Relationships are the mainline to learning

Susie Kaeser

“Each of my students wants to be noticed as a person. We all do,” observed Roxboro Elementary School’s Lynne Maragliano, a 32-year kindergarten teacher.

At the start of each day, Maragliano welcomes each child with a handshake as they pass through the door into her long rectangular classroom divided into nooks and crannies full of enriching and engaging materials. “It’s a golden time to make a connection. I can tell from this encounter where they are and if anything special is going on with them that I need to know about,” she said.

Within these four walls Maragliano builds a community, a safe space for learning. “Students must feel comfortable before they can engage. When they feel connected they want to be there for you,” she observed.

Maragliano isn’t the only one who thinks relationships are important.

At a January forum, Myth of Failing Teachers, sponsored by the Heights Coalition for Public Education, the audience was asked to identify the qualities of the best teachers that had taught them or their children. Most of the more than 100 responses honed in on relationships and a teacher’s personal interest—interest that made them feel special, important, happy, valued, motivated, determined.

Passion about subject matter and instructional expertise were also valued, but favorite teachers had attributes that supported positive interaction and relationships with their students. They were caring, kind, approachable, challenging, compassionate, encouraging, engaging, fair, firm, friendly, flexible, gentle, demanding, honest. They were listeners, communicators, and connected.

Classrooms are human spaces. Teachers and students create their own worlds, where teaching takes place through human exchange. It’s all about relationships.

Maragliano’s top priority at the start of the school year is to get to know her young students and to create a bond that will help them blossom in their new surroundings. Relationships are not a sideline. They are the mainline to learning.

“I need to know my kids,” said Maragliano. Interacting with them as they plan and tackle school tasks is the prime avenue for both building relationships and gaining insight to their individual strengths and needs.

This year, though, trust-building and authentic assessment took a backseat to testing. In the first month of school, Maragliano spent 27 hours away from her classroom community, administering state-mandated tests, one child at a time.

“Assessing students—some of whom have never been in school before—is sterile,” said Maragliano. “When you are doing it you have to be calm and encouraging, make a lot of eye contact.”

Going through a publisher’s test book is not the best way to build a comforting relationship. The tests “set me back,” Maragliano said. Not only did they take her away from her classroom and the work of building a community, they did not provide her with any better information than what she can collect through classroom interaction, district assessments, and tools created by her and her colleagues.

State-mandated testing is supposed to provide evidence that teachers are doing their jobs, but testing takes time away from learning and the trust-building process that is so crucial to full engagement. Measurement and accountability now supersede and undermine exploration, discovery, expression, creativity, learning and relationships.

Accountability not only requires standardized performance, it also ignores what is developmentally appropriate. The new standards, for example, raise reading levels by a whole grade, which means that children are now expected to learn to read in kindergarten.

“The most important way to support kids to be their best is to give them the time to grow,” said Maragliano, whose philosophy has been validated by a career with children. “You can’t rush kids.”

But state policy is rushing kids. The demand for fast-track measurable academic outcomes makes children winners and losers when they need time and emotional space to experiment, learn through play, take risks, fail and grow.

By building public policy around mistrust of educators, unrealistic expectations and lockstep performance, children lose out on some of the ingredients that lead to real development, such as the chance to feel at home, safe and connected to a caring adult.

Maragliano will retire at the end of this school year. We owe her a debt of gratitude for helping to shape hundreds of lives by welcoming her students each morning with a handshake, an open mind, and a caring heart.

As a community, we can thank her and her colleagues by fighting to maintain humanity in the classroom. This is what matters.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 8, Issue 5, Posted 1:19 PM, 05.01.2015