Monday, 8 September 2014

The Importance of Relationships

Since becoming a teacher, I've learned about a variety of different educators who all contributed something to how schooling has developed, both across the world and in individual countries. One of these educators who made a huge impression on me was Rita Pierson, an American teacher whose career spanned 41 years. When she died unexpectedly in June 2013, she was the Community and Family Outreach Officer for the Prosper Waco initiative, a project designed to tackle poverty in the Waco school district of Texas.

I first learned about her at a staff training day last year, in which we were shown the video below. More than anything else, her speech sums up the fundamentally important responsibility that all teachers have.

The video inspired me to look up what else Rita had done. I was quickly very saddened to see that she had passed away, but as she said herself, the true lasting legacy of any teacher is in the relationships he or she made in the classroom. There's no doubt that Rita Pierson had a positive effect on the students she taught. Likewise there's no doubt that she has inspired other teachers from all over the world to build on the relationships we have with our students to create an environment where everyone can learn, grow and develop.

I work in a centre where we teach our students on a one-to-one basis, so it's easy for me to talk about the importance of establishing a relationship with one's students. For a teacher who has seven classes of thirty students, this isn't so easy. There are so many more of them, for one thing, but there's also far less time - barely enough time to devote to one class group, let alone to individuals. There's no denying that teachers face huge pressures on their time and energy as they work with each group, and there's no denying that building up nuanced positive relationships in this setting can be difficult. But we still have to try.

Why? It's as Rita said. Kids don't learn from people they don't like. From Day One of the PDE (formerly the H. Dip) program, we are warned that we are "not the students' friends". This is entirely true - I don't meet my students for coffee or tell them about my problems, and any teacher who does might want to think about a different career. But the way that this warning is expressed by teacher training programs almost seems to instill an "us vs. them" mentality, one centered very much on the teacher as the authority figure and the student as the subordinate. A distance must be maintained, but not at the expense of building good relationships with our students. We're not the students' friends, but that doesn't mean we can't be friendly to them.

I learned the hard way about the importance of building relationships during my teaching practice year. I had a Second Year History class with which I almost immediately got off on the wrong foot. They much preferred their previous teacher and resented me for coming in and taking them away from him. In particular, there was one student in the class with whom I had a difficult relationship. He very quickly learned how to antagonise my as-yet-quite-inexperienced self, and delighted in doing so. I found him hard to teach, and none of the rules-based methods of discipline I attempted were very successful. There's a culture that says students must respect teachers. This is true. What's often ignored is that this is a two-way street. Teachers must respect students. I realised that if I was to get this student to work with me at all, I had to earn his respect.

How did I do this? By sitting down with him and talking to him. I asked him what parts of History he found interesting, what parts he didn't, what he thought about school, and what he thought would make it better for him. It was a productive conversation. He told me what he wanted to go on to achieve. He told me what he thought his weaknesses were, and he told me that he wanted to do well. This wasn't by any means a sudden turnaround from his previous behaviour - these revelations came in between sometimes exasperating bursts of sheer distraction and hyperactivity, and with a fair amount of frustration and sadness - but it was the start of a process, one which I kept up by having more conversations and offering more encouragement.

Our relationship in class remained variable, we could have good days and bad days, but it was at the end of the school year when I realised how much the encouragement I kept giving him had paid off. The History summer test for Second Years was that day, and at the end of it I happened to be in the computer lab, printing something. That student came and found me, only to tell me how much he had written in the test and how well he thought he had done. In the end, he did very well indeed. That experience has stayed with me ever since.

Positives and Negatives
I consider myself fortunate to teach in a centre where I have the opportunity to get to know my students as individuals, where I can tailor my lesson planning to their individual needs and organise events and activities that match their interests. I won't always work in a place like this, and when I do return to a mainstream school I will have brought this entire experience with me. The students at this centre are early school leavers, a label that carries with it a stigma (more on that in a future post), but they are - each and every one of them - an absolute joy to teach. If I was to go back in time and teach that Second Year class as I am now, I'd be a lot more equipped to deal with behavioural problems from the outset and ease their transition from one teacher to the next. Even if I could go back and nip those problems in the bud, I'd still make the same effort with that student, no matter how frustrating it was or how long it took.

We all have those students who seem beyond convincing to participate positively in class. It's those students who most need a positive relationship with their teachers. To paraphrase Rita Pierson, a negative teacher sucks all the life out of you. An encouraging teacher says I ain't all bad.

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