my own teacher identity? How does it show in my classroom? Am I modeling authenticity for my students?

To frame teaching as a collection of relationships that I champion and help nurture is more than just theoretical fun. I think it’s a perspective that comes with implications for how I plan, move, and reflect. On a basic level, by viewing teaching as a kaleidoscope of interconnected relationships, I can honor the inherent complexity that comes with teaching. Relationships are hard. They take concerted effort to work. I also feel that it can help to humanize my craft and the many decisions that I make as a teacher because, well, relationships are fundamental to being human. From planning to content to students to pedagogy to setting up our space for learning to professional collaboration, all these relationships remind me that things like respect, trust, communication, joy, acceptance, and encouragement must permeate my teaching from start to finish. Nothing can be more important.

I used to think that good teaching was a healthy mix of pedagogy, content, and student relationships. I see things differently now. Relationships are everything.


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