Think of your favorite teacher. Whenever I ask people to do this, they usually tell me about a teacher who saw them: the one who took them aside and encouraged them to pursue art or computer science, who helped counsel them through a personal issue, who attended their Quinceañera — who, ultimately, just cared. By connecting with us in meaningful ways, these teachers not only earned a permanent place in our memories, they also engaged, challenged, and inspired us. Today, our nation's 56.6 million elementary and secondary students could all use teachers like this, to help shepherd them through the pandemic and into a better future. But even in the best of times, school structures are more conducive to punitive discipline than meaningful teacher-student relationships, especially in our least-resourced schools. Today, with the challenges of virtual learning and the urgent messaging around "COVID slide" – the learning loss students may have suffered while they were out of school – relationships in schools are under further threat, just when students need them most.
Across the U.S., the pandemic has put a strain on families and children, many of whom continue to suffer from food insecurity, job loss, or the death of loved ones to COVID-19. So as kids begin school this year, they require connection, understanding, and nurturance from their teachers. While positive relationships with significant adult figures like teachers help children cope with trauma, such relationships also facilitate better learning. When students have meaningful relationships with their teachers, they are more likely to engage in class, more likely to feel like they can complete their school work, more likely to grow and achieve academically and personally. This is because learning is profoundly social.
Although school should be a place to nurture social connections, especially between teachers and students, common policies and structures often undermine this. Budget cuts keep increasing class sizes, which makes it hard for teachers to see and know every student. The prevailing emphasis on standardized test scores often leads schools to prioritize control and punishment to keep students on task, instead of supporting their social and emotional development. Now, educators are feeling pressure to combat "COVID slide," which will lead to more focus on test scores and control, particularly in schools serving students of color and those from low income backgrounds. And in many places, this schooling will happen remotely, eliminating most of the casual classroom interactions that bolster meaningful connections. Disciplinary actions may become the only individual interactions that some students have with their teachers, but better resourced schools with less test score pressure (most of which serve a predominantly white population) will have an advantage in maintaining meaningful connections.
When I spent two years studying how teacher education programs and schools approached teacher-student relationship development, I discovered two very different approaches. Only one of the models promoted truly meaningful relationships. It was a program anchored in a progressive independent school that I called Xanadu because it was far removed from public school realities like standardized tests, budget cuts, and large class sizes. On this pastoral campus, student teachers learned to cultivate relationships like precious flowers, learning about students' hopes, family situations, strengths, fears, and interests so they could nurture the growth of each student through individualized instruction. The assistant director of the program told me that they aimed to treat "students as humans before treating them as students, thinking of them as whole beings who are forming and… are fragile no matter what they may show us."
I followed two graduates from this program into large public middle schools in affluent suburbs and watched as they capably implemented what they learned. Both teachers spent the first couple weeks collectively establishing class norms through the ratification of a class compact and getting to know students through reflective assignments. They regularly conversed with individual students and delivered handwritten personalized cards to everyone on their birthday, which one student described as "the best birthday card I've ever seen." Cooperative learning was the norm and throughout it, students boisterously engaged with peers to complete rigorous assignments. Silence was rare. If undesirable student behavior emerged, these teachers ignored it or addressed it through gentle conversations rather than punitive discipline. This made the students feel "safe" because they felt able to "speak your mind and have your ideas be respected." And students told me they felt cared for, "not just in school, but like emotionally, too." But it is worth noting, that all the teachers who learned about relationships at Xanadu chose to teach at mostly affluent and white schools where they had more resources and autonomy, and less pressure to boost test scores. This relational ideal is often reserved for already privileged students, who will likely continue to find this support amidst the pandemic.
Schools across the country that primarily serve students of color and those from low-income backgrounds often adopt an approach to learning that centers on standardized test scores and control. For example, the other teacher education program in my study was situated in a "no excuses" charter school, the most prominent type of urban charter school (think KIPP or Success Academy), which aim to efficiently improve the academic achievement of children of color from low income backgrounds by eliminating anything they feel might distract students from learning (e.g. colorful socks, poor posture, indirect eye contact, talking in hallways).
At schools like this, educators maintain that there is no valid excuse for children's failure to learn or behave. The teacher education program grounded in this context approached relationships like a formula: applying a series of discrete moves to accumulate "professional relationship capital" with students to increase their behavioral compliance and academic achievement. The director explained, "I think the foundation of the relationship is that my job is to try to generate maximum effort in thinking from you. That's my job. It's not to be your friend."
Again, I followed graduates of this program into their first year of teaching at no excuses middle schools that primarily served students of color. These teachers also began the year by faithfully applying what they had learned about connecting with and disciplining students. They walked around their classrooms with timers in hand, smoothly assigned merits and demerits for behavior, integrated "little nuggets" they had recalled about students into brief interactions with them, and conducted "rebuilding conversations" after removing students from their class for infractions. It was all very efficient and controlled. Students were often silent, and hoped this approach would help them "succeed." But they did not feel truly seen or understood as human beings by their teachers. One student explained, "I don't think any of the teachers [know us]." And by the end of the year, one of these teachers admitted, "I think a lot of the kids sort of feel like it's run like a jail…They're very smart kids, and they understand that some of our rules are unnecessary, and overly strict, and un-empathetic." The urgent insistence on academic achievement and behavioral conformity in these schools not only eroded opportunities for nurturing teacher-student relationships, it also conditioned students for subservience. This might be why some research indicates no excuses schools improve student test scores, but not life outcomes.
No excuses schools are not alone in this approach, though, and it now seems to be extending to virtual school. Desperate to counteract COVID-slide, educators are implementing plans to monitor and control student behavior during virtual class, including their attire, location, camera-use, attentiveness, and snacking. This is unfortunate but not surprising, because whenever the focus of schooling turns to quantifiable educational outcomes like standardized test scores or budgetary efficiencies, students are treated like products that must be regulated. Of course, humans are not products, and we all have very good excuses not to be performing as others may want us to right now, but the forces that govern schools don't seem to get that. Because affluent and white students are more likely to attend schools with the resources to support meaningful relationships and less likely to be penalized for virtual or in-person violations, students of color will bear the brunt of this coming "discipline crisis," which is really a crisis for relationships. For while relationships connect children to teachers and schools, harsh discipline severs ties.
Despite common practice, academic rigor does not necessitate behavioral control; in fact, deeper learning – the kind of that helps students learn to solve complex problems, think for themselves, and understand who they are and who they want to be – is facilitated by supportive relationships and inclusive community. Like relationships, learning that is truly substantial often appears messy and chaotic rather than silent and efficient. So while it is tempting to use COVID as an excuse to implement more discipline and test prep, we must instead use it as an opportunity to dismantle systems that do disproportionate harm to students of color and replace them with new structures that center relationships and serve the whole child. Whether online or in-person, schools must support teachers to see and respond to all students as the unique multifaceted people they are. Because the only effective way to shepherd children through difficult times is by caring for them. In the long run, this will not only improve student learning, it will also prepare students to build a better society — in which everyone's humanity is honored.