There is a profound misunderstanding in the US today about how to effectively educate youth, one that stems from a cultural blind spot that is as devastating as it is pervasive. This blind spot has plagued the American educational system for decades and has had a hand in just about every major challenge we have faced in trying to educate our youth. And the blind spot is this: we as a society have failed to grasp the simple but important truth that education is a fundamentally relational endeavor.
Just as the classroom is the physical context within which learning typically takes place, the teacher-student relationship is the psychological context within which students learn. Just as a well-lit, ergonomically appropriate, technologically sophisticated classroom will support learning, a strong, healthy teacher-student relationship will boost and deepen learning. And, unfortunately, just as a chaotic or decrepit physical space will interfere with a child's ability to learn, so too will a bereft teacher-student relationship negatively impact learning.
Carl Rogers, the godfather of humanistic psychology, was one of the first to articulate the importance of relationships in supporting personal growth. He wrote:
Rogers called this kind of relationship a "helping relationship" and it ended up forming the basis for much of modern talk therapy. Instead of sitting behind a couch with a clipboard trying to objectively analyze one's patient, psychologists began relating to their clients as people, which turned out to be far more effective.
But this insight into the primacy of relationships, as impactful as it was within the therapeutic realm, actually transcended the field of psychotherapy. Part of Rogers' brilliance was that he recognized this himself, all the way back in 1954. He continues:
Over half a century later we have yet to absorb the significance of Rogers' work. In my own work with youth the relational approach has proved over and over again to be incredibly effective, which has only served to heighten my awareness of the disastrous results that inevitably follow when educators neglect the teacher-student relationship.
There seem to be two primary reasons people struggle to see the importance of relationships in education. The first is that relationships are abstract. They are not objects that you can pick up, examine, dissect. Rather, relationships are the interplay between objects. Because of this, when people try to figure out how to improve teaching they typically either ask what the teacher is doing wrong or what the student is. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear parents and students complain about teachers when a student is struggling in school. But when I go and talk with teachers, they are just as likely to complain about the students and parents.
Take, for example, this recent piece published in the Parenting section of the Washington Post, whose author Laura Hanby Hudgens asks in the title: Do teachers care more about schoolwork than your kids do? After listing off a number of common problems in education, including “inadequate and unequal funding, a lack of resources, underpaid and overworked teachers, over-testing, poverty and heavy-handed legislation” Hudgens states: “But there is another problem, one that is plaguing many of America’s classrooms and jeopardizing the future of our children, yet it is rarely addressed — at least not as it should be. That problem is apathy. In classrooms all over the country, the teacher cares more about her students’ grades, learning and futures than they do.”
Here you can see that Hudgens locates the problem within the child and the problem is that they are apathetic. To be fair, she is pushing back against a growing number of people who see teachers as the problem. She writes:
This is clearly problematic too. And it leads, as Hudgens goes on to explain, to teacher burnout. The problem is that because of this cultural blind spot, nobody thinks to look for the solution in the relationship between the teacher and the student. Instead, two camps form, each pointing the finger at the other one.
According to developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, a similar dynamic often arises in how we think about parenting difficulties. Neufeld writes, “Many experts assume … if parenting is not going well, it is because parents are not doing things rights.” Parents then internalize this perspective themselves. Neufeld explains:
Not everyone subscribes to this viewpoint, as Neufeld is quick to explain:
Neufeld has begun to do for parenting what Rogers did for the field of psychotherapy. Neufeld sums up his view as follows: “Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired.”
The other reason it has been so hard for us as a society to understand this relational perspective is that we have (largely unconsciously) already subscribed to a different, competing model, one that is very compelling but ultimately limited. This model is most clearly articulated in the field of economics and can be boiled down to the notion that the way to influence people’s behavior is through incentives and disincentives, more commonly known as punishments and rewards. This model is a form of Behaviorism, which intentionally does not try to figure out what is going on inside of other people, since that is ultimately futile anyway, and instead looks only at behaviors. There is an elegance to this, a simplicity. No more psychoanalyzing. Disregard what people tell you motivates them. If you incentivize something and it works, nothing else really matters.
The problem is that while this model may be good for understanding how to influence large groups of people, it is not ideal for optimal human development. While using punishments and rewards in raising a child is a practical tool to use in some situations, this Behaviorist model is inadequate for understanding how to help children mature into self-responsible individuals.
All too often, I see parents struggling with their teenage children because of this exact dynamic: As the teen starts to rebel against the old system of punishments and rewards (that may have worked fine up to that point), the parent sees no other option but to double down on the Behaviorist strategy. Rather than improving the situation, this just fuels a growing power struggle between the parent and the teen, one that is ultimately frustrating for both parties.
But what is the alternative? In short, rather than focusing on behavior first we can instead focus on the quality of our relationship with the child or student we are working to support. Part of the problem with the Behaviorist approach is that even when we are rewarding a child for good behavior, it is still fundamentally a relationship of control. Our main focus becomes about getting that person to do something. Even when we are clear that we are doing this is for their own good, say offering a reward for good grades, it is still about modifying (or reinforcing) behavior.
Which brings us back to Rogers. In his work, Rogers didn’t just claim that relationships matter. He articulated exactly what a good relationship looks like and came up with three basic ideas. In Rogers’ own words:
All three of these insights are important, but let’s take the first one for a moment. This idea is sometimes summed up as authenticity. To show up in a relationship authentically takes some amount of courage, even when (or perhaps especially when) this relationship is with a teenager. In fact, teens are more sensitized to realness than most adults and can smell a phony from a mile away (see Catcher in the Rye). So this first principle is doubly important when working with teens. Compared to forming a genuine relationship with a teen, focusing on punishing and rewarding behavior is far safer. It’s more like the psychologists of old sitting behind the couch, removed, aloof, analyzing the patient. That is still a relationship. Just not a very connected one.
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A student comes in to see me who has been struggling mightily in math. As a tutor, my job is, ostensibly, to simply help her understand the math and get better grades. But when this student arrives at my office it is clear she is completely shut down to the learning process. Her posture is slumped, her homework crumpled in her bag. When I ask her what she's been struggling with she says, matter-of-factly, “Pretty much everything. I really hate math."
How one approaches a situation like this will depends on how one views it. If I stay focused on the behavior, I might try to explain why it will be to her benefit to do the math while she has my help. It will be harder if she waits. She doesn’t want a bad grade, does she?
But this approach would not signal to the student any sense of caring about her wellbeing. Rather, it would say to her that what I care about is doing my job. It’s about getting the math done. It’s about turning her into a good student.
In this actual example, what I did was set the math aside and started asking this student about school and about her interests. I began to learn what she did care about rather than try to convince her to face something she clearly did not care about. This was not easy because we did not end up getting any math done that first session. Nor during the second. Nor during the third. But I could see that progress was being made. And then, sure enough, on that fourth session she came in, pulled out her math, and we got to work.
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Neufeld calls the force that binds children to adults “attachment.” In the US, talk of attachment or of Attachment Theory tends to conjure up images of infants nursing or of grown children co-sleeping in their parents’ beds. But for Neufeld, attachment is something much more fundamental. He writes:
Because of the fundamental nature of attachment needs, when these needs go unmet in children they start to act out. After all, on a base level any attention is better than no attention. In such cases, the solution is not to punish this negative behavior in hopes of stopping it, but rather to figure out how to help that child get his or her attachment needs met. Once this occurs, the problem behavior will correct itself.
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Now that we have discussed the importance of relationships in raising and teaching youth, let’s look back at the “apathy problem” mentioned above and see why it is so problematic when this understanding is not present.
Apathy in students is a real problem, one I encounter often. The difference lies in the story I use to explain it. Hudgens sees apathy as the product of a shift towards a consumer mentality on the part of ungrateful students. She writes, “Many students don’t see education as a privilege. They see it as a product. And if they don’t like the salesperson, if they aren’t impressed with how it’s packaged, they aren’t buying.”
Hudgens is not alone in this view of students. I have myself heard teachers complain about how “entitled” kids are these days. And it sounds like a compelling story, even to me. The odd thing is that in all my years of working with students, only a small handful of students have ever displayed overt entitled attitudes. A vast majority of the kids I have worked with have been polite, respectful, and grateful for my help.
When I see a student displaying apathy, I don’t see an entitled child who doesn’t care. I see a discouraged student who is afraid to care because it would be too vulnerable to do so, too big of risk. This difference in interpretation leads to a very different kind of intervention. Instead of chiding the student to care more, I work to help the student see a path to success. I instill that student with confidence. And then, when they experience a renewed sense of hope, they can once again risk caring, and may develop self-motivation, which is far more powerful than a carrot on a stick.
Hudgens states that “teachers and parents need practical strategies for encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning.” But her strategies for combating apathy are all behavioral: “Sit in the front. Take notes. Ask questions. Be organized. Do all the work.”
If a student is disorganized, simply telling them to “be organized” is not going to solve the problem. If a student is feeling completely discouraged and struggling to understand the material, telling them to “do all the work” is not going to help. You might as well just say, “Stop being so apathetic.” The reality is, kids don’t mean to become apathetic in the first place. And so they likewise don’t know how to stop being apathetic, even if they want to. Rather, they need our guidance for this. Just like kids need to learn how to multiply and divide, they also need to learn how to care about school in a healthy way. Just like young children learn to talk by listening to the adults around them and then copying what they hear, older children learn how to relate to life by watching how the adults around them do so. And the most visible example of this is how the adult relates to that very child.
The significance of teacher-student relationships in education has been overlooked for far too long. Perhaps it is time to change that.