Note: About two years ago, I posted a piece with a title similar to this one. It was called “It’s All About Relationships.” The context was very different. Teachers were struggling to teach remotely in the absence of all the opportunities to build strong relationships with their students in a two-dimensional world. This posting is another cut on the same theme which is at the heart of so much of the work I’ve done as a teacher and teacher educator. Better get used to hearing me return to it at every opportunity.]
An essay by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker inspired by a biography of Shinichi Suzuki, the creator of the world-famous method of musical instruction, upended my assumptions about that approach. I’m guessing that many others like me who have no first-hand experience with the Suzuki Method view it as an elaborate sleight of hand, based on mindless imitation and repetition. In fact, its creator sees it as more like a child’s learning of language, based on immersive listening from a very early age, free for the most part from formal instruction. The imitation and repetition enter the picture only after that groundwork is laid.
The essay is worth reading just for this new insight into the Suzuki method, but for my current purposes I was struck by Gopnik’s statement later in the essay that “The true lesson in all these cases (ed: he’s been discussing what makes education based on the work of Steiner and Montessori work) is that the dedication of the teachers matters more than the virtues of the program.”
This astonishing statement renders much of the nitpicky analysis of these various approaches secondary to the relationships between teacher, student and material. Some of you may recognize this triumvirate as the subject of the essay “I, Thou, It,” by David Hawkins which has influenced me more as a teacher than anything else I’ve read about teaching and learning. How many times have I repeated to myself and to my students that it’s all about relationships, which includes in Hawkins’s paradigm relations between student and teacher, teacher and material, student and material.
I’ve been thinking about the centrality of relationships in the context of two situations I’ve been tracking recently. The first involves my friend Greg Michie, a teacher whose work I admire and respect beyond measure. Greg has been working with middle schoolers in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago for a long time. Until this year he has had his own classroom but this year he took on a new role, which in my mind is as self-sacrificing as that of a kamikaze pilot. He has given up his classroom and instead is teaching media literacy to all the grades, K-8, in his school. That means that he is seeing each child, at best, only once a week.
In addition, Greg has accepted the challenge of posting something about his work every single day of the 176 that constitute the length of the school year. Those of you who have read Holler If You Hear Me and his other writings know that Greg is a masterful writer — totally honest and self-critical — so I look forward to his daily entries which are rarely more than a page long but which speak volumes.
One of things that stand out for me in Greg’s entries is his frustration at not being able to achieve the same level of engagement with his students that he’s accustomed to. There are moments of excitement, but they are more hard won and less frequent. Greg bemoans the fact that this deep into the school year he doesn’t even know all the kids’ names — and the students call him on it.
The problem is glaringly obvious to Greg and to his readers. He is a teacher — and I would submit that this is true of most great teachers — whose work is built on developing deep relationships with his students. Now his once-a-week encounters just don’t create the conditions to make that possible. As a result, he has to dig into his deep bag of tricks to keep the car on the road. That brings him close to being more of an entertainer than the collaborator and facilitator that he aspires to be. Since he’s primarily been a middle school teacher that bag of tricks doesn’t hold a lot for the youngest children he’s serving, an age group that arguably is even more dependent on the child’s relationship with the teacher, so there are days with the kindergartners that Greg describes as bordering on chaos.
Greg’s creativity and resourcefulness has kept his head above water when others might have drowned, but he’s reminding us that having the material and ideas to bring to his students doesn’t close Hawkins’s triangle if the deep relationship between student and teacher is absent. Things may improve further into the school year, but they’ll never match what Greg has achieved in the comfort of his own classroom.
Aryeh (not his real name) is a rabbi who has been an important presence in my life for a long time. After a long hiatus, we’ve been corresponding regularly. He’s now in the post-congregational phase of his career, indeed his calling. In his most recent note, he described his frustration with the results of a role he accepted for the High Holidays. His job was to lead services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on a college campus. He prepared five different sermons, a heavy lift to be sure. Aryeh sent me the titles and a brief synopsis of each. They all sounded interesting to me and potentially to his young audience.
With forty years of sermonizing behind him, Aryeh knows how to get a rise out of his audience, but this time his words drew barely a peep, beyond the single student who approached him to request a copy of one of the sermons. You can account for some of the silence as late-adolescent cool, perhaps not indicative of their “real” reactions.
But beyond that, I think we’re confronting another example of the power of relationships. When Aryeh was delivering his sermons to an audience of congregants, the reactions they shared were rooted in multi-year relationships and encounters, formal and informal. Both the praise and the dissent were lubricated by those relationships. The connections between Aryeh and his college audience were even more attenuated than Greg’s once-a-week visits with his media literacy class.
Teachers rely on the dailiness of their interactions with their students. It’s the slow drip-drip of small acts of kindness and understanding that build trust, without which children are reluctant to open their minds and hearts. Even with my own granddaughter, who I’m sure loves us as we love her, living a great distance apart limits our time together drastically, so an occasional Zoom visit is not the same as what would pass between us if we were living in the same household, as we might have done in an earlier day. The infrequency of our time together makes necessary the renewed investment of effort to overcome the rust that gums up the works.
So, I return to the title of today’s piece, “It’s the relationships, stupid,” which will come across as disrespectful if you don’t recognize it as an appropriation of a famous comment on a recent election who summed up his analysis of the results in a single statement: “It’s the economy, stupid!”