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I read an article in the New York Times recently that summarized research on the importance of teacher-student relationships in learning. Not surprisingly, they found that kids learn more from adults they like and respect. The part that stuck out for me was, “[The research] reminded us that what teachers really teach is themselves — their contagious passion for their subjects and students. It reminded us that children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.”
The article leaves off with this question: “How would you design a school if you wanted to put relationship quality at the core?” The author doesn’t address the question, but that’s ok because I’m happy to — we’ve put relationships at the heart of our work with teens.
For us, the foundation for any good relationship starts with consent and respect. This is why The Learning Cooperatives make everything we offer optional and young people are not required to attend. As individuals with diverse interests and abilities, their voices matter to us, and we respect their feelings about what and how they learn best. When I was a high school teacher, my relationship with students started with them being required to be in my class and to do the work that I assigned whether they were interested or not. If they didn’t comply with these conditions the school or I would make bad things happen to them — truancy, bad grades, detentions, demerits, etc. I had friendly relationships with many of my students, but it had a certain flavor because it was ultimately not based on consent. I also felt that often I had to disrespect the individuality of the students I worked with. I had my curriculum, I had my schedule, and if their pace, interests, or just their life outside of school didn’t fit with the program, tough luck.
One of the major reasons I left teaching and helped start Princeton Learning Cooperative was because I wanted to have a different quality of relationship with the young people and the families I worked with. I no longer wanted to make kids who didn’t want to be there, do things they didn’t want to do.
So to directly answer the question, “How would you design a school if you wanted to put relationship quality at the core?”:
- Adults offer their time, knowledge, resources, opportunities, and care to young people, and are willing to take “no” for an answer if no one is interested.
- Young people and their families can choose what they want to take part in based on their interests, goals, and abilities.
- Mentors set aside time each week to meet with the young people they mentor. They help them decide how to devote their time and energy, address challenges that come up, and take whatever next steps they have in mind.
Relationships can be complex. How you implement something like this on a day-to-day basis has its own challenges, but at heart, it’s simple — consent and respect.[Photo Credit: David DiMicco]