I remember thinking I cared about my students.
I demonstrated this in my grit, hard work and relentless pursuit of excellence rhetoric that I preached.
I would set high expectations, pitch motivational slogans on the side and give them advice about lifestyle choices.
My formative and summative feedback focused on how they could feed forward to develop higher grades, and I told them all that they were all capable of scoring 100/100, if only they wanted it and worked hard enough.
I retold my own story of the working class, teenage mother, who despite all odds, is now in the 3rd year of a PhD. I used wit and humour, coupled with deeply researched facts that facilitated their development of knowledge. I truly thought I was making a difference to their engagement, sense of value and motivation.
Then one day one of my students reflected that the most motivational thing a member of staff had done for her during her three-year degree was say “Well done” in some essay feedback. I remember honestly being floored and a tad angry if I am honest.
All the constructive critiques, both written and verbal, all the hours of planning lectures around learning outcomes to facilitate accuracy. All the motivational pitches, lectures and videos, did they not matter?
Then someone introduced me to two terms simultaneously – relational pedagogy and academic resilience. Quick searches summarised the following.
- Relational pedagogy recognises that relationships are the basis for any meaningful and impactful educational experiences
- Academic resilience is a set of skills present in students who achieve significantly higher than expected, despite their life circumstances or socio-economic status
I was reminded of a ted talk video I had seen by American educator Rita Pierson who reinforced the powerful statement “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like!”.
I remembered interactions with teenage students who refused to do essays for teachers because they did not find them relatable. I remember high dropout rates on certain courses, lessons with low engagement rates and students complaining of unresponsive educators.
While I wanted the best for my students, there was a disparity in what I desired and what mattered to them. This fascinated me. How could I “care” and show that I ”cared” in a way that really promoted the resilience to obtain the grit and determination in my students that I thought I could preach into them?
I was even more amazed to find out that research of this kind was not new. I found numerous papers and articles and analysed and evaluated them. For ease I have summarised some main behaviours of educators below. I find this a useful tool when reflecting on how I spend my time and the affordances that I support in my educational spaces:
- Responding to communications such as emails
- Positive expectations
- Avoidance of highly scripted encounters
- Specific praise
- Help them make friends
- Time for relationships to build
- Being enthusiastic and charismatic/uses humour
- Calm thoughts and emotions
- Checking up on them
- Using dialogue to understand expressed needs of students
While many of these did not seem a world away from my actual relational approach, I realised that while I cared deeply, I was not sure that was communicated this well. My focus on the deficit, or the bit I wanted you to improve upon, was perhaps hindering my ability to be positive in all interactions.
I would like to think my humour was on point though! The problem is that relationships are often not front and centre in discussions on educational success. In a neoliberal, marketised system, is caring too fluffy, unmeasurable and left field of senior leaders’ priorities?
Students say it too
Anyone who must contend with the tyranny of metrics or the National Student Survey, will argue otherwise. Students often echo similar responses, such as:
- My lecturer is helpful
- Online materials supplement my learning
- How the learning links to programme
- Good teaching (defined by students) had no correlation to qualifications of the educator
It seems that, while much investment is made in attractive premises, advertising materials and other measures to visually entice students to enrol, the research suggest that the actual wants of the students are relational.
This only deepened my quiet reflection. The research reinforced what my students had been communicating to me for years. Humour and knowledge are great but help me make friends and be positive consistently. Or in other words, say “Well done” occasionally.
This academic year has been different for me. Instead of focusing on how I can push my students to the next level through competitiveness, I remind them regularly how much I care. I tell them how much I love my job and how working with them is the best career in the world.
I offer space for them to “be” themselves in the classroom, to build relationships and talk to each other. In short I focus less on content delivery and more on the relationship that the delivery is based on.
We still laugh (a lot), I still tell them my own story of grit and determination, but in short, these days I am more relaxed. If you are wondering if your students are like mine, that all they want is an empathetic ear and a positive reinforcing statement, I suggest you ask them if they think you care about them as individuals. It is an insightful exercise.