Teaching Is Relationship Building: Something School Reformers Often Forget

Teaching Requires Relating

Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

One of the most pernicious examples of the tunnel vision of school reformers is the “school turnaround” concept incorporated in the Obama Administration’s “Race To the Top” legislation and currently being implemented in school districts throughout the nation. “Turnaround” strategy proposes that a school designated as “failing” –invariably on test scores — be closed and either replaced with a charter school or reopened as a new school, in the same facility, with a different principal and no more than fifty percent of the current teaching staff.

Not only does this concept presume that “bad teachers” are the primary cause of a school’s alleged failures, but it places no value on relationships that teachers build with students and their families, relationships that often last far beyond the time they were in class and are integral to student success and help sustain teacher morale even in the most daunting conditions.

Anyone who has been a teacher knows that building up the confidence of students and giving them the courage to realize their potential and find their voice involves more than classroom learning. It often requires individualized instruction and mentoring, joint participation in extracurricular activities and trips, and a commitment to maintain communication long after the student leaves your class.

When this happens, students come to see relationships with their teachers as sources of strength throughout their lives, a form of “cultural capital” that allows them to surmount obstacles and realize their dreams. In working class and poor communities, where families are under constant stress, lifetime communication with teachers can be the critical factor enabling students to stay in school in the face of crises that would crush most people.

as bad as they sayJanet Mayer’s wonderful new book, As Bad As They Say: Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx, provides example of example of how this longtime Bronx teacher supported her students through personal challenges that included evictions, murders, rapes, heatless homes, unemployed parents and responsibilities for raising younger siblings. This influence didn’t just take place when students were in Mayer’s classes. It often went on for 15 or 20 years after they left her school. And it led to students who could have easily fallen through the cracks becoming productive, successful citizens, some of them teachers themselves.

The power of relationship building — something that cannot be measured by student performance on standardized tests — is something I have experienced over and over again in my own teaching at the college level. The most transformative moments in my teaching have not taken place during class sessions, or on midterm or final examinations, but it individual encounters with students where they confront obstacles and with my help, confronted strategies to overcome them

An example of this from the late 90s remain etched in my memory. M was a Fordham basketball star from an Irish working class family in New Jersey, who along with some of her teammates, had enrolled in several of my Black history classes at Fordham. She was incredibly shy, never saying a word in class, but one day, she showed up in my office and started crying.

“Dr Naison,” she said, “I don’t belong at this school. I only got 800 on my SAT’s and I feel like everyone here is so much smarter than me. What am I going to do?”

I took a deep breath, prayed I wouldn’t screw this up, and started developing a strategy. “M, they aren’t smarter than you, they just have more educated parents and went to better high schools. But we are going to overcome that. Every time you write a paper, hand me a rough draft a week before and I will edit if for you. Before every test, come with your friends to my office and I will give you a strategy for studying as a group. And in return, you and your friends can work with me on my crossover and spin moves!”

The last comment drew a reluctant smile from M and she went to work. Little by little, she went from being a C student, to a B student, to getting B+’s and A-‘s in the last class she took with me during the second semester of her senior year. But the best part of this transformation was watching M find her voice.

By the time she graduated, she was not only participating regularly in class discussions, she was being perceived as a leader by her fellow students, including those who came in to the school with much higher SATs and grades. After she graduated from Fordham, M’s confidence only grew. After playing pro basketball in Europe for several years, she returned to New Jersey and became a teacher and coach, using her own hard-won confidence to build the confidence of others.

In my forty years at Fordham, I have built many relationships with individual students I have taught, some of whom have gone on to become mayors of cities, leaders of government agencies, world renowned scholars and journalists, but no teaching or mentoring experience has been more satisfying than the one I had with M.

Why?

Because M represents the majority of students attending schools in America’s poor and working class communities. They not only lack the skills that upper middle class students acquire in their families and the high performing schools they attend, they often suffer from a crippling lack of self-confidence in approaching the tasks that schools present.

mark naisonThat confidence deficit, I am convinced, is at least as important as the skills deficit and it cannot be overcome through test prep drills and group instruction. It requires individual attention from teachers, and not just in a classroom setting. It requires extra work and encouragement after school, on weekends, and sometimes long after the student leaves the teachers direct care.

If you rotate teachers in and out of schools at a dizzying rate and create pressures that drive them out of the profession after a few years, you will destroy the relationship building component that is at the heart of great teaching. Ironically, under the pressure of federal mandates, this is being done in the very communities that have the greatest need for inspired teaching and mentoring.

Mark Naison
With A Brooklyn Accent

Tuesday, 27 Augsut 2013

Comments

  1. JoeWeinstein says

    I have criticized one aspect of some of Mark’s past articles: his unconscious equation of education with mere schooling. Here he’s more on point: teaching is not mere schooling. But even teaching – the work of a person outside yourself – isn’t the heart of your own education. However, after self-action and self-education, teaching can be the second-most important thing.

    And here Mark is so right about teaching. It’s far more important than merely schooling. And it’s utterly despicable to be wrecking the careers and motives of teachers in order just to make schools look better (let alone with a zealot’s attitude that we must ‘destroy the schools in order to save them’)..

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