I came across an article recently that really resonated with me, and I want to share it in this space. It's called "Students Learn from the People They Love: Putting Relationship Quality at the Center of Education." It resonated with me because I know that it's true, and I'm afraid that it's something we've lost in education. Not in our preschool, thank goodness, but in the upper grades where the stakes seem so much higher and there's more and more pressure to be successful.
I've been an educator for over 20 years; I've taught children preschool through high school; I've taught in private schools and public schools; I've taught in religious schools and secular schools; I've taught formally and informally. Each experience was entirely different, and each experience was exactly the same. It's all about relationships.
My big "aha" moment happened at a workshop on brain development early in my career. I learned that in order to really learn something, a skill or a concept, to really internalize it, we have to have a positive association with the experience. The more positive the experience, the better and deeper the learning. So I figured, "A child can't have a positive experience with me if they don't like me." That doesn't mean I ever let my students set the agenda so that they would always get what they wanted. It doesn't mean I wasn't a disciplinarian. Instead, it meant that it was on me to create an environment that welcomed and respected every child. It was on me to treat every child with care and concern, to let every child know that I "got" them. It was on me to challenge every child in a way that they knew meant I believed in them. It was on me to create activities and lessons that were engaging and exciting. It was on me to make sure that every single one of my students wanted to come to school every single day.
To bring it back to the preschool level, I'm sharing a post from May of 2017. It explains the science behind the importance of relationships:
Shortly after Passover, I attended Children Together’s spring conference.
This year’s conference, presented by Dr. Beth Tuckwiller from The George Washington University, was entitled Neurodevelopmental Science and Social-Emotional Development. The essential understanding was objectively simple but essential and profound. In order to be successful in the classroom, children need to form attachments with their teachers in ways that are similar to those they form with their parents. While nothing ever could or would replace the parent-child bond, the teacher-child bond is nevertheless crucial. Too often, classroom teachers focus too much on routines and procedures, which, to be fair, do serve an important purpose. But focusing on routines and procedures to the exclusion of building relationships can actually be counter-productive. If children love and trust their teacher, if they have a positive, authentic, and mutually respectful relationship with their teacher, children will be more likely and able to comply with their teacher’s requests, whether the request is to line up or count to ten. Children are able to learn only when they feel supported emotionally and socially.
Every single aspect of a child’s healthy development, including academic growth, involves a social component. There are always two people involved, and in a classroom, one of those people is always a teacher. To take the essential understanding a step farther, this means that when a teacher encounters a challenging child, one who doesn’t meet the typical expectations, the teacher needs think about what they are bringing to the relationship before they can even begin to think about what extra support the child might need. The more challenging the child, the greater the need for a stronger teacher-child bond. I am reminded of something Haim Ginott, the psychologist and educator, wrote: “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”
This is no easy job, but it's not one I would trade for the world. It's such a privilege and a joy to build these relationships with so many amazing young people.