Teaching is all about relationships (kind of)

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Last month, I wrote a post on how the statement, ‘All behaviour is communication,’ is a ‘deepity’. Introduced as a concept by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, a deepity is something that can be read on two levels. On the first level, it is true but trivial, whereas on the second level it is false but if it were true then it would have huge implications. The ambiguity of these two levels therefore gives an extraordinary claim a kind of legitimacy and profundity.

At the end of the post, Chester Draws, who regularly comments on my blog, suggested that the phrase ‘teaching is all about relationships’ also qualifies as a deepity. And you can see his point. Teaching involves a teacher and at least one student and so, trivially perhaps, there has to be some form of relationship in play at all times. But the grander claim that is hiding within the deepity is that relationships are the most important aspect of teaching; more important than content knowledge, planning, designing good assessment questions and so on. Furthermore, the phrase behooves us to cultivate relationships as a top priority, perhaps by getting all into our students’ business and trying to be their buddy.

I’m with Chester on this but I think there is something missing from the discussion. Although it may be trivial that all teaching involves relationships, I think that many of us think about this the wrong way. There are elements of good teaching that are commonly ignored or discarded but that function to enhance productive teacher-student relationships and it’s worth reminding ourselves of what these are.

In order for students to learn from a teacher, a key prerequisite is that they listen to what the teacher has to say. This is at the heart of the teacher-student relationship. There needs to be respect. It helps if students are actually facing the teacher: seating children in rows so that none have their back to the teacher is literally all about teacher-student relationships.

The minds of even the most willing students will wander from time-to-time and this is why teaching must be interactive, with the teacher peppering any discussion with questions or tasks for students to complete. While I am teaching, I am constantly scanning my students’ faces for signs of confusion or disengagement; I am assessing the state of the teacher-student relationship. I find it odd that there has been a fashion for putting videos of teaching on the internet and asking students to watch these at home. It is as if nobody has considered the human factor; the relationships.

Strong behaviour policies are about encouraging productive relationships, both between teachers and students and between students themselves. Anxiety is likely to fill-up working memory resources and degrade academic performance and strong behaviour policies mitigate these effects by squeezing out opportunities for bullying and intimidation. When I read Kris Boulton’s recent post about visiting a school with a strong behaviour policy, I was struck by the fact that it was basically a commentary on the quality of relationships. And this is not a surprise.

I am aware, of course, that those who sermonise about the importance of relationships in teaching probably have very different kinds of teacher-student relationships in mind. And I think that points to the way out of a land of totemic deepities. Instead of opining about the existence of relationships, the discussion would be better served if we described the kinds of relationships we think are important and we explained why, as I have started to do above. It might lead to a better understanding of the positions of those we disagree with.

Teaching is all about relationships (kind of), so let’s agree, move on and discuss the kinds of relationships that good teachers should foster.


2 thoughts on “Teaching is all about relationships (kind of)

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    Can we please drop this ‘relationship’ business altogether? Teachers have quite enough to ‘reflect’ about already, and the last thing they need to do is worry about how they relate to their pupils. Good teachers vary enormously in personality and temperament, and nothing whatever is accomplished by making them self-conscious about it. Kids will sniff this out immediately, and like any other weakness, it will be exploited.

    The teacher I recall most vividly was my Yr 9 English teacher, who we called ‘Moose’ behind her back. She was morose and obese, and I can’t recall her ever cracking a smile or betraying any emotion other than a quiet determination to maintain control of her class and instill as much appreciation of Victorian poetry and literature as possible–and ensure we could parse sentences and not use apostrophes in possessive pronouns. Her brother and my mother’s brother were old childhood friends, but never once did she refer to this–which was hardly surprising, as she never talked to any pupil privately after class. Whatever else we might have thought of her, we all knew she was the best teacher in the school.

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