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What Type of Relationship with Staff Helps Students Flourish?

My 3 oldest grandchildren all started school this year: kindergarten and 2 different levels of preschool. What if, as they step out into this next phase of growth, any one of them felt their teacher didn’t like them? It would break my heart. It would break my heart not only because I love them and think everyone else should too, but also because…

The significance of relationship in teaching is corroborated by research. Relationships aren’t the frosting on the cake of education. Jeff Myers summarized some of the findings in his book Cultivate: Forming the Emerging Generation through Life-on-Life Mentoring (30-31):

  • "Students’ sense of being liked, respected and valued by a teacher predicted whether they would value the subject matter and expect success."

  • "Students who believed their teacher cared for them believed they learned more."

  • "Students’ feelings of being accepted by teachers were significantly related to emotional, cognitive and behavioral engagement in class."

  • "Teachers who expressed greater warmth tended to develop greater confidence in students."

  • "Teachers’ nurturing behaviors were related to students’ adoption and internalization of teachers’ goals and values."

  • "Teachers’ interpersonal relationship skills were significantly associated with students’ achievement motivation and self-esteem."

Every student that walks into my classroom is someone’s grandchild. I want them to flourish, as I want my grandchildren to flourish--a flourishing that springs from roots sunk deep into healthy relationships with teachers. My deep hope is that students in my classroom and at my international Christian school are experiencing caring, collaborative, respectful Christ-centered staff. What does this look like? For me... (1) Students experiencing caring staff includes:

  • Checking my own heart. Do I truly value, respect, and want to know every student? This is such an important opportunity to remember God in Jesus deeply loves me and completely accepts me, and nothing I do can make him love me any more or any less. How, then, can I not live that grace for my students?

  • Making the implicit explicit. When was the last time I told my students I like them, I believe they can master this important and difficult thing, and I get so excited when I see them grow? When I give feedback, I make sure I tell them that their identity is separate from their performance, and I don’t like them any more when they perform well or any less when they perform poorly. (Check out Dave Stuart Jr's video, “It's Not Personal; It's Only Business,” especially 0:35-2:13.)

  • Reading middle grades novels. Okay, this is not mandatory, but it’s a fantastic opportunity. Reading fiction increases empathy. So for me, reading middle grades novels not only gives me titles to recommend to my growing readers, it also keeps me in touch with their emotional lives. For example, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt puts me in the shoes of a student struggling with dyslexia. While I Was Away by Waka T. Brown puts me in the shoes of a Japanese American girl suddenly dropped into her heritage culture. New Kid by Jerry Craft puts me in the shoes of a Black child finding his place in a mostly white school.

  • Tracking student connections. The intentionality is important for me, because if I don’t pay attention, I will naturally connect more with some students and less with others. Tracking reading conferences ensures I have at least one individual conversation with every student every 2 weeks. Dave Stuart Jr. tracks Moments of Genuine Connection (MGCs). The 2x10 strategy is widely recommended for students proving particularly challenging.

(2) Students experiencing collaborative staff includes:

  • Exhibiting real curiosity. Curiosity about everything from what students are thinking (“tell me more”) to authentically wondering why class norms are being violated before jumping to a rebuke. I ask questions like, “Can you tell me why this group seems to be off task?”, “Can you tell me why I don’t have your paper?”, and “Can you tell me why you are falling asleep?"

  • Normalizing questions. Even celebrating them. If I can move students from thinking of questions as exposing ignorance (asking embarrasses the student and the teacher because it implies a failure in the teaching or the learning) to pursuing understanding, I will be happy. I’ve moved from saying, “Are there any questions?” to “What questions do you have?” to “Ask me three questions.” And if I’m stumped, I admit it and model an inquisitive mindset: “That is a great question. I’ll research it and let you know.” Or sometimes, “Why don’t you research it and let us know?”

  • Making the implicit explicit. I reiterate why collaboration is important: We’re smarter together than apart. I teach students how to collaborate: Here are some sentence stems for collaboration. I highlight the benefits of collaboration as it happens: “You know, Alice’s question just made me think of something I hadn’t before….”

(3) Students experiencing respectful staff includes for me:

  • Having high expectations. This includes teaching whatever students need to reach those high expectations—even when it seems they “should have learned that by now”—whether it is organization or note taking or respectful discussion. As Dave Stuart Jr. says, “Teach everything and anything that you expect your students to do well. And then, reinforce it with relentless passion and optimism and gentleness and zeal.”

  • Being culturally aware. In a multicultural classroom, this means being aware of students’ home cultures, the ways those cultures can be valued in my class and the ways they may foster frustration from unstated expectations, being explicit about the collaborative learning culture I am working to develop in my class. For more information, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer is a helpful explication of how cultures can differ on 8 different scales. Some international Christian schools in Asia address these expectations by articulating for parents and students what their learning culture looks like (see here and here).

  • Normalizing learning mistakes. That means making them safe, expected, even celebrated. I start with taking my own learning risks (like the time I stepped up to a poetry open mic or when I read and write in Japanese while my EFL class reads or writes in English). Then I provide multiple low-stakes opportunities for students to experiment. I model my own writing with them--not just polished final drafts, but also notebook entries that just don't work. I work to identify the growth that the mistake indicates. ("You are trying a more complex syntax to express a more complex idea. That's great! Let me show you how writers punctuate that.")

Students experiencing Christ-centered staff includes for me:

  • Telling them my why. Why I love teaching reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening for the ways language reveals the beauty of creation, connects me to my neighbors and to God, and is an effective tool for pursuing justice in a fallen world. Why I love them. Why I love seeing them grow. What I hope for them.

  • Making the implicit explicit. Turning my brain inside out and letting students in on all the ways that love for God and neighbors informs my reading and writing, and all the ways that my reading and writing inform my love for God and neighbors.

  • Embracing the opportunity to apologize. Because I know I am prone to faults and fully forgiven by God, I can drop my defenses and sincerely apologize to students when I have failed them in any way. I can seek to heal rifts and restore relationships. What do I have to lose besides the chance to demonstrate the freedom that God gives?

  • Praying. I pray for students: I have all my students’ names on a stack of index cards, and I pray for at least 5 a day. I pray with a small group of other teachers before school every day. I pray for myself. Taped on the cover of my laptop for me to read before I open it to begin my day's work is a "prayer upon beginning one's work or study," taken from Timothy Keller's book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (see photo below).

How about you? What is your deep hope for the relationships students at your school will have with staff? With you? How do you pursue that hope?

Originally posted on "Learn, Unlearn, & Relearn" on September 23, 2022.


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