Teaching is relational.

For nearly two years, I have been volunteering regularly in primary-level classrooms at a local elementary school. Through continual participant observation and deeper engagement with the students, I have been able to understand more and more of their individual contexts and conditions. This individualized knowledge has made me increasingly aware of the complex roles of interpersonal relationships in learning and education, both inside and outside of the school and classroom. Social capital, the sum of one’s social connections and support systems, is such a valuable form of power and privilege. When I hear debates about funding and the economics of education, I am reminded of the schools I have seen in poor communities abroad. Many of them functioned on shockingly low budgets, with old materials and worn facilities; yet their students were not necessarily behind relative to students I work with in the United States. Money doesn’t make good schools and successful learners. Rather, it appears to me that students surrounded with strong social connections and attachments are at the best advantage. I believe teachers are able and accountable to equitably cultivate social capital for their students and school communities.

A young learner’s social context is a complex matrix of relationships between teachers, students, parents, families, schools, communities, classrooms (…) Since deciding to become a public elementary school teacher, my focus has shifted to the (potential) roles teachers can play in facilitating and cultivating the positive development of these relationships. Especially at the elementary school level, teachers are not just working with students; they must relate, connect, communicate, and negotiate with parents, families, colleagues (…) on a regular basis. This opens up a huge window for teachers to facilitate social community healing at the grass-roots level. This practice requires immense skills in building relationships and facilitating attachments with strangers who have a vast variety of different personalities and backgrounds. Therefore, I believe one of the best preparations for teaching lives in the interpersonal interactions I have with people in my everyday life. As I engage in the practice of building trust with other human beings and reflect on this process, my toolbox for taking these skills into my eventual classroom will continue to grow and reform.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching is relational.

  1. I agree about connecting with people – and actually engaging with people. Too often I notice (and sometimes I am guilty of) everyone just eager to have what they want to say without listening to everyone else. It’s time to listen. It’s time to engage.

  2. I think “abroad” is the important part of your statement. I think that money does matter in the United States. Its not all that matters but it matters quite a bit. Though the economy is valued in the U.S., for some strange reason, education is not equated with economy and programs get cut in the name of restoring the economy. Our value system is different here. If you look at Gutstein’s chapter in Rethiking our Classrooms, the chart of the 1997 SAT test scores show a significant correlation between income and test scores. There could be a lot of reasons for that. But we have to assume that people who go to poor schools in the United States tend to live in poverty. This could mean anything from poor nutrition to lack of healthcare and lack of adequate staffing and good teachers. Also, some kids who live in poverty (based on my own experience) are quite often distracted by the family’s financial problems. If they live in a ghetto, they may also be worried about crime and other social factors that affect their well-being. And there’s also the problem of many absentee parents who spend day and night working minimum wage jobs to pay the bills. So I do think that money matters in the United States. I wish it didn’t. But there is a reason that schools with more money, or with strong PTAs that fundraise a lot of money, tend to do better and attract more teachers and students than the poor schools. I think that a part of our job as developing educators is to try to figure out why that is and do our part to fix it.

  3. RLT says:

    I agree with you, Damaly, re: schools “abroad” versus in the United States. Our value systems definitely do not reflect those of many communities and cultures of schools in other regions of the world, in many critical ways. However, value systems are not static, permanent, unchangeable forms. As a part of a culture, a value system is fluid, adaptive, and constantly evolving. Just because our current value system does not support a different type of teaching and learning or living and loving, does that mean it can’t ever? Some of our readings have discussed the roles of schools and teachers in socializing students and (re)producing broader social inequalities. I believe as teachers we will be in a position to mold, shape, create, destroy, and rebuild cultural forms and values within our classrooms and communities. This process is never complete, but we will have the potential power to influence its development and trajectory. I am not saying that we can or should try to exactly replicate foreign models of education at home. I do believe we can study these forms alongside our own cultural forms, and develop an alternative condition of possibility for what we think our schools and classrooms should look and feel like. Then we can begin the process of transforming these cultural forms towards a goal of social justice and equity.

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