Sunday, March 26, 2023

Hard Truth: Good Relationships With Students Do Not Mean They Learn

In the aftermath of non-traditional instruction (NTI) school closures, as I reflect on the whirlwind that has been February through now in my role as a curriculum coordinator, I am facing hard truths.

Hard Truth #1: Educators must understand relationships with students ARE NOT EVERYTHING

My Twitter feed has been flooded with feel-good tweets about teachers staying connected to students during school closures, checking in with students and families to ensure they are safe, and building relationships despite the physical distance between them. There are countless posts about cute and funny things that have happened in Google Meets and Zooms with kids and relentless attention given to “checking in with students.” These virtual check-ins seem superficial, perhaps based on the need for teachers to feel as though they are liked by their students and parents. I understand the sentiment and I believe relationships are an essential piece of effective teaching and learning. However, I believe strong, healthy relationships between teachers and their students are only the foundation on which truly transformational learning experiences are built upon. It’s true if we don’t build those relationships with our students, it’s not likely we’ll be able to accomplish the level of teaching and learning that is required for adequate growth, but we simply cannot adopt the mindset that we have completed our mission as educators once we’ve formed strong bonds with our kids. We can’t assume relationships are enough to make learning happen in the face-to-face classroom, and especially not in the digital one.

I understand why teachers tend to draw this conclusion about relationships being the most significant factor in student success, too. John Hattie’s (2009) Visible Learning research communicates the importance of teacher-student relationships, reporting relationships have a 0.48 effect size on student achievement. This effect size ranks fair compared to the 0.40 effect size educators look for to identify indicators of “desired effect.” 

With the newest release of Hattie’s research, however, this indicator that was once hard to trump, has fallen far below the effect sizes of other, instructionally-based approaches and strategies. For example, we now know teacher collective efficacy has an effect size of 1.39, effective classroom discussion strategies have an effect size of 0.82, and vocabulary strategies have an effect size of 0.63. We must find a way to show teachers that relationships are important, but they cannot be our end goal. We cannot merely love our students into competent, empowered, independent, and proficient learners. Teachers who are truly invested in their students show they care by setting and holding students accountable for high academic and behavioral expectations. Lowering expectations to make things seem easier on students is the opposite of love. The relationship piece is the foundation for the rest of the work we must do with students.  

In Building Equity, authors Smith, Frey, Pumpian, and Fisher (2017) write: “…no school can afford to delay action to ensure quality instruction due to the fact that many students’ emotional needs still require significant attention. A trauma-informed school is still responsible for delivering quality instruction, and rather than seeing these initiatives as competing, effective schools work out the symbiotic relationship between responsive academic and nonacademic practices” (p.7). The Building Equity work connects to the research recently published by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), “The Opportunity Myth,” which suggests educators’ low expectations for students are perhaps the root of our long-lasting struggle to show progress toward academic proficiency. Educators, who may have the best of intentions, fail to provide students access to high-quality, engaging, grade-level instruction, yet expect them to show adequate academic growth. This could potentially be caused by teachers’ misunderstanding of what it means to “build relationships” with students. In their efforts to make their students like them and feel superficially successful, they lower expectations so more students can surpass the threshold for success. Educators and education stakeholders are prohibiting students’ access to the very content and learning experiences they require to develop into proficient learners, especially for at-risk student demographic groups. If we only love our kids for the incredible humans they are, yet we never push them to reach our high academic and behavioral expectations, our love for them is not enough to prepare them for their futures. In fact, I presume teachers are confusing true love and care for students with misguided sympathy for them. 

Hard Truth #2: School leaders must not create false, inflated perceptions of teachers’ impacts on learning (regarding distance learning OR face-to-face instruction). 

In my personal experience, NTI school closure was considered an “emergency” and we reacted as best we could to a situation we hadn’t dealt with before. Teachers and leaders did their very best to provide distance learning opportunities for students with limited time for preparation and we were all ill-equipped to provide equitable access to all our students, and I can’t confidently say we did things “well.” Collectively, professionals did the best they could within their parameters. As each week of NTI passed, it seemed as though only marginal improvements were made to reach more diverse student groups. And we (as a field of professionals) really did not invest time in improving the digital or blended instruction we were providing to the students we were able to reach. We were faced with a difficult and unprecedented time; though we did what we could, it wasn’t the education our students deserved. 

When I talk with teachers and instructional coaches, they wholeheartedly agree that we’ve got to figure out how to do distance learning better. Yet, simultaneously we are flooding teachers’ inboxes with praise for how well they’ve handled online learning. I’m certainly in favor of building collective efficacy and creating a positive culture, but if we continuously tell teachers they are doing a wonderful job at blended and online learning when, really, they are merely surviving and providing mediocre learning experiences, it’s not fair to them or our students. It paints a false reality and inhibits professional growth and development.

I’ve seen school and district level leaders make statements of praise like, “you have taken online learning to new heights,” “you’ve gone above and beyond with distance learning,” and “you’ve navigated blended learning like champions.” In reality, there is a significant lack of impact on student learning due to NTI closures. I can’t confidently say teachers truly engaged in real instruction, and I can’t accept that lack of focus on instruction as “taking learning to new heights.” 

Perhaps we can combat this hard truth with a lesson from Carol Dweck (2007), and impact teachers’ perceptions of their success by shifting the way we praise teachers. Dweck suggests praising effort has a far more positive impact on performance than strictly praising achievement. I completely agree teachers did the best they could during challenging times: they learned new online tools in a hurry, took careful considerations of students’ emotional health, and ran classrooms in a vastly different manner than they had ever done before and that certainly took courage and stepping outside their comfort zones. Those are the very attributes we should be praising. Instead of making feedback statements related to digital learning, what if we praised teachers’ sense of vulnerability, effort, and determination? Then, what if we paired that praise with feedback and coaching that prompted teachers to consider what went well and what they could change as we learn and develop skills and mindsets to make online and blended learning a real success?

We cannot use global pandemics as a reason to slack in our duties as educators to facilitate learning experiences for kids. Even when our reality is uncertain and a little scary, we must insist on providing quality instruction through an equitable education system. We must activate those praise-worthy characteristics of teachers to propel self-reflection and professional growth in order to improve student outcomes. Even when we’re navigating a landscape that frightens us, we have to remain honest about our reality in the world of education. The hard truth is this: we have a lot of work to do before we can make online and distance learning effective and meaningful for our students, and if we let teachers off the hook because we know they gave a good effort, we’ll never be able to deliver the learning experiences our students deserve. 

Part 2 of this Hard Truths series coming soon.

Savannah Denning
Dr. Savannah A. Denning is in her eleventh year in education. She is currently a Special Education Math Consultant at Green River Regional Educational Cooperative in south central Kentucky. She has served as a curriculum coordinator and an elementary classroom teacher. Dr. Denning holds a doctoral degree in Education Administration from Western Kentucky University.


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