I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that rules without relationships lead to rebellion. Yet today, relationships with students seem to be feared instead of embraced. Over the years, quite by accident, I have discovered that this precept from days gone by is critical to classroom rules and to learning itself. Relationships are an essential part of learning, especially relationships between teachers and students.
Educators interact with their students in two important ways: personal or impersonal. It is not difficult to understand that a personal interaction is better than an impersonal one. As a mother, every instruction I give my children is impacted by many factors, but one of the more important ones is my personal relationship with them. I am their mother; therefore, I have a growing relationship with them that motivates them to listen to me (well, at least most of the time).
As teachers, we often complain that our students do not listen, daydream too much, and talk while we are speaking. Whether we realize it or not, these are examples of students interacting with their learning environment, but often, to our frustration, their interaction is with the wrong part—each other. What I came to realize is, the interaction I demanded from my students was already taking place. The problem was not their lack of interaction; it was how to become a meaningful part of their ongoing interaction.
Initially, I tried to control my class with only my voice. I would raise it when I wanted students to settle, and lower it when I was content with their behavior. Unbeknownst to me, people absorb information through their senses, equally, with one exception: the auditory sense. They are recorded as an echoic memory and that requires more time to process than the other senses. I did not realize that by only using my voice, I was using the slowest sense to control my class.
So what is the answer to positively interact with students so that they learn? For me it became one word—relationships! I know what you are thinking, I have relationships with my students, and I believe that you do, but I am advocating something I call relational intentionality. Relational intentionality involves maintaining our authority while building relationships with students. It involves intentional actions with your students. You could think of it as if it were part of the instructional plan. It is a relationship that models respect and cordiality in ways that teach both.
Relational intentionality is making sure you know your students’ names. It is using please and thank you with them at all times regardless of their response. It is calling them Miss and Sir. It is wanting to know details of their lives. It is saying thank you to them for a kind act. It is finding their successes in order to balance out their failures. It is understanding that they are children and allowing them to be children. As their teacher, you are modelling, through relational intentionality, the relationship you want to have with them, and how they should relate to their world—you are their mentor.
Again, relational intentionality is not becoming friends with your students; it is building relationships that go beyond friendship. I once had a colleague announce at an awards banquet that he was going to miss two seniors who were graduating that year. In his very fine speech, he called them his “best friends” several times. After the night was over, I pulled him aside and gently reminded him that, as a late 20s mother of two, it did not seem wise to announce to the world that your two best friends were 12-year-old high school students. This is not building relationships with your students. This is becoming friends with your students and it is very dangerous, especially in today’s culture. Friendship is built on equality and commonality; teaching and mentoring is not.
Often students become disengaged when learning difficult concepts. They may talk to their classmates or drift off into daydreams. Many complex topics in education or life often do not have concrete examples—they’re abstract after all. In these cases, learning is heavily dependent on the relationship between the mentor and the student. It is the relationship that supplies the necessary tangible experiences to illustrate abstract concepts. As students advance deeper into learning that is more difficult and abstract, relationships with others may be one of the only concrete elements of their learning. We know that rules delivered without relationships often lead to rebellion; the same could be applied to learning and life. That old precept may need some adjustment, but the message does not, relationships are crucial to learning and to life.