George Lucas Educational Foundation
Collaborative Learning

The Importance of Teaching Through Relationships

February 25, 2015

How do we teach through relationships? What does that even mean? That was my response when I began working at a school that holds teaching through relationships as a core value. Teaching through relationships posits that teachers who have knowledge about their students will be better able to teach them. It is a fundamental idea that most progressive educators have long embraced.

But teaching through relationships is more than that. Ultimately, it describes the complex social environment in which students and teachers converse, share experiences, and participate in activities that, together, make for engaged learning.

Initially, it was a phrase that I didn't think much about because I thought I "sort of knew" what it meant. But as I found myself in classroom situations in which the atmosphere was fraught with tension and misunderstandings with students -- resulting in a less than stellar teaching performance -- I thought about the phrase again and realized that I had more questions than I realized.

My problem with teaching through relationships was pretty straightforward; in my own education, and in my own early teaching practice, teaching was a formal affair, aligned with ideas of conventional professionalism that draw a very clear line between the teacher and the students.

This formal arrangement discourages fraternizing with students in the belief that when the role of teacher, mentor, and guide becomes confused with that of a friend or a buddy, the instructional waters become muddied. The phrase also has a subtext of ickiness that has difficulty distancing itself from scandal and inappropriate behavior.

Defining Teaching Through Relationships

However, teaching through relationships does not encourage this type of fraternizing. Instead, it embeds formal knowledge in the world in which it actually belongs and from which it is born: that of the complex, historical, and social world of being human.

While maintaining the formal relationship between students and teachers, teaching through relationships, when done well, recognizes the human stories of the learners themselves (they are not blank slates), as well as that of the teacher. It is an approach that embraces our complex identities, biographies, and the stories we bring that serve to humanize the subjects we teach.

Making these complexities part of our teaching "mix" helps to expand our knowledge beyond the artificial confines of a particular discipline.

I had to do a lot of self-reflection on why this approach was difficult for me to embrace. During my primary and secondary education, I never had close relationships with teachers, and I never remember teachers having a personal interest in me. (As I write this, I do remember one particular teacher who did take an interest in me, but that is another story and another blog post.)

Getting to know my teachers and my teachers getting to know me as a fellow human traveler was not something that I wished for, so this was fine with me. In retrospect, the relationships and opportunities that I could have had and didn't make me feel a bit regretful.

When I was in college, I did notice -- with some degree of awe and envy -- that some of my friends were able to form close alliances with their professors. At that time of my life, I believed that you had to be brilliant or one of the hip, savvy students who had the chutzpah to see professors as something akin to a mentor and not a remote authority figure. These savvy students went to parties with their professors and were invited to dinner at their homes to meet their families. That wasn't my story.

Yet I could see how much my friends achieved academically by having more than the lectures and books as their sources of instruction. They learned the real knowledge of a discipline, a knowledge that was largely social in nature and that gave them insight into the life of their teacher, and therefore a better understanding of the professional reality, work, gossip, and social constructs that together, along with formal knowledge, create what we call "a discipline."

Teaching through relationships passes the student through that mystical threshold when formal knowledge leads to hidden knowledge. What is hidden is the process of discovery itself and the connections between thought, everyday life, and other seemingly unrelated ideas and disciplines. When students are able to make this connection via "teaching through relationships," they begin to see themselves as co-learners along with their teachers, as well as with the greatest minds in history.

Putting It to Practice

So what is the role the teacher in this scenario? Firstly, it means getting to know the students' learning styles and where they are in terms of their knowledge, abilities, and potential. More importantly, it also means getting to know their interests, personality, and background. For the teacher, this body of knowledge opens up the possibilities of growth and dramatic learning opportunities.

Much of what we know about learning through relationships has its origins in the work of Lev Vygotsky, the child psychologist who asserted that learning is relational, and that language/conversation is central to the relational aspects of learning. Another reason that I admire Vygotsky's work is his emphasis on the role of community and how that facilitates the learning process.

I am also inspired by the philosophy of Martin Buber and his idea that consciousness itself only arises through relationship. Buber understood that the social framework of teaching is fundamental to how we learn and to the development of human culture in general. Buber was an early proponent of the idea that the best way to teach a student is to see him or her not as an "it," but as a whole, complex, and empathetic human being.

The Spoke in the Wheel

My challenges with building relationships in the classroom reached a peak when I found myself in a situation where the students were not very friendly to each other. The silence was not that of students focused on their work, but of the social awkwardness of people not able or willing to bridge a social gap.

The social grease that very often is seen as a distraction was absent, and I realized that the class lacked the social vibe that energizes the classroom. When addressing this problem with colleagues, I was advised that I be "the spoke in the wheel" -- the active agent who built relationships between my students by getting to know them and asking friendly questions about their interests and background.

That also became a way for them to get to know each other. So, in addition to the teacher-student dyad, this opened up a third component of teaching through relationships, that of the students' relationships with each other as friends, colleagues, and co-learners.

Slowing Down

One of the many challenges I had with the social aspects of teaching was that it appeared to be getting in the way of instruction. If I wasn't directly addressing the lesson at hand, but instead talking about Hakim's interest in the ukulele, then I was wasting time. There was always the next lesson to cover and a limited amount of time to get through the curriculum.

I've since learned that taking time to get to know your students will better help communicate the formal aspects of your curriculum. It helps facilitate the possible connections you make. It alerts each student that he or she is seen as another being and, in response, makes them all more attentive. By slowing down and maybe not getting through the entire scope of your curriculum, you create opportunities to go deeper.

This is a topic that I am still exploring every day, and I don't yet have as much insight as I would like, so please share in the comments section below your stories and insights about the relational aspects of learning and teaching.  

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