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The 'Magic' of Student-Teacher Relationships

Monday, March 05, 2012 - 11:00 AM

Britney spent more time in the hall than in the classroom. She fought any time that the opportunity presented itself, and involved herself readily in any and all drama in the school.

Laura Klein head shot Laura Klein

A very bright girl, she simply couldn’t stay out of trouble. All that trouble led to her being held back, so that by the time I had her in my class, she had already been through eighth grade once.

Often teachers who pull the best out of a troubled student are considered to be transforming -- even magical. As a teacher, it feels wonderful to have others marvel at the great work a child is doing in your class, especially when they haven’t found success previously.

When we saw changes in Britney this year -- she came to class, did her work, actively participated, even stopped hanging out with the kids who were always in trouble -- we felt like we were having an impact on her.

But with teaching, it’s always hard to know just how much of the results are the result of good teaching. Perhaps it is good parenting, or the work of previous teachers. Sometimes it is just the result of a child maturing and coming into her own.

Still, when a child succeeds in your class for the first time in her academic career, it is one of the rare occasions when you can feel as if you had something to do with it. And you are probably right. There’s a good chance that the relationship that you have with that student has played an important role in her success. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

When I see the names on my roster each fall, there are always a couple that make me nervous -- names notorious throughout the building of my middle school for causing problems, fighting, producing little work.

Each year some of these kids do transform before my eyes. They flourish in a classroom with two teachers and more consistency throughout their day (my students have me and my co-teacher for math, English and social studies, allowing them fewer transitions).

It’s wonderful to see them grow confident and feel successful. They thrive because of the structure of the class, and also because of the relationships that they build with us while with us for so many periods a day.

However, the reality is that this situation will change for them at the end of the year. They will leave our little room and go into a new school, filled with transitions and challenges.

Often these kids who we feel the best about are the ones on whom we have the smallest impact.

Britney (her name, like the names of all students in my posts, has been changed to protect her privacy) has shown herself to be an exceptionally bright, personable student this year, and 90 percent of the time she resists the temptation to stray. She knows that we like her, and she wants to please us. When she senses that we are disappointed, she will linger after class, trying to correct her mistake.

But next year we won’t be there, and there may not be a relationship that she is trying to preserve. What will happen then?

Kids who succeed because of us are not kids who have the tools to succeed in the long run.

“Don’t do it for me; care about yourself,” my co-teacher often says to our students, who promise that they will improve, make us happy. But in middle school kids, that seems to be a lot to ask.

In theory, teaching should not be about relationships. This was told to me time and again when I was training to teach.

“It’s not your job to be their friend, so you can’t get upset if they don’t like you.”

When I first started teaching, it was pounded into my head that I needed to offer a concrete set of rewards and consequences, rather than relying on reason and relationships.

“Your punishment can’t just be, ‘I’m mad at you,’” my mentor told me.

But a bad relationship can cause a child to shut down, to refuse to do work, to cut class. And sometimes while they are working to please a teacher whom they like, they discover their hidden strengths.

You can’t devalue the importance of relationships when you are teaching middle school, but you also need to recognize the limits.

Relationships matter -- but they aren’t enough.

I feel great when I build a relationship with a child that benefits that student. But I also feel let down when, the next year, stories float back to me that show that my impact didn’t last very long.

A good relationship can change a child’s year, but it doesn’t usually change her life. For that, we have to change the way that students relate to themselves.


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