“It’s all about relationships!” The students in our teacher education program at the University of Chicago heard that pronouncement from me and the other staff members ad nauseum. Far more significant than the language arts or math curriculum you adopt and the approach to discipline you are drawn to, is the quality of relationships you are able to develop with your students. These relationships are the instrument that opens students’ minds to what you have to offer, none of which is going to penetrate unless you have built trust and the sense of security that comes from being “seen” by a teacher who recognizes you as a unique person. For younger children, it might be the quiet questioning while waiting to enter the classroom in the morning about the condition of your dog who had been injured by a car. For the high schooler, it might be a word of praise about her success in yesterday’s volleyball game. It takes dozens of these small interactions to grow that bond between you and your students
For most teachers, their desire to build relationships with students comes naturally. Others can learn to be attentive to the importance of cultivating these links by learning what to say when those hallway opportunities arise, much as socially awkward people can be taught what to say when they answer the door at home lest a visitor be put off by their odd reception.
In the current school shutdown, these relationships are all the more important in keeping things moving forward in the face of enormous obstacles to learning created by fear, isolation and instruction that, truth to tell, is not always inspired. Before everyone retreated to their caves, teachers had at least six months to create the necessary relationships we’ve described, so that when the real classrooms went dark, their virtual shadows could limp along on the residual energy cached from all the small acts of love, kindness and caring enacted in those earlier months. Without the daily renewal of relationships, teaching becomes flat and two-dimensional for teachers as well as kids. How many times have we heard from teachers these past months about how much they missed their kids – hugs from the little ones and jocular banter with the tenth graders – and how the work they were doing now was not what they signed up for when they committed to this challenging but deeply rewarding profession.
Now, given all I’ve said about the central role of relationships between teacher and student in sparking learning and engagement, picture this looming nightmare. What if the continued risks of the pandemic, exacerbated by a likely second and third wave, require a school opening that extends the remote learning model of these past few months or some hybrid version of it? For a new class of students, their teacher would be as remote and mysterious as The Wizard of Oz concealed behind a curtain. On the other end, teachers will be confronted by a screen full of cyphers, with no chance to observe the small cues that indicate understanding or to watch the unfolding of relationships with classmates that she can capitalize on in forming small groups. This is the disastrous situation that supporters of online learning have been advocating for long before the pandemic, fueled by anti-union forces eager to eliminate as many teachers as possible from the public payroll. The dismal track record of virtual learning charter networks around the country should put the lie to that as a successful model for the future.
One possible solution to the nightmare vision of a relationship-free start of the new school year. It has been around for a long time and has been used effectively in many settings. Educators refer to it as “looping.” There’s nothing fancy and esoteric behind the term. It simply means teachers following their students into the next grade. In the private network of Waldorf Schools, this concept is extended beyond that single looping so that teachers and students remain together for four and sometimes eight years which many parents, teachers and students would find rather extreme, but look at the advantages of looping. Before the shutdown, I visited a classroom with a friend who was surprised to hear from the teacher that she did no teaching of content in the first two weeks. That time was devoted instead to laying down routines, building a sense of community and nurturing relationships. This is the bedrock on which the year’s instruction rests. Looping doesn’t eliminate that process entirely, but it shortens the process considerably. There’s a lot of residual capital that can be reactivated quickly, expanding time for instruction.
Most important, the relationships are already in place, though perhaps wilted a bit from a summer away on top of a couple of months of remote work. The Wizard stepped out from behind that curtain a long time ago and the students know her as the person who had peanut butter and jelly in her drawer for the mornings when they arrived late and without breakfast. She is the one who went to the bookstore after school to buy that book of sports statistics that she knew would engage you during independent reading. The teacher has a vast storehouse of knowledge about family, about learning style, about interests to draw on in designing her lessons and the need to modify them for particular students. The school year doesn’t have to begin in shared anonymity if teachers loop with their students. So much of the work of reopening will be about addressing the multiple traumas of the past months and beginning to heal them. That difficult work will be difficult between teachers and students who already have a relationship and virtually impossible without a trusting relationship already in place.
Looping presents real obstacles. It makes sense for the grades where classrooms are mostly or entirely self-contained. It’s harder for the departmentalized upper grades, although even for them elements of looping are possible. It’s also true that many teachers are very attached to the grades they teach which have become a part of their identity as “a third-grade teacher” or a fifth-grade social studies teacher.” Stepping outside those labels will require flexibility, though none as great as what it’s taken for teachers to adapt to the alien world of online learning. Administrators will have to reshuffle their decks in major ways to allow for at least some amount of looping. However, avoiding the possibility of a faceless start of the school year which would likely add to the mounting learning losses of these past months could be a much-needed gift to the entire learning community of teachers, students and parents. If it’s all about relationships, let’s make the most of the ones that are already in place.