The Power of Relationships in Equity Pedagogy

The Power of Relationships in Equity Pedagogy

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I am currently making my way through several books on Equity Pedagogy.  All of them are going to make an appearance in this Journal space in the near future, but there’s a plumb line running through every one of them that I want to explore a bit right now: the idea that Equity Pedagogy will not be effective outside a context of relationship.  This isn’t a new idea in education — far from it — but I think it’s one of those things that gets a lot of lip service but in actual practice is glossed over, maybe because we assume that teachers are doing this anyway. That  assumes that they know how to do it and do it well, which is a pretty big assumption, and it assumes that we all know what the elements of a successful, productive relationship are, another big assumption.  Can teachers do this? Sure. Do they?  Maybe…but also, maybe not.

So what does a productive educational relationship look like?  The following are drawn from multiple sources but all appeared in some form in those sources.  All of these elements are messily connected; they intersect and grow in tandem or out of each other:

  1. A Culture of Care.  The teacher is responsible for communicating authentic care for the student. Authentic care entails demonstrating that care in concrete ways: listening, understanding the feelings behind words and being sensitive to the child’s emotions, valuing their thoughts, affirming their worth as a person, and suspending judgment on a variety of fronts to encourage communication.
  2. Mutual Respect.  This goes hand in hand with Culture of Care and to some extent is an outgrowth of it.  The teacher respects the student and communicates care in concrete ways and this will lead to a kind of relational credit for the teacher in which the student begins to value and respect the teacher’s guidance and redirection.  It upends the foundational assumption that the teacher enters the classroom already deserving of respect by virtue of his or her position as an “expert” in the content.  Problems will inevitably occur when a student does not acknowledge that position.  The teacher earns the right through the Culture of Care and through the intentional building of…
  3. Trust. This is an important aspect because trust frees up the brain for learning.  Embodied in trust are safety, protection, respect, affirmation, space for making mistakes without rejection. Trust also includes the agreement that if there’s a problem, the teacher will seek to understand and address it in a way that relieves anxiety for the student without minimizing or dismissing their distress. There’s also an element of competence included here: the belief that the teacher understands the content well, and understands the student well enough to offer appropriate challenge, and will do whatever is needed to support the student until he or she succeeds.  The burden for building trust is on the teacher here by virtue of the position of power he or she holds in the classroom.
  4. A Culture of Cooperation.   American education frequently embodies a culture of competition — learning is linear and individual. Achievement is positional:  A is better than B, C is doing worse than E, and so on.  A cooperative environment recognizes that everyone brings strengths to the table and those strengths can and do benefit the entire group.  This has the effect of disrupting status and positional achievement identifiers within the group and is critical in reframing how students define themselves as learners.  Cooperative culture helps students see themselves as “mathematicians” or “readers,” or “scientists,” which increases their engagement in the content. Cooperative culture also redefines the teacher as a co-learner, capable of learning from the students and from his or her colleagues.  The teacher intentionally removes him or herself from center stage.
  5.  Selective Vulnerability.  The teacher intentionally shares aspects of his or her own experience as a learner and experiences in life when appropriate. The idea here is to allow the teacher to be seen as a human being by disclosing an authentic part of the self to students.  There’s good research that doing this results in better cooperation, empathy, and trust (trusting students with information results in reciprocal trust).  Storytelling is a culturally universal way that people connect with one another and pass on wisdom and actually elicits unique responses in the listening brain.
  6. A Culture of Conflict Resolution.  In this culture,  behavior issues in the classroom are viewed  as opportunities for practicing relationship skills like listening, expressing feelings, compromising,  and other practices to resolve conflicts, rather than lines in the sand which, if crossed, result in the student being ejected from the classroom. This is closely related to Trust: the student learns to trust the teacher by not being sent out of the class and by the value communicated by the conflict resolution process (in effect, ‘I value you too much to get rid of you; let’s work it out instead’).

The benefits of relationship in education are myriad: better engagement, better retention, improved performance, better connection to peers, better connection to teachers, improved self esteem, redefined identities as learners, improved sense of safety and belonging, and on and on.  There’s not really a downside here.  So why don’t we see more of it?

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I’ve thought a lot about this and what your going to get is my opinion because while there’s a ton of research on the benefits of relationship, there’s nothing on how frequently it occurs or reasons why it doesn’t occur (I found exactly one scholarly paper trying to identify why some teachers are able to have close relationships with disruptive students and others are not, but the sample of teachers was too tiny to offer anything definitive).  I think the trouble may lie in multiple  directions.

First, teachers often teach as they were taught.  I’ve spoken to hundreds of teachers and most had a clear model for their teaching style: a mentor, a teacher they had in elementary school or high school, a professor, a colleague.  They may even have a model for how not to teach.  But if they have no model for building relationships in the classroom, I think the likelihood of enacting that as a teaching style is greatly reduced.

Second, formal teaching programs are usually more concerned with how content is disseminated than with explicitly teaching more affective skills like building relationships.  I’m in the midst of a book chronicling a program designed to help a particular group succeed in school and the program made a deliberate decision not to recruit licensed teachers but instead recruit from youth organizations in order to find people with a demonstrated ability to build relationships with young people.  I applaud this idea while simultaneously cringing at the implication that there were no certified teachers capable of this work.  Ouch.  Interestingly, two of the books I’m reading had programs that deliberately sought candidates who regarded teaching as a calling rather than as a mere job because of the way that belief reshapes their approach and commitment to their students.

Third, building relationships adds a dimension to teaching that may make the job more difficult. It’s a lot easier to be the talking head at the front of the classroom than to build a reciprocal, trusting relationship with 140 kids every 18 weeks.  It’s also easier to adopt an attitude of “I taught it, it’s up to them to learn it” than it is to fulfill the trust bargain and  make sure every child is learning.  And, it’s easier to chuck kids out than to go through the messy process of conflict resolution, which most people don’t know how to do anyway.

Lastly, American education is primarily focused on results in the form of standardized test scores. We test and we norm and we rank.  Everything needs to be reduced to a data stream so we can quantify progress.  Relationship isn’t easily quantifiable.  It doesn’t fit our paradigm of factual evidence substantiating our actions in the classroom.  How can we evaluate teachers based on their ability to build relationships with their students? Can we staff develop for relationships?  Can we require it as a matter of policy?  From a lot of angles it’s a can of worms.

However, while we haven’t figured out how to quantify relationship-building we can see its results, particularly with students of color, low-income students, and English Language Learners.   And those results extend far beyond success in the classroom to financial, health, and relational outcomes as adults.  A lot of good work has been done defining the various aspects and elements of productive educational relationships.  I think the next steps may be to intentionally integrate explicit instruction on relationship-building into education programs and offer professional development to current educators in how to implement these strategies in their classrooms.



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