Deprioritizing relationship building

In listening to colleagues tell it this year, I’m getting vibes that people are overwhelmed. Students have skill gaps because of remote learning, we’re all rediscovering school again, and the copy machine is always breaking down. Many teachers are feeling the strain.

What’s really interesting to me is how this plays out in the classroom. What I’m finding is colleagues who are struggling to do the one thing they said was their biggest takeaway from remote learning: foster relationships with students. They’re unable to nurture strong relationships with students because there’s no time. They’re too busy reteaching lessons that went poorly or encouraging students to show up for tutoring. We left last year believing that bonding with students, listening to them, and earning their trust was of chief importance, but now we’re up to our neck in content. We want to do it all, but the kids are behind. Something has to give.

What I find deeply troubling here is the idea that relationships are an aspect of teaching that can be skimmed off the top when things get hard. That without them teaching and learning can still occur in meaningful ways. When this happens — when we deprioritize relationship building — I think we lose a key ingredient of what makes for quality teaching. Though they are often unobservable and hard to measure, student-teacher relationships are not fat that should be trimmed in order to make our teaching lean and more fit. For me, they are what makes teaching teaching. They are essential.

Students may be struggling to meet content standards right now, but that doesn’t mean I can sacrifice getting to know them and opening non-academic lines of communication. I can’t look past who they are in favor of seeing my content in greater clarity. This only hurts my cause of helping my students use mathematics as a vehicle for personal growth. During these challenging times, it’s critical that I fight the urge to hustle my students along to a higher test score. My relationship-centered pedagogy and routines must remain firmly intact. In the end, by moving them to the fore, this will not only fortify my teaching, but also nourish me and serve as an antidote for the stress I’m under this year. Exercising compassion is cathartic. It’s a win-win.


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