Am I Building a Relationship with Every Student?
by Adrienne Quinn | 10.11.17
Over the past 17 years, I’ve worked with students from first grade to middle school, and there has not been a single grade level that I didn’t absolutely love – from the little itty-bitty first graders to the eighth graders who tower over me. This year, I’m beginning my first year as an administrator at an elementary school in Michigan. Whether I’m working with students or with teachers, my practice starts with a deep, serious care for individuals and a recognition of the intrinsic treasure in each and every person.
I have a firm belief that no real teaching can happen without real relationships. When I was a student, I performed a lot better in classes where I knew my teacher liked me. Even if we had different experiences and different points of view, if I had a relationship with a teacher – if I felt like he or she related to me authentically – then I could buy into the learning in the classroom. As a teacher and now as an administrator, I see this dynamic play out all the time. I see how teachers and students can misunderstand one another. I see and experience the effects of communication breakdowns, and I see how, as educators, our own implicit biases can get in the way of relationship-building.
One small thing that has always helped me build bridges as a teacher is identifying a student each year who has been hard for me to reach. I always chose students who had identifiers that correlated with being off track, and I also chose students with whom I had a personal disconnect. Students whose minds worked in ways that felt different from how I think intuitively.
Once I identified my focus student, I could ask myself some practical questions about my relationship with him or her:
- “How many times have I had a conversation with this student this week?”
- “What did we talk about? What’s something new I learned about them?”
- “What are they interested in? How can I build that interest into what they are doing in class?”
- “What kinds of connections am I building with their family?”
- “What are they doing on the weekends? How does that connect to what I like to do on the weekends?”
All those small questions really get at this big one: What kind of relationships am I building, and what kind of foundation am I growing so this student connects with learning in my class? If we want students to learn with us and become their best selves, we first need to show that we’re truly interested in them as people. As an administrator, I want to support teachers in choosing their own focus students and in building bridges. I’m hoping that together, we can ask: “How is this working? How is this not working? What can I do to build this bridge so we can get to the learning, so we can get to the growing, so we can get to the development?”
Through asking these questions, we learn about our own identities and our own biases, and that helps us connect with students who have different cultural and academic identities than ours. To be effective teachers, we have to start by making connections and building relationships from there.
I also realize that the same habits with which I’ve approached students will be critical as I approach teachers as an administrator. I feel it’s the season in my journey as an educator to share out more, and that’s why I said yes to a role in administration at this time. I will strive to make the same kinds of connections with the adults on my staff that I do with students. I really want to know your heartbeat as a teacher. I want to know what gets you up and into the classroom each morning, and to support that.
I have two goals for my school: I want to have the happiest school on the planet and the highest achieving school on the planet. It definitely has to work in that order. If people are happy, then you know those relationships are there. You know everyone’s personal needs are being met. And we have to start there.