Student Teacher Relationships Matter Most

By Arnold Cohen, Head of School

No Matter What the Innovation or How Much We Test Students, Great Teacher Student Relationships Are What Matter the Most.

I keep up with what is new in education. I read the weekly, monthly, and quarterly publications as well as daily blogs. I get alerts from so many sources that I can hardly keep up with what is going on and I have five books sitting on my table waiting to be read so that I will know the latest and greatest new ideas in education.

There is new brain research that is slowly being translated into useable material for the classroom. There are studies and articles that look outside of the US to discover why Finland and Singapore blow us away on standardized testing; there are fascinating films and videos that compare our students to those in China and India. To read and see these, one would think that every classroom in every school, public and private, must be abuzz with innovations that could be clearly ascertained by even the most casual observer walking down a school hallway. What are rarely discussed are how these discoveries, how these comparisons fit with American culture in the 21st century. After all, the U.S. is not Finland or Singapore or India or China.

In reality, there is very little discernible difference between the American classroom of today and the classroom of the late 19th century. Most modern educational researchers would decry this as a lack of will or energy on the part of a school or a school district. Yet, as you pass by classroom doors, you will see that there is still a teacher and a cohort of students, usually too many students to be served effectively. Most teachers are teaching a curriculum that in many public schools is mandated from the top down. Even here in Anchorage, which has its share of innovative programs and special schools, there is a new emphasis on having students at each grade level be at the same place at the same time of the year to accommodate the increasing number of students who change public schools throughout the year.

Good progressive schools and teachers encourage student involvement by adjusting the curriculum to capture student interest in learning. When second graders find a caterpillar and want to know all about it, it is time for the teacher to change course and plan a lesson about caterpillars, butterflies and metamorphosis. Well trained teachers know the teachable moment and capitalize on it. Can a school teacher, who must conform to a school district calendar, capture that wonder and turn it into a special learning moment? When a sixth grade class struggles with how to use new technology, can the teacher take time to teach not just internet use, but internet ethics – no matter what the subject of the class is?

Sure, there is more technology and there is more emphasis on collaboration and project work. These are improvements; there is more information to be gathered at a moment’s notice than I could have gleaned during an entire afternoon at the Trenton (NJ) Main Library where I was often found struggling with the Readers’ Guide to Periodicals (who remembers the Readers’ Guide?), a hardback compendium of all that was new in the world in the last few weeks. Now, the information glut forces students and their teachers to make sense out of a plethora of conflicting information. Are we suffering from too much of a good thing? How can those of us who are digital immigrants teach the digital natives how to use with discernment the technology that many of us barely comprehend? Still, that is our job as 21st century educators.

Collaborating on projects makes so much more sense to me than penalizing students as cheaters who shared information with a peer. After all, who works in a vacuum? Did we ever? I suppose that working by oneself is what the rugged individualist does, but everyone from engineers to business school students works in teams. How much more useful and efficient it is to draw on the knowledge of the many when working on complex, multi-faceted problems. Still, will we lose that piece of American culture that idolizes the man or woman who can stand alone in the face of the overwhelming and find unique and heroic solutions? Who has not at least secretly dreamed of being that hero or heroine? Has there ever been committee work that captures that heroic spirit? Still it is not often the hero or heroine that makes the world work so well. It is the collaborator, the consensus builder, the coworkers who value not only their own contributions but also those of others that create progress today. And here’s to progress!

I embrace these changes in American education, but what I know and what I see in good classrooms will forever be the same: it is the relationship and bond that build between a good teacher and her students. It is the mutual respect and caring that arise after just moments together. It springs from the paradigm that excellent teachers all have: students must be respected while at the same time they need to be challenged and guided. Socrates was not only a source of challenge and frustration to his Athenian students; he was beloved by them. Why? Because despite his potentially annoying constant questioning, it is clear that he knew his students could learn and would learn if he just kept after them.

I am not antediluvian. I want students to use the internet wisely, to write blogs (if in writing a blog they learn to be better writers), to collaborate and still have individual accountability, to learn a foreign language and use Skype to talk to friends in China, Italy, Abu Dhabi and Peru, to use their imagination and their wit to improve on the world, but most of all I want them to love learning – to find sheer joy in solving a tough math problem or memorizing Ozymandias or reading a great book. And I want to work, as I have been lucky enough to do for the last 40 years, in schools that respect the students as learners and let the teachers be in charge of what is best for their class on any given day. It doesn’t get much better than that.

About Arnie Cohen:
First and foremost, I am a teacher.  I have t aught on the university level, high school, middle school and elementary school.  I have spent 39 years in independent education, and I am currently the Head of School at Pacific Northern Academy in Anchorage.  Previously I served as Head of School at both Green Acres School in Rockville, Maryland and The Lamplighter School in Dallas, Texas.  Originally from Pennsylvania, I received my bachelor’s degree from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA and my masters and doctorate degrees from The Ohio State University.