So last summer I was having dinner with a great friend of mine, John Stephens, who also just happens to be one of the best educators that I know, and we got speaking about (for fun and from our own unique perspectives) what the top priorities should be for teachers as they look to inspire learning this year with their students. We went back and forth for a long time discussing things like inclusive assessment practices and strategies, differentiated lesson design approaches like UDL, specific and timely feedback, and things like that. Finally I said, “okay, on the count of three, let’s both yell out our number one priority above all the rest. The one thing that is at the very top of the list without question, and the one priority that in our minds is the foundational pillar of great teaching”.
“Are you ready? One, two, three, Go!” And at the exact same moment without hesitation we both yelled out, “Relationship Building!” At that point we smiled big smiles, we grabbed another drink, and we immediately dove into an even longer conversation about why, in our heart of hearts, we both felt that way. It turned into a discussion that I’ll never forget, and it made me even more resolute in my belief that the relationship that we develop with each of our students is the foundational piece that must absolutely drive everything else that we do as educators…honestly, it’s all about relationships.
The interesting thing about part of our conversation though, is that we both admitted that when we were very young teachers, many moons ago, we didn’t necessarily see things this way. Back then we assumed that being a good teacher simply meant deeply knowing our content and curriculum and having solid lessons and strong unit designs, which of course good teachers do have and still prioritize, but the idea of prioritizing relationship building wasn’t something that was at the forefront of our thinking. We both understood that having a good relationship with a student would certainly be helpful, but it wasn’t something that we set out to purposely and explicitly target as an imperative.
Well, things have drastically changed for us over the years, and we’ve both grown into this unwavering “relationships first” stance over time. It’s interesting too, that John has spent most of his career in public education back in Canada and I have spent mine in international education around the world, but you know what, kids are kids are kids everywhere you go, and all kids want to feel seen, valued, successful, and loved by the adults in their lives, and of course this absolutely includes their teachers. We both agreed that at some point in our growth as educators a shift happened in our thinking and we began “leading with love” so to speak, not just at the beginning of the year but at the beginning of all our daily classes and lessons, and with every one of our student interactions throughout the entire school year.
We began prioritizing knowing the faces in front of us in deep and meaningful ways, and we began cultivating a classroom environment which was safe, secure, and inclusive. We made “mistake making” a celebration instead of something to be ashamed of, and we began seeing the students in our classes as little extended family members. In essence, we organically, and through great mentorship, shifted our perspective of what being a “good teacher” truly meant, and when that shift finally happened we were able to become the teachers and role models that our students needed, and the teachers that we always wanted to be.
Not surprisingly, when this shift happened it was our very real experience that our students started to do better not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well. The feedback that we received through our student surveys improved dramatically, and anecdotally the levels of joy, engagement, and freedom that we witnessed in our classes exploded. Personally, I’m really excited about the recent and heavy push from schools all over the world to prioritize wellness, social-emotional learning, and belonging within their communities, and their specific targeting of relationship building as a pillar connected to strategic planning makes my heart grow a few sizes. It’s absolutely the right approach in our disconnected, post-covid and social media driven world, and you know what, we will be all the better for it, especially our kids.
You see, It doesn’t matter if you are a lower elementary classroom teacher, a middle school science teacher, a high school math teacher or in an administrative position at your school, the relationships first stance and the leading with love approach has to be our top priority. So with that in mind, and on the count of three, let’s shout it out together and smile our wide collective smiles…ready, set, go…relationship building! Let’s all lead with love as our default this year, in every interaction that we have with students and with each other as well, and watch how our school culture positively and beautifully responds…and you know what, it will. Have a wonderful week ahead everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.
Quote of the Week…
Teachers who put relationships first don’t just have students for one year. They have students who view them as “their” teacher for life – Justin Tarte
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