Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The role of relationship

Earlier today I read a piece in the Austin American-Statesmen (click on the title above to read the piece yourself) describing the dangers facing high school teachers who seek closer relationships with students as a means of developing smart and good kids.   A small but substantial number of middle schools and high schools throughout the country are taking advantage of "advisory" relationships in which a teacher takes primary responsibility for shepherding a finite number of students (say 18-20) through their secondary school career.   Advisor/teachers and students meet as a group on a regular basis and advisors check in frequently with individuals -- and often their parents.

This is a trend to be encouraged in my humble opinion.  And it supplements the kinds of relationships students have long had with mature and responsible coaches and other extracurricular moderators.  Students who are regularly seen, encouraged and challenged by a single significant adult in a school setting will flourish academically and personally.  They will learn how to see, encourage and challenge those around them and contribute to a learning community in the bargain.  However, there are dangers lurking when coaches and advisors don't understand the nature of their relationship with advisees.  The American-Statesman article outlines some of those dangers.

In the case described, a teacher/coach/advisor lost his job for talking with a student about sexual identity.  The male student and family sued the male teacher, arguing that the teacher convinced the young man that he was gay, inappropriately talking with him about non-academic issues.   In a move that's good news for all educators of any kind, the suit was thrown out.   It is a fine line between academic and "non-academic" matters when one is teaching adolescents.  Good teachers can make use of all kinds of material in enabling learning.

However, there are also limits to the role one can play as teacher, coach or advisor -- and that's the point.   One cannot be an effective teacher or coach when the relationship shifts to counselor or friend.   Teacher and coach must push and pull and enable and entice students in the process of learning.  They must set standards, help students to internalize those standards, and, eventually, to enact them.  Acceptance is part of the picture but not the center of focus. Counselors and friends, on the other hand, must be masters of acceptance.  In the case mentioned above,  the teacher spoke on the phone with this student late at night.  Even if, as it appears, the student initiated these calls, this is clearly not the role of teacher.  I don't know enough to hazard a guess whether or not it was "fair" that this teacher lost his job.   What I do know is that in taking late night calls (it's important that it's calls, plural) from a student, the teacher misunderstood what kind of relations serve (moral or academic) pedagogical roles and goals.

The relation (i.e. the habitual interaction between teacher and student) is, I think, central to the quality of the lesson learned in any educative experience.  A student learns to think by thinking with a teacher, to analyze by analyzing with, to judge by judging with, to wonder by wondering with, to write by writing with, to read by reading with, to calculate by calculating with, to discern by discerning with.   These "withs" are the kinds of relations appropriate to teacher-student interactions.

Teachers and advisors and coaches will construct the right kind of relation(s) with young people when they remain true to their own roles and goals -- and know when a different kind of relation, a non-pedagogical relation, is needed.   So schools must have the people to serve those roles waiting in the wings for referral, and teachers must know who those people are and how to get to them quickly.

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