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It’s All About Relationships

Traditional schools struggle establishing relationships within academic settings. Most schools begin their relationship-building by the teacher receiving a student roster telling them who is assigned to each of their teaching periods, while students receive a class schedule telling them who their teachers will be during the year. Actually the two groups who do a much better job within the traditional school establishing relationships are athletic coaches and fine arts’ directors. Athletes and performing and visual arts’ students usually have the option to spend multiple years with their coaches and directors. If that happened with a math student in traditional school space, it would be highly irregular. I always thought it was interesting that those two groups, coaches and directors, who were often criticized by academic teachers as having an easier job than those in the classroom, were the adults who usually had the best relationships with kids.

To make matters worse, most traditional middle and high schools expect their students to attend 6-8 classes a day, with each of those periods being 45-55 minutes long. Some schools offer some sort of block scheduling that offers longer periods of time in class, but the time gained over a two-week period is minimal. Most secondary teachers carry a student load of 150+. So, if you are a teacher who is meeting with 150 or more students a day over 6-8 45-minute sessions, how are you supposed to build a deep relationship with all of those kids? Even elementary school classrooms, with 22 youngsters, only offer those kids one year to build a relationship with their teacher and then they move a grade and meet up with a new classroom instructor. A few elementary schools “loop,’ meaning students stay with their teachers more than one school year, but that is a rarity.

Clearly, we can do better than this when it comes to developing relationships between adult learning leaders and young learners. What might a new way of relationship-building look like moving forward?

Learners have distinct styles when it comes to how they learn. Adult learning leaders, likewise, have their own coaching style. What if we used an algorithm process by which learner styles and adult learning coaching styles were paired, sort of like a learner matching app for learners and their coaches? Learners would be able to review potential coaches, and learning coaches would be able to review learners and their families. Questions like “When do you like to learn?” “Where do you like to learn?” How do you like to learn?” could be asked along with others. 

How would learning relationships be different if we approached matches this way versus the roster/schedule system? Have you ever thought about how many learners, if given a choice, would approve the set of teachers a school assigns them inside the traditional system?

Once styles are paired, then the relationship can push forward through the creation of a learning plan. The learning plan focuses on skill development in 7 areas – reading, writing, oral communication, mathematical problem-solving, scientific problem-solving, social problem-solving, and character development. The learner and their learning coach can always add to their learning plan (it’s always a good idea to include an activity or two that the young learner is currently passionate about.) The learning coach and the young learner focus on three questions about these skills: 1) What do I/we want to learn about this? 2) How do I/we know that I’ve/we’ve learned it? and 3) What will I/we do if I/we haven’t learned it? The learning relationship is also strengthened by daily check-ins and weekly conferences whereby the learning coach and the young learner discuss progress toward the goals contained within the learning plan and any struggles associated with the work.

The learning coach, whether a parent or other, is the “head coach” in this relationship-building process, but there are other adults who can play a role in supporting the young learner’s learning plan. Other adults include a number of “assistant coaches,” like grandparents, neighbors, mentors, tutors, and the like. Other adults connected to the learning plan can include experts, like a gifted calculus specialist, who can support the work of the head coach and their assistant coaches to make the young learner smarter and stronger.

Which one sounds better as a learner? Is it receiving a class schedule while teachers receive a student roster, and this is the way relationships begin? Or, is it identifying a learning coach and learner who like to learn in similar ways, allowing those two to create a robust and progressive learning plan, and attracting a “coaching staff” of supporters and experts? I know which one I would choose.

When I was a principal, I asked this question of students participating in my student leadership group: Why was your favorite teacher your favorite? I don’t remember one young person giving an academic-based answer. They never answered “smart,” “intelligent,” “high IQ.” Most answers given were “trusting,” “caring,” “willing to go the extra mile,” and others focused on habits important to building strong and deep relationships. In the end, humans aren’t robots. We depend on and prosper when time is spent building important relationships. This process is paramount when it comes to quality learning. 

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