The Power of Personal Relationships

By Mawhinney, Thomas S.; Sagan, Laura L. | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2007 | Go to article overview

The Power of Personal Relationships


Mawhinney, Thomas S., Sagan, Laura L., Phi Delta Kappan


Teachers and administrators are often directed to distance themselves from the children in their charge. Despite the land mines that accompany personal relationships with students, Mr. Mawhinney and Ms. Sagan argue that educators can still learn to build warm and loving communities of learners.

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DONTA stayed after class a few minutes to ask her teacher for help. As she hurried to get to her next class on time, her boyfriend cornered her and questioned her about a rumor he had heard involving Donta and his best friend. She could not get away. She was torn, because she had been late for this class several times before and did not want to disappoint her teacher again.

When Donta finally got to her class, she was obviously nervous. Her teacher simply said, "Donta, how nice to see you. Come on in and take a seat." Donta smiled and felt relieved. She loved this class because the teacher made her feel important. "Why couldn't all teachers treat kids this way?" she thought.

Donta had just experienced the power of personal-relationship building. Her teacher could have demanded a pass, interrogated her in front of the class, greeted her with a sarcastic remark, or embarrassed her in some other way. Instead, she made her feel welcome. Donta was in a frame of mind ready to learn.

There are many children who make up their minds on the first day of class whether they are going to succeed or fail--sometimes consciously and sometimes not. How can this be, one might ask? Simply put, the initial student/teacher encounter often determines how well or poorly a child will perform throughout the school year. Likewise, a positive teacher/student relationship creates the classroom atmosphere necessary to maximize a student's mental state of readiness.

Picture the teacher who, in an attempt to establish control from the beginning, spends the first day describing classroom rules and routines and emphasizes what will happen if they are not followed. Coercive classrooms are not conducive to learning, yet many teachers continue to believe that a dominating relationship such as that between a parent and child ensures student compliance. How often have instructional leaders advised the first-year teacher to be tough in the beginning and loosen up later--that one can never do it in reverse? Well, after that first day of toughness, many students have "downshifted" into a fight-or-flight mode. In doing so they have bypassed much of their capacity for higher-order thinking or creative thought, and it is hard to learn when your bodily functions are focused on survival. We now understand that higher-level thinking is more likely to occur in the brain of a student who is emotionally secure than in the brain of a student who is scared, upset, anxious, or stressed.

Researchers continue to report that the teacher has a significant impact on student achievement. Based on an extensive analysis of research, Robert and Jana Marzano claim that "the quality of teacher-student relationships is the keystone for all other aspects of classroom management." (1) As former secondary school principals, we feel that personal-relationship building is one of the most important skills a teacher can possess and continue to refine. In this article, we intend to describe the many dimensions of this skill.

PERSONAL-RELATIONSHIP BUILDING

We first encountered the term "personal-relationship building" as the title of the shortest chapter in The Skillful Teacher, by Jon Saphier and Robert Gower. (2) The authors classify this skill under the broader category of motivation and supply a two-part definition: "the variety of ways teachers have of contacting students' personal worlds and the traits of teachers that seem to engender affection and regard in a relationship." (3)

We will use this framework in an attempt to paint a clear picture of this powerful tool in a teacher's pedagogical "bag of tricks. …

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