Can Relationships Truly Come First?

This morning, a fellow educator and friend of mine, Jonathan So, tweeted me this link to his recent blog post. There’s a lot to consider in this post, and contrary to what I usually do, I didn’t comment right away. I thought. This afternoon, I posted this comment, which may almost be as long as the post itself.

Jonathan’s reply made me realize that I needed to do more than reply again, but instead, write this post of my own.

I totally understand what Jonathan is saying here, and in so many ways, I agree with his sentiments. Here’s the problem though: when I read this line, “As a teacher I have had to give up control, and let go of that “Oh I could have used that 40 minutes to cover curriculum” feeling.,” my heart started to beat faster. Am I okay with these sentiments? That’s when I thought back to this post that I wrote on The MEHRIT Centre blog, and my question of, what constitutes curriculum? 

I think that my biggest struggle is that as much as I may know that …

  • relationships matter the most,
  • students need to feel safe and loved in order to learn,
  • school is about more than just academics,
  • mental health and well-being matters both for adults and for children, and we can impact each other: positively and negatively,
  • our new Board vision has “positive culture and well-being” as its first priority,

how do we put academics second? I’m a Kindergarten teacher, and with our new program document, we have more open-ended expectations than probably any other grade. I’m lucky to work at a school with children that have supportive parents, diverse life experiences, strong oral language skills, a solid understanding of texts and how they communicate messages to others, an interest in writing, many opportunities to play with numbers, and a genuine interest in math and its connection to the real world. These students amaze me every day with what they say and do. I know that I don’t need to be worried about school or Board benchmarks in reading, writing, or math, and yet …

  • do I always try to push a connection to reading, writing, or math, even if one does not naturally exist?
  • do I capture more “academic” moments because I think that they may be more well-received than the self-regulation ones?
  • do I question if colleagues, administrators, or parents wonder if I read enough with students, write enough with them, and provide enough direct instruction?
  • do I try to always make parallels to expectations because I worry if others will see and think as I do?

We can believe that relationships matter the most. We say say that relationships matter the most. But how do we consistently put this as our top priority in our classrooms, and how do we keep it there even if our test scores slip? I know that scores aren’t everything, and like Jonathan, I wonder how successful we’d be at meeting the scores if we didn’t work on some of these relationships first. I’m lucky to work with an amazing teaching partner that believes strongly in the power of these connections, and continues to support, encourage, and inspire me along the way. I’m not going to let go of …

and our many classroom times talking with, listening to, and playing with students. I know they make a difference. Maybe though, in the coming months, as I work on my new one word goal (“perspective”), I’ll get better at readily capturing and sharing these times, and not always being concerned about those academic linksWhat do you think: in a world of “benchmarks,” can relationships in the classroom truly come first, and if so, what do we need in place for this to happen? 


4 thoughts on “Can Relationships Truly Come First?

  1. Hi Aviva,

    Thanks for adding your thoughts here. I tagged you in the post because I really have been admiring your work with self-regulation and the mehrit center. To be honest the work you have done has led me to have some amazing success in my home life with my daughter. Which in turn has led me to really think more about what drives learning or what should be driving our learning?

    So I am going to add the additional comment I made on my blog here too:

    Okay so to add some more thought here. I am going to be starting with a tough question:

    What was the reason you became a teacher?

    I know it’s a huge opener but I think this may help. I know for me this goal has really shifted and to be honest that shift happened when I became a parent and more importantly a parent with a child in school. If you asked me this question three years ago (which I was still a parent but Izzy wasn’t in school yet), I would have said to teach and mold students. To bring them joy in learning, to help them grow to their full potential. I loved the looks on their faces when they learned a new word, made an accomplishment in their learning and felt a sense of pride at their learning. I wanted to be a part of this. But I think deep down inside this really wasn’t driving me.

    A lot changed when Izzy went to school. A lot changed because for the first time I realized how much a teacher’s relationship to their students mattered. I saw my very vibrant, happy and outgoing daughter become a quiet, troubled and angry child. I saw her hate school because to her it wasn’t a safe place. I saw her hate learning and shut down and run the other way. I couldn’t even read with her at home because she associated that with school. I also saw an amazing teacher build her back up. It has taken some time and she still shuts down when things get hard but she is a lot happier and wants to learn. I attribute this to amazing teachers who saw my daughter for who she was. A teacher who laughed at her quirks and built a relationship so that they could develop better models for her learning. I have seen first hand what learning about self-regulation and modeling being calm can do as a parent and as a teacher.

    Now I see myself has still molding for the future but more as a guide. Someone who is there to help unlock potential. I want kids to see that learning and school are not separate things but a place to find who you truly are as a person. I want them to feel the love of learning for the sake of learning not because some 156 page document tells me I have to learn it. One thing I have really learned from Izzy, I cannot make her do anything she really doesn’t want to do. All I can do is help her see that she should learn it. The same goes for students in the classroom. We as teachers cannot force any learning on them. They have to want to learn. The only way to help them see that learning is important is building a relationship so you can talk to them about it. Just some thoughts. Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jonathan, and for continuing this very important conversation. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you wrote since I read your comment before bed last night. If I think about why I became a teacher, it was “to help kids learn.” It’s because I believe in the value of education and the fact that every child can learn. I’m torn here, for I think that academics are a HUGE part of learning, but I think that relationships often allow us to get to these academics, especially with some of our more challenging students. Kids need to know that we care about them, that we believe in them, that they’re in a safe environment to take risks, and that we’re there to support them when needed. I don’t have my own children, and I so appreciate your story about your daughter and how she helped you realize the value in these relationships. For me, this realization came a number of years ago when I taught a student that made me see that some of my old strategies weren’t working. In an effort to help this student succeed, I was challenged to think about “relationships” differently and truly put “relationships” first. Reading Dr. Shanker’s book, CALM, ALERT, AND LEARNING, around this time, also gave me some new ideas. We all need our “awakening.”

      I see the value in these relationships. I know that they matter, and I spend A LOT of time cultivating them. But they’re also what I question the most. I’m usually more reluctant to share these “non-academic” times in our day, and your post and this discussion, is making me think about this more. If this same time was spent on reading, writing, or math, I would be sure to capture it. Why the difference? Is it because I question if others will see the value in these relationship building times? Is it because, as much as we believe that “relationships matter the most,” school seems to be synonymous with academics? Maybe this thinking is changing. Maybe we need to change it more. Maybe I need to be just a little less worried. I’m curious to know what others think.


      P.S. I will cross-post this comment to your blog as well to continue this discussion in both places.

  2. Aviva and Jonathan, your conversation here has really prompted me to do some thinking! We often talk the talk about the importance of relationships – relationships come first; Maslow before Bloom; we teach kids not curriculum – but how is that evident in our schools and classrooms? If I walk into a classroom, what would I see, hear and notice that indicate that the educators in this classroom put relationships first?
    And perhaps that is part of the issue. In the past, our board (like all public boards in Ontario) had a Board Improvement Plan for Student Achievement and each school had it’s own School Improvement Plan for Student Achievement with measurable goals for math and literacy. We now have Board/School Improvement Plans for Student Achievement and Well-Being. Our goals used to be specific EQAO targets and now they are if/then statements about engaging and empowering staff, students and the community. When board goals shift from student achievement alone to achievement and well-being, I think that supports teachers in continuing to emphasis building relationships with students and families.
    However, I don’t think that shift in measuring achievement has taken hold just yet. There is still an emphasis in the media and the community, both within schools and outside, on math and literacy scores. We can look at EQAO data or literacy benchmarks to gauge our success or challenges, but we haven’t yet really figured out how to measure (or if we should measure) how we are doing with building relationships and fostering well-being. that students learn better when they feel safe, secure and connected.
    In many of our schools teachers engage in collaborative inquiry and usually the goals are around math or literacy learning for students. In one secondary school, teachers conducted an inquiry that focused on building relationships with students, and used attendance as one measure of success. They felt that if students had a strong relationship with at least one teacher, that might lead to a stronger sense of belonging and decrease absenteeism. In several elementary schools, teachers focused on self-regulation and emotional literacy as their inquiry to support student learning. In the past, those types of projects probably wouldn’t have happened.

    • Thank you so much for chiming in on this conversation, Lisa, and for sharing your experiences. I think that you make a lot of important points, and in many ways, our experiences overlap. Your questions in the first paragraph really hit home with me. I actually had a conversation about this blog post with a colleague today. She made a wonderful point. She said that even when we do capture and share these “relationship/self-regulation/well-being experiences,” we feel as though we have to justify them. Do we feel that same way about sharing academic experiences? I think that this is something to consider. Changes are happening, and a push towards making mental health and well-being a priority, is definitely helping. This is so different than what we were accustomed to in the past, and maybe that’s why it’s a hard shift to make. The story though about the secondary school is an uplifting one and a good reminder about what’s possible. I’d love to hear more of these stories.


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