A few times a week, after full days in the classroom, I travel to Back to Basics’ Wilmington office to spend some time onsite. Although I’m able to work remotely on marketing projects, there’s something about the buzz of the tutoring center that motivates me. I find an open office, open my laptop, and settle into work with a background soundtrack of tutors and students chatting about calculus, or essays, or vocabulary words.
There’s always laughter.
There’s always encouragement.
And there’s always learning— you can hear it in the enthusiasm, and you can almost feel it in the air.
We innately know that students learn best from people whom they like, respect, even love. In classrooms (or tutoring centers) where relationship quality is central to learning, we can see and hear this concept in action. In his recent NYTimes column, David Brooks examines neuroscience that proves the truth of what he experienced as a professor. And in her 2013 TED talk, veteran educator Rita Pierson reminds us that those relationships may matter more than any other factor in learning.
I wonder how much time in my fifteen years in the classroom that I’ve spent teaching class-size groups of students, and how much time I’ve spent building relationships 1-on-1?
As an art teacher, I’ve taught classes of up to thirty students, and even managed to get them all to (sort of) build coil pots at the same time. The more I think about it, the crazier this whole concept seems.
Break down class time into units, do the math, and the ratio usually ends up at roughly 2-3 minutes to spend with each student during a period, if I’m focused on 1-on-1 learning. That’s not much. That’s the time it takes me to like three more accounts on Instagram, trying to boost B2B’s presence. Click, click, click. Check in, check in, check in. The time goes too fast, and if I’m not careful, the relationships can feel shallow.
So, teachers economize. We try hard to deliver instruction that will reach the masses, while we stand in front of the room, realizing we’ll never reach every student today. We try to build student engagement so students will seek out learning on their own. And then we celebrate when students come back for more, or spend an extra hour working on a project that challenges or interests them.
Contrast that with the buzz that surrounds me as I create social media content at Back to Basics. What I hear in the offices around me sounds like relationships building and growing. When I hear shared laughter, I know that teacher and student have established a connection. I hear “you can do it” maybe more than any other phrase, and I never hear students disagreeing with the encouragement. I hear questions and answers, and I hear students thinking out loud. I hear confidence growing.
There’s no economy in 1-on-1 learning. For the time that teachers and students spend together, it’s entirely focused on connecting with each other and engaging with the subject. No distractions, nothing shallow, no hurry, just pure focus on learning through relationship.
Pierson says, “We show up to work when we don’t feel like it, we listen to policy that doesn’t make sense, and we teach anyway… because that’s what we do.” Not every teacher and student can find opportunities for 1-on-1 learning during every school day. But every student deserves the opportunity to learn through relationship— and every teacher deserves support to build the sort of relationships that nourish learning.
Maybe that’s what pushes me to commute to Delaware after my school day in Pennsylvania. In the office at Back to Basics, I hear and feel reminders of the best experiences I’ve had as a teacher— the times I’ve been able to focus on connections with my students. It motivates me to keep finding those moments during the school day, elusive though they might sometimes be.
“Teaching and learning should bring joy… How powerful would our world be if we had kids who were not afraid to take risks, who were not afraid to think, and who had a champion… an adult who will not give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and who insists that they become the best that they can possibly be?”
Kate coordinates marketing projects for Back to Basics and teaches high school art in Delaware County, PA. You can read more on her site.