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Relationship-Based Practices for Today’s Students

Last updated: 10-29-2019

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Relationship-Based Practices for Today’s Students

As a longtime K–16 educator now in the field of teacher preparation, I am struck by the emergence of generational shifts over time. Somehow, in the past thirty seconds or so, I blinked and now find myself among the ranks of “older” teachers, sometimes bemoaning the “way things used to be,” but just as often reminding myself to appreciate new trends and characteristics of schools and classrooms that enrich the lives of teachers and young people growing together to make the world a better place.

I am a believer that the heart of all teaching and learning is firmly rooted in relationships of mutual trust, respect, and care. But I also believe we need to never stop asking ourselves what that means. What does “mutual respect” or “caring” or “trust” or “relationship” look like in real life? If I walk into your classroom, what will I see that will allow me to understand what you believe?

The generation of our current K–12 youth has universal characteristics — desire for independence and decision-making, risk-taking, and a desire for both freedom and boundaries. But Generation Z also has unique traits, such as high connectivity with social media, an increased need for purpose and meaning, a desire for collaboration and communication, and a sense of adventure and curiosity. They also are the most diverse generation ever to exist in our country. The question guiding me now as a teacher is this: How might we mindfully see, listen to, and respond to our students as individuals within a collaborative community in an increasingly diverse and global society?

Classrooms are filled not with bar-coded “normative” and “non-normative” clumps of kids but with individuals who are on unique pathways of learning and growing and being. Diversity often refers to identity markers that are measurable or observable — race, ethnicity, economic strata, gender, ability, and age. We also tend to frame those different from the norm (which is white, middle-class, able-bodied, English-speaking, cisgender) as “less than” or burdensome — implying that students with disabilities, those with limited language, those from conditions of poverty or trauma, for example, create added chores in a teacher’s day, rather than as opportunities to implement creative ways to teach that draw on every student’s strengths. Diversity in the classroom is a gift, not a burden; every student is worthy of our responsive care.

A few facts to ponder: More than 50 percent of K–12 students are non-white, around 10 percent are English language learners, and one in five students live in poverty.[1] Eight percent of adolescents self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and 3 percent are transgender or do not identify according to a traditional binary; these students are at significantly higher risk of bullying, assault, and suicidal ideation.[2] Disability rates, representing a wide range of conditions, remain constant at about 14 percent receiving special education services, almost all of whom spend at least part of the day in inclusive general-education classrooms.[3] Youth today have a higher prevalence of mental health challenges than past generations, perhaps due to increasing awareness and better evaluation but also due to conditions of poverty such as food or shelter insecurity, environmental factors, an increasingly polarized and anxious world, and “always-on” technology access. Refugee families are impacted by trauma that may be challenging for teachers to comprehend.

These are the children and youth we need to learn to see — really see — for all their challenges and potential. A strength-based lens allows us to see every child as valuable to the classroom as a whole.

To be responsive to students, teachers must be learners — find out what makes our students tick, what they value and love, where they find joy, what worries them, what they offer to our classroom and to society beyond the school walls. Learn about other countries and cultures, about how distinct dis/abilities and conditions manifest themselves, about how youth define themselves in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. We must educate ourselves around conditions of poverty and honor students’ distinctive family configurations. And we need to work mindfully to withhold judgment and to recognize biases and assumptions.

I can think of examples of confronting my own biases, often painfully, in light of new recognition of identities of my students. When I first began teaching back in the 1980s, I valued non-normative sexual orientations. I first taught a self-identified transgender youth in the 1990s and advocated for that student to find a bathroom to use long before gender-neutral bathrooms were heard of in schools.[4] But the neutral pronoun “they” was nowhere on my — or my colleagues’ — radar until we arrived in the twenty-first century, and even then, as a longtime high school English teacher, I was uncomfortable with the term as defying so-called proper grammar. I am ashamed to admit that I allowed my longstanding belief in what was “proper” to take priority over students’ selfhood. In the past five years I have changed the pronouns in my writing and speaking to reflect “he/she/they,” a change long overdue.

I have other instances too — how I came to better understand racial and religious identities of students; what it means to be a refugee from another country (including exploring maps and studying elements of the language and culture); what expressions I grew up saying that stem from unexamined prejudices and that I still catch at the tip of my tongue; how I learned not to judge parents, especially mothers, who were doing the best they could for their children; and so on. My questions and reflections — about my students and myself — open up new possibilities of working in relationships of trust and respect with young people. I don’t aim to know everything about my students or to answer all the questions; I just hope to keep finding the right questions to ask.

In a relationship-based pedagogy, teachers must be reflexive about our place in a given context and receptive to the lived realities of our students. Certain ideologies and practices help build healthy rapport and interactions and may require further professional development to understand and implement effectively. These ideas are really more of a mindset, not “extra” work on our plates. In fact, in most cases, they help streamline and enliven our work by focusing on engagement, compassion, and relationship. They may mean, however, stepping outside our comfort zones, holding our assumptions in an open palm to recognize our own potential to learn more.

Differentiated instruction means providing diverse opportunities for students to engage in learning, through variations and options in content, teaching processes, and student products.[5] It relies on teachers getting to know their students to help set them up for success in their learning and growth. For years in my own practice, I have taken differentiation to heart to accommodate challenges and encourage talents. I have deepened and broadened my own education in doing so, learning from students about new ideas and approaches, and learning how to engage in ongoing tweaking of pedagogy to keep me refreshed as an educator.

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a similar ideology and practice.[6] Culture is defined as a way of life, including attitudes, values, goals, and social behavior, shared by a group of people.[7] CRT applies to all dimensions of culture that students bring with them into classrooms as part of their identities. It includes aspects of whole-school climate and policies; a teacher’s recognition and understanding of self and others’ identity, biases and assumptions, privilege and oppressions; and practices that reflect and support responsiveness to all students.[8] CRT requires attention to go beyond tokenism and one-off moments of recognizing difference, believing that students from all cultures and backgrounds have “funds of knowledge”[9] that are legitimate and valuable.

Once, in teaching a poetry-writing assignment, a tenth-grade ELL student explained, “I can write these in Vietnamese, but they don’t sound right in English.” His distress came from understanding a fundamental truth — to translate his poetry would be to diminish its power. I asked him to read his poems out loud to me, even though I did not know a single word of Vietnamese, and they were indeed lovely. I asked him to read them again, this time stopping to note what he felt was important for me to know. He paused often to explain a clever play with sound or meaning, or a cultural reference, and the poems sprang to life for me. In that moment, I learned something about the Vietnamese language and about my student as a talented writer; as importantly, he learned that I valued him and his culture, even if I didn’t understand it.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) addresses ways to enhance our students’ well-being, in particular skills of self-regulation, focus, resilience, and mindfulness. Sometimes a student needs additional supports, guidance, or options toward making a better choice, and we teachers can help provide that scaffolding. Better self-regulated students are a win all around — for that student, for the teacher, and for the other students in the classroom. Mindfulness has become common in education circles today, and, while I shy away from mandated classroom practices of mindfulness, there is value in providing opportunities for students to reflect, to find ways to block the “noise” of life bombarding them, to manage stress, and to learn to clear the mind to focus on the spirit or heart. SEL requires intentional practice that begins with ourselves as teachers and learners as we model mindfulness and self-regulation.

Trauma-informed teaching relates to principles of SEL and CRT and requires us to form strong one-on-one bonds with trauma-impacted students to help them heal or cope. One educator summed it up succinctly: “Relationships have to come before content.”[10] Trauma is likely more pervasive in our classrooms than we realize, and we must tread carefully. To create safe schools and classrooms, many of us may require more professional development. I recently heard of an outstanding program known as RULER run by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, available to schools of all grades and ages.[11]

Restorative justice (RJ) situates harm as being about fractured relationships and attempts to rebuild those fractures through meaningful accountability. Again, a move toward RJ practices requires doing it right — specialized workshops and supports that go beyond a superficial implementation. It is intended to be inclusive and respectful of diverse views, to work with students to find solutions to conflict.[12]

Engaged learning, in which students participate in the classroom beyond passive receptivity of material, builds lifelong habits for success and focuses on strong relationships. But it is also just plain good pedagogy for today’s students. Engaged learning leads to stronger motivation, reducing problematic behaviors and leading to greater depth of knowledge across academic disciplines, and it better aligns with the strengths and needs of Gen Z who crave interactivity, meaning, purpose, collaboration, and creativity.[13]

To return to the initial question:How might we mindfully see, listen to, and respond to our students as individuals within a collaborative community in an increasingly diverse and global society? We can begin with self-reflection and an openness to learning from all our students; we can work with school leaders to implement practices and professional development that help us answer this question; and we can view our students through a strength-based understanding of their presence as a precious gift to be valued.


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