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.


The 1363 and Me Podcast

This time a year ago I had a crazy idea. Facing what was sure to be an unforgettable and stressful year, it was an idea that would help build community at my school. It would serve to document the school year in a unique way while at the same time helping everyone get to know members of our staff better. In short, it was a way to help us survive.

What was the idea? A staff podcast.

My vision was to have informal conversations with staff members from my school, hit record, and publish the result. The tone of the conversations would be similar to what would take place if we hadn’t seen one another in a while and then bumped into each other after school. Besides, we probably weren’t going to see much of each other anyway, so this made sense. I wanted the talks to be casual with the possibility of getting deep. Chill. Centered around anecdotes and stories. We would reminiscence, laugh, talk social justice, reflect on the pandemic, and welcome whatever else found its way into our talks. I had no problem hosting the podcast myself, but didn’t want to do it alone. I would need to find a co-host.

Ideally, I wanted each episode to feature a different staff member. Our talk would spotlight the guest and their personal narrative. Questions and talking points for the guest would be prepped beforehand by my co-host and I. The guests couldn’t be just teachers, either. The voices of office staff, aides, the custodial team, paraprofessionals, cooks, and school safety had to be included on the podcast. Just like teachers, all of these folks have stories that contribute greatly to our school community, but often get overlooked.

Outside chronicling the school year, a driving force for pursuing the podcast was encouraging staff to be more authentic and share who they are. By being on they would be doing just that. Authenticity can be contagious and I hoped students who listened would be more inclined to be their authentic selves in the classroom because we they would see (and hear) us doing the same thing. The podcast would be public, but remain localized in nature because it would only focus on our school. All stakeholders — including students, parents, perspective parents, donors, colleagues, anyone — would be able to listen and learn about the adults at our school.

I wanted the structure of each episode to be undemanding dialogue. Nothing more, nothing less. No high-end editing, no fancy music, no heavy prep. Very low maintenance. We would sit, hit record, and talk. That’s it. I got the idea from listening to the Three Educated Brothas and 8 Black Hands podcasts. Both are well planned, but informal, seemingly unrehearsed, and largely unedited (at least I think so). As such, I find their humanity to be on full display and wanted the staff podcast to echo this. I preparation for it, last September I even wrote a blogpost about Three Educated Brothas and how it inspired me.

So that was the idea. All I needed to do was to find a co-host. Luckily, my school is overflowing with motivated folks of all kinds. I impulsively pitched it to a teacher who I talk to often, Nikhil Krishna. I figured he might be interested. He got back to me quickly: he was down.

I shared my vision with Krishna. He piled his ideas on top of mine and we were excited to start digging in. For the sake of our own sanity, we figured that we would drop bi-weekly episodes. After some creative back-and-forth texting, the name of the podcast appeared to us in bright lights: 1363 and Me. It’s a play off the address of our school, which is in The Bronx. We hastily found a podcast hosting service and made a logo. 1363 and Me was official. We were on our way.

What transpired next was 24 spirited episodes filled with reflection, fun, and togetherness. We started off slow, lacking confidence (and decent audio) and wrapped things up last month on the final episode comforted by what we created for our school.

The vision we had from jump never changed. We had one guest as the centerpiece of each episode; we asked questions and went wherever the wind took us. That said, throughout the year we did experiment with different segments to liven up our conversations. For example, our “Eating and Reading” segment was one where we asked our guest to talk about a meal they ate and something they read recently. We also added a clever “Student Mailbag” segment late in the year where we would ask the guest questions that came directly from our students. Each episode concluded with the voice of the guest speaking to the relationship they have with our school.

In the end, Krishna and I agreed that our guests, all of whom volunteered their time to be on with us, utterly made the podcast. If what we did resonated in our listeners’ ears in any way, it was solely because of them. Krishna and I tried our best to vary who we had on and included teachers from every department, office staff, custodial staff, kitchen staff, aides, and even alumni. Representation mattered. For what it’s worth, they all made us look good. Their lived-experiences and stories buoyed us all year and gave life to what the podcast hoped to achieve. They talked about their childhoods and their passions. They expressed hopes. They opened up about vulnerabilities.

A lot happened last year. From schools closing to crazy elections to a global pandemic to a vaccine to schools reopening to our principal resigning. Through it all, our guests — our colleagues — showed up for our school community by way of their presence on 1363 and Me. With everything that happened, their voices were needed more than ever. Krishna and I are indebted to them all.

I entered this unusual project thinking that it would be yearlong endeavor. Though we are tempted to keep it going, seeing opportunity to keep broadcasting the stories of our staff, Krishna and I have decided — at least for now — that we will honor our yearlong commitment and step away. The podcast has run its course. It served its purpose. The episodes will stay up for anyone who wants to listen. If not for anything else, we hope the podcast helps us remember some of who and what we were last year. It was quite an adventure.

Here’s the link to the podcast: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1325935


Thinking intentionally about compassion

I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion over the last seven months. It started waaaaaaay back in December 2020 when a colleague emailed me an episode of the Freakonomics podcast. He listened to it and thought that I’d enjoy it. The episode was called How to cure a compassion crisis? and featured two physicians, Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, who talked about their extensive research on the science behind compassion in the field of medicine. It was utterly fascinating mainly because it affirmed the value of my own awkward, emotional dispositions — especially as they relate to teaching. Five other teachers at my school had similar feelings. The podcast struck a chord with us. In January, smack in the middle of remote learning, we decided to do something about it. We wanted to do some informal research and grassroots professional learning.

We were curious to see how compassion was showing up (or not showing up) in our teaching. What were our students’ perceptions of compassion based on their interactions with us? We figured if we could identify specific things we were doing to make our students feel cared for, then we could be more aware of these things and do them more. Trzeciak and Mazzarelli make the point that compassion, which is in simplest terms can be defined as empathy plus action, can be learned and improved and this is exactly what we set our targets on. Besides, according to the research, compassion is not only beneficial for the receivers of it, but also for those who dispense it. It was a win-win.

We decided to adapt the survey mentioned by Trzeciak and Mazzarelli in podcast that helps to measure compassion, the CARE measure, and give it to our students a few times in the spring. We met after each administration of the survey to analyze the data. I also read Trzeciak and Mazzarelli’s book, Compassionomics, which details their research on compassion, and brought that to our debriefs.

What did we learn? Glad you asked!

  • Compassion looks different for different people. There were some acts of caring that I did, like virtual handshakes, that other teachers would never go for. The same goes for me. I think many of us thought there was a magic script we could follow to show compassion towards students. It didn’t work that way for us (or maybe we just failed to synthesize our results, which is probably more likely). We found that much of what we did was unique to the person doing it and the context of our relationships.
  • Authenticity is everything. Because of the multitude of ways students’ felt our compassion, we accepted that teacher authenticity was paramount. In other words, however compassion decided to show up for us in our teaching, what mattered most was that we were being real. In this way, being genuine was itself a form of compassion. Students can easily sniff out our inauthentic attempts to reach them, so we felt it was best to let our compassion grow from within the confines of who we are.
  • Compassion can exist on an institutional level. This was not readily apparent when I started this project because compassion is normally associated with individual people and their interpersonal relations. But the more we spoke about our successes, failures, and missed opportunities to show compassion, the more I realized that class and school-wide policy can be constructed to reflect our beliefs about compassion too. Grading and discipline policies are examples. How might the compassion we seek on a one-to-one basis be institutionalized? Sometimes answering this question isn’t possible or even appropriate, but sometimes it is and should be sought out.
  • It’s hard to be compassionate and not lower the bar. There was tension throughout our compassion experiment when it came to extending our students grace while not enabling them. We found this particularly challenging with over a year of remote learning on our backs, the piles of make up work growing, and summer school bearing down on us. How do we transition moments of empathy into moments of productivity and purposeful planning? How can we be there for students, but also help them dig themselves out of a hole? We found no answers to these questions that we were proud of, but we were able to lean on each other in acknowledging their complexity. Despite the resurgence of in-person learning this fall, I don’t see this dilemma going anywhere.
  • Be aware of love languages. As our exploration of compassion was coming to an end, an understanding of teacher-student “love languages” was highlighted as an important aspect to the work. The idea is based on the book Love Languages by Gary Chapman, which describes how every person has a primary emotional language that they use when interacting with others. According to Chapman, this language directs how we process emotions and feel cared for. We hypothesized that in order to best to show compassion to our students, we should be aware of our students’ educational love languages (as well as our own). For some students, providing an extension on assignment meant the world to them. For others, taking a few minutes to listen to them vent about a rough morning was what they needed. Apprehending the unique ways our students feel cared for is a major task, but a necessary one in getting through to them.

I left the school year proud of the “action research” we had done, but couldn’t help but look forward to next year. In late June, after our last meeting, a burning question lingered for me: How might how our learnings around compassion translate to in-person learning next year? Just because remote learning is coming to an end doesn’t mean its effects will too. We’re going to be grappling with them for a long time and distinct levels of compassion are still going to be needed. And though much of the compassion work I did with my colleagues centered on compassion for students, I also began expanding it to include colleagues and ourselves.

Thankfully, Math for America gave me the opportunity to take these ideas to the Summer Think last week. The Summer Think is MƒA’s three-day teacher-led summer conference. It was virtual this year and the theme was Healing, Recovery, and Transition. I called my workshop “Keeping our Compassion” and it was essentially an hour-long brainstorming session on how the compassion we’ve developed — for our students, our colleagues, and ourselves — might reemerge next year.

A major theme for folks was self-care. Considering what we’ve been though as educators, this wasn’t terribly surprising. We can’t compassionately receive students if we ourselves aren’t feeling the love, right? Something else that was brought up was continuing to have constant check-ins with students, which was a regular part of remote learning since its inception in March 2020. This meant remembering to step away from content at times to connect with students on different, more personal levels. It also meant trying to support the whole student, not just the academic-facing one. Other teachers mentioned more practical things, like more equitable grading and maintaining flexible deadlines for assignments. I sensed angst when it came to lowering the bar.

A heartwarming moment for me happened at the end of conference. On the last day, all 60+ teachers were asked to share one word that captured their Summer Think experience. Over the course of the three days, there were workshops on a wide array of topics from Hispanic Heritage Month to organization to talking circles to instructional routines — all led by outstanding teachers. We did a lot and there was a lot to reflect on.

What words did people choose? Below is the word cloud that was displayed at the conference after everyone hit submit on their word. What word is largest and at the center of it all?

You guessed it. Compassion.

Word cloud

I’m grateful that what started out as a colleague emailing me an episode of a podcast turned into so much intentional thinking about something so important. We’ll see where it goes from here, but as I reunite with students in the coming months, I hope I can lead with compassion. Just like the word cloud, I hope I magnify and center it in my teaching.


MƒA and The Teachers on Fire Podcast

I was a recent guest on the Teachers on Fire podcast to talk about the MƒA community and share my experiences as a MƒA Master Teacher. It was cool, I enjoyed it. I was joined by two other MƒA teachers, Vielca Anglin and Jude Julien, along with the president of MƒA, John Ewing. Our talk was an hour long (streamed live here) and nowhere near sufficient to convey the power of the MƒA community. That said, because I can, I’m going to continue the conversation here, with my ever-listening keyboard.

What is my biggest takeaway from the last eight years as a MƒA teacher? Without a doubt all that I’ve learned about teacher leadership. At the most straightforward level, I have led workshops at my school and given talks at local, regional, and national conferences because of ideas that the MƒA community helped incubate and sharpen over the years. But in addition to learning how to lead professional development, I’ve also helped create summer conferences for other teachers to lead workshops. I’ve given a TED Talk-style presentation. With the support of MƒA, I’ve even been a yearlong mentor for an early-career teacher. All of these experiences have contributed greatly to my growth as an educator. Maybe for other teachers these types of experiences are standard, but not for me. Ten years ago I’m not sure I would’ve believed I could do any them at a respectable level. MƒA changed all that.

The beauty of MƒA is that it puts teachers in positions to lead and learn from each other, then steps back and watches the magic happen. I think MƒA can do this because they ambitiously and unapologetically trust teachers. That’s the key. And this trust is baked into everything they do. It shows up in how they talk about teachers and the teaching profession, yeah, but it also manifests itself organizationally, structurally, and financially. Many noble people and organizations wax poetic about how they champion teachers and the teaching profession, but MƒA has the receipts. These receipts are lengthy and filled edge-to-edge with stories just like mine. MƒA is doing the work.

The Teachers on Fire podcast itself is a great example of MƒA’s unyielding and fervent belief in lifting up teachers. Prior to it, I had listened to similar podcasts and panel discussions, but was never invited to participate in one. They just seemed out of my league. So when I was asked to take part by MƒA, and subsequently encouraged by John and MƒA to openly share my experiences, I felt empowered. I felt like an expert. I felt seen. I felt trusted. Undoubtedly, these are feelings that will fuel my continual growth. As a teacher, there’s really nothing more you can ask for.

Interestingly, I think MƒA’s trust in me indirectly influences how I interact with folks in my educational circle, including my students and colleagues. When you’re constantly affirmed, honored, and given autonomy, especially when the system you operate in imparts a very different message to you, these beliefs are easier to bestow upon others. You see their value firsthand. Thinking about my classroom and my practice, I think this is true for me. MƒA has gracefully modeled for me what it means to honor and have sustained professional faith in those around you and, what’s most important, to do it systematically. They have armed me with a capacity to trust, to let go. At it’s core, it’s a willingness and an ability to put others in a position reach their potential and then step back and watch the magic happen.