My CM and I recently posed a question to our students: What does an ideal learning environment look like? What are the students doing, and what is the teacher doing? We received a variety of ideas. Strikingly, while many pushed for more amenities and autonomy—music while working, less homework, and more room for creativity in student projects—most wrote about relationships. Our kids consistently demonstrated value towards respect and care in the classroom: they wanted supportive, flexible, and enthusiastic teachers as well as collaborative, attentive, and focused peers. For me, this was unexpected. I did not think so many students would care about our lessons, nor about their peers’ engagement! It’s heartwarming to know that kids share this value, which further lends credence to the role of positive relationships in the classroom.
Now, in a climate of no-excuse schools and never smiling until November, this notion may be frowned upon. Why should relationships with students be caring, anyhow? Some may assume that if they give up their role as a disciplinarian over their students, then the kids will no longer respect their teachers. To exhibit caring, as such, would be to extend leniency and opportunities for upheaval. This makes some sense, but more so as a response towards teacher vulnerability. When they are “feeling scared”, Christopher Emdin writes, a teacher’s typical reaction is to “exert power over students” (Emdin 2016, p. 109). This leads to shouting matches, power struggles, and—at worst—humiliation and exclusion towards students who need most to be in school (Noguera 2008).
It’s empowering to see that the opposite holds true: relationships are key. In a meta-analysis of over 100 educational studies, Robert Marzano writes that “the quality of teacher-student relationships is the keystone for all other aspects of classroom management” (Marzano 2003). Teachers with high-quality relationships with their students had significantly fewer disciplinary issues and rule violations. Interviews with adolescents, similar to the activity illustrated above, reveal “students’ high regard for teachers who listen well, treat students with respect, and exhibit caring” (Weinstein and Novodvorsky, 2011, p. 50). What do these ways of caring actually look like? Weinstein and Novodvorsky outline a list of ideas: welcoming students by name; learning about students’ lives; addressing students’ concerns, especially avoiding public reprimand and humiliation in front of peers; allowing for student autonomy and input; promoting students’ strengths; and establishing clear classroom expectations (p. 51-65).
I’m happy to report that as I spend more time with my classroom, it does feel more and more like a community. I’ve learned my kids’ names, and I’m continuing to hear their stories. Our students readily share their ideas on lessons and projects, and I’ve even gotten some voluntary high fives at the door! Focused attention, however, is a concern: I often lead a lesson and struggle to get the whole class engaged. There’s a certain energy and cosmopolitan ethos, as Emdin writes, that I seek to harness in my classroom. As I continue to build on Weinstein’s ideas above, I also hope to introduce practices from Emdin: student mentorships, distributed roles and teaching, code switching and affirmation of student strengths, and co-created norms. I’ll be following up on these practices next post, and talking in-depth on classroom expectations. See you after the jump!
Hi! I'm a bio/chem teacher and M.S.Ed. student at the University of Pennsylvania.