And What Do You Mean by “Relationships”?

Perhaps my favourite question in education is “And what do you mean by _____________?” Riffing off the Seymour Sarason book, I’ve posted other articles asking questions about educational jargon that needs further probing.

And What Do You Mean By Knowledge?

And What Do You Mean By…

And What Do You Mean By Failure?

Once a word becomes jargon, it runs the risk of losing its original and true meaning as well as inviting everyone to make up their definitions and use it for their purpose and it ends up either being something folks resent or something that allows people to act differently and create confusion.

Today it’s difficult to read an educational book or listen to an inspirational keynote or talk without a reference to some variation on the idea that “relationships are the key to everything”. It’s an idea that I think comes from a past where or perceived past where school was about content and grades and in some cases we lost a focus on the human connection. Fair enough.

I’m highly aware of and have advocated for a shift in priorities for teachers from a content or instructional focus to one that emphasizes caring for students as a priority. But even as I reread this post, I realize that using blanket terms like “caring and “relationships” requires more nuance. Coming out of the pandemic, we’re more keenly aware of teacher burnout and the impact on their own social and emotional well-being. In my conversations with educators over the past years, the problem of dealing with increased extreme behavioural issues is becoming more and more prevalent. It’s not surprising as some of this mirrors the increase in societal angst we see every day.

Perhaps the best way to understand what we mean by relationships is to look at what it is and what it is not. Let’s keep in mind as well that there is a big difference in the level of relationship that a primary teacher would have versus a high school teacher. Both because of the age difference and what the needs of a 5-year-old require and what a 15-year-old requires but also because of the time that a 1st-grade teacher spends with each student compared to a high school teacher who might see a student for 50 minutes a day.

If we want to have a successful learning environment with children it’s critical we establish some level of safety and the dynamics and parameters of the student-teacher relationship. The definition of relationship leaves too much to interpretation. When this word is used to describe students and teachers, I think it often conjures up something deeper and closer to the way parents feel about their children. I think a better word than relationship might be connection or rapport. Rapport, as defined by Webster’s refers to a “friendly, harmonious relationship”. Rapport might be created by a common or shared interest. It might be creating an “inside joke” or just remembering what matters to each student and regularly acknowledging that. While you may not be able to make this happen for all students on a daily basis, it’s something that requires intent and action. All of these approaches let the student know they matter to you as individuals. It’s important to acknowledge that you will connect more with some students than you will with others. Perhaps that’s obvious but there is usually a perceived idea of favouritism that emerges that might be unspoken but is prevalent either with the students or even for the teacher. I don’t think this is inherently bad but just natural. Of course, as a teacher, you work to not have that favouritism impact the way you support all learners. Along with this acknowledgment is the fact that there will be some students that you simply do not connect with. This may not be an issue for either party but if this results in negative behaviour, it usually leads teachers to feel guilty while they continue to explore ways to connect with the student. The truth is, it’s just not possible to make a meaningful connection with every student or person you might. Outside of school most of us simply choose not to associate with those we don’t get along with. Yet we all face instances where this isn’t avoidable and hopefully, we find ways to co-exist. With other adults, this can be easier but with children for whom we serve it’s a challenge.

What a relationship in this case isn’t, is a commitment to liking all your students. I struggle even writing that sentence as I know it might not sound very caring. But I think you can care for and about a child without liking them. I recall feeling guilty about not liking some of my students. I had to be very self-aware and ensure I was not mistreating them. In fact, at times I would almost show favouritism to combat my dislike for a child. A relationship also isn’t thinking you have unlimited capacity, expertise and energy to help all students. Students who do exhibit extreme behavioural issues or are experiencing severe trauma are best served by those with the expertise and skill to support them. In most cases, this is not the classroom teacher. In an era of inclusion, teachers are at times guilted into keeping students in their classroom despite reoccurring incidents and even violence. Teachers are being asked to go far beyond their capacity and ability to find student success and this is only adding to the ongoing problem of teacher stress. The often used trope of “whatever it takes” has in some ways been part of current teacher stress levels moving to beyond healthy.

Relationships and connections remain a central part of the education process. Particularly early on but yes, even as adults and with adult learners. At the same time, recognizing limitations and placing boundaries are critical for educators to be able to do this work year after year. Whenever I hear a pithy quote or someone using a broad language to describe a complex concept, I worry about the potential damage. I’ve shared my concerns about the future of this profession. If we don’t start getting serious about the health and well-being of our teachers, we’re going to be trouble. Part of managing and allowing teachers to thrive is to better understand what it takes to be successful for the long haul. Making connections and establishing rapport with students is critical. It’s also critical we understand our humanity and limitations.