As education researcher Robert Marzano writes:
Positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction. If the relationship is strong, instructional strategies seem to be more effective. Conversely, a weak or negative relationship will mute or even negate the benefits of even the most effective instructional strategies.
The research is overwhelming about the importance of teachers having good relationships with students.
You can find a ton of it at The Best Resources On The Importance Of Building Positive Relationships With Students.
I was a community organizer for nineteen years prior to becoming a high school teacher seventeen years ago. I spent most of that time working for the Industrial Areas Foundation, one of the most successful community organizing groups in the United States.
In our work, and in pretty much every successful organizing effort you’ll find, one of the key elements is the individual meeting. An organizer’s belief is that a relationship really can’t be built outside of a one-on-one conversation where stories, dreams, and challenges are shared.
During my time as an organizer, I generally averaged twenty individual meetings each week, and I definitely did fewer than many other organizers.
You can read more about individual meetings in the context of organizing here:
Many of us face a school year of one-hundred percent distance learning. And many of face starting that year with 150 or more students who we have not known prior to the first day of school (I feel incredibly lucky – I have 140 students, and have had half of the in previous years).
When we’re in the physical classroom, though we might not sit down to have half-hour conversations (which is often what organizers do), we have many, many short individual interactions which add up over time. In addition, at least in our school, we are encouraged to have longer “walk-and-talks” with students during our prep periods (The Value Of Walk-And-Talks With Students).
Those individual conversations, where we learn what’s important to our students, what their personal situations are like, and what their dreams might be – those are the building blocks of relationships.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to create those kinds of building blocks in a virtual classroom (however, down the line, if you have a student teacher, it’s possible in a few months a cooperating teacher would be able to make the time for those kinds of short conversations in the breakout rooms when the student teacher is handling the class – but that will months from now).
So, what can we do?
In the spring I dealt with this challenge by scheduling once-each-week ten minute individual video conferences with each of my students every on Fridays and Monday.
Of course, I was focusing on my English Language Learner students at that point, so only had seventeen individual meetings a week, and I didn’t do any with my IB Theory of Knowledge students – that’s the difference between equity and equality – the more vulnerable students got more of my time.
This year, though our schedule is still being negotiated (even though school began yesterday), it looks like we’ll have time for live full-class instruction and a block of time for small group and individual support. There is a false belief that by throwing time at instruction (for example, our district is insisting that there be much, much more time in full-class live instruction than small group support), the result will be improved learning.
Again, it’s quality and not quantity (see QUALITY OVER QUANTITY, OR WHY OUR DISTRICT SHOULD RETHINK ITS FOCUS ON INCREASING INSTRUCTIONAL MINUTES). One-on-one time with students (or even smaller group instruction) will pay off in far more effective full class instruction.
I believe I might be able to fit three individual meetings into each of those periods when we don’t have full class instruction (a total of twenty-to-thirty each week). I’d love to do more. Since we’re doing classes twice each week, that means I’ll be able to do six each week for each class and, with luck, complete those individual meetings in five weeks.
That will be a lot of time investment, but I know it will pay off in vastly increased learning, a more positive virtual classroom environment, and a much more fulfilling experience for students and for me.
After that initial push, I figure I can then focus that time on my ELL students, along with TOK students who might be facing additional challenges.
What are your thoughts?