It's the Relationships, Stupid . . .

Learning, Teacher Quality

I’m spending my days observing the two-week summer session of the Inspired Teaching Institute, a yearlong professional development program from Center for Inspired Teaching, a remarkable organization that prepares and supports DC teachers. The institute, described as “a 100% physical, intellectual, and emotional process through which teachers explore the art of teaching in an energetic and safe environment,” is taking place each day in the wrestling room of a DC high school in a leafy green neighborhood of Washington, DC.
The room is large and open. There are no seats, and homemade signs and placards, most of which feature memorable ideas about teaching and learning, cover the walls:
“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.”

”It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained; to be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

“The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world – and become one’s key to the experience of others.”
Although I’ll be producing several longer pieces about Inspired Teaching and their summer Institute, I want to briefly share an activity from yesterday that sparked an essential insight into the nature of teaching and learning – and what it is we adults must prioritize in our efforts to help all children learn.
Towards the end of the day, Inspired Teaching founder Aleta Margolis, a veteran educator and former actor with an aura of presence that stems from her previous time on stage, asked the participants to brainstorm the first things they thought of in response to the following prompt: “What are the questions kids ask when they’re in school?”
A torrent of predictable answers greeted her request:

What’s that? Why are we doing this? What are we supposed to do? Can I go to the bathroom? Can I get up now? How is this going to help me in real life? Can I go with you? How much do you get paid? Do you have a boyfriend? Can I go home with you? Where are we going? How much longer? Can I have this? Do you sleep here? Can I go to the nurse? What if? Can I have some water? Can you get him to stop? Why is that teacher so mean? Is it time to go? Can we go outside? Can we have extra recess? What’s my grade? Can I do extra credit? Why’d you call my house? When is that due? Can I sit by you? Are you allowed to do that? How old are you? Is she OK? Are you getting fired? Do you love me?
Then Aleta asked a different question – “What are the questions kids ask when they’re curious and wondering about the world around them?”

Can you show me? Did you see that? Can I try? Am I doing it right? Can I take it home? What does this do? How do I stop? Will I get hurt? Will you catch me? How fast can I go? Why isn’t it working? Why is it like this? Will you be watching me? Let me do it.
After both lists were generated, Aleta led the group through a process of labeling every question on both lists into one of three categories:  P – a procedural question; N – a question relating to a personal need; or C – a question reflecting innate curiosity.
Notably, the majority of the questions received either P’s or N’s, and there were few C’s in the bunch. The disconnect between what children ask in school and what they ask when they’re curious about the world was clear. “We’re going to spend the next week and a half and throughout the school year,” said Aleta, “getting students to generate more curiosity questions, and less questions that relate to purely procedural needs.”
As the participants nodded their heads enthusiastically at the thought of the new pedagogical skill they would soon acquire, I found myself noticing something else. The overwhelming majority of the questions, regardless of which category they were in, related to personal needs, and underscored the transformative power of interpersonal relationships between teachers and students.
Will you catch me? Did you see that? Can I sit by you? Do you love me?

Some among us may want to resist this fact and stay focused squarely on instructional strategies and the bottom line of school reform – improving student test scores. I’m reminded of the controversial Charles Barkley “I am not a role model” commercial from a few years back. But just as all athletes surely are role models (whether or not they choose to fulfill the responsibility), all teachers are role models, too, and adults with a disproportionate influence on the lives and priorities of their students.
This simple truth reminded me that although our students need us to provide engaging content, clear structures and probing questions, the overriding quality they need from us is nurturance, support, and a place where they can be seen and heard. It’s about relationships – first and foremost. And strengthening the quality and quantity of relationships between adults and children in a school building should always be our primary improvement strategy.