What lies at the “core” of learning


“I was robbed!” is no longer a mere idiom, but a veritable fact in my life as of two weeks ago.

“What was taken from your home?”, my well-meaning friends inquire, concern palpable. But no response can substantiate the now irrelevant monetary value. Heirlooms whisked away to who knows what end, and an unshakeable violation of sacred space have far more meaning than a pricetag could ever admit.

I am fortunate in two ways: that things weren’t much worse (my son and I are safe), and to be presented with a lesson in how loss juxtaposes with value. What I though I was deeply attached to wasn’t what is most important after all. An obvious conclusion, yet one so readily taken for granted.

Relationships trump everything.

Without the intangibles of relationships–from the deputies to the extensive network at the other end of my phone, from my son’s art encouraging me to “not be sad” to my students who unknowingly diverted my fears and sadness the very next morning–my despair would have been much deeper, my fear that much more irrational.

Those of us who teach understand this power of connection with unparalleled depth and passion. And every now and then, especially during this time of divisive educational chatter, an inestimable value comes from revisiting the Power of Relationships.

To an outsider, this factor is negligible, because it cannot be measured with precision, timely effect, or on a linear scale. No numerical amount can be neatly attached, nor can any box be neatly checked.

It does, however, have the power to make or break a learning cycle.

Resources, technology, testing, data, professional development—none of it matters a lick without genuine connections between teachers and their students. For research junkies, it’s been demonstrated repeatedly, and now even touts neuroscientific backup.

So there you have it, the Secret is out. What matters most to us will never be measurable. What matters most in our students’ learning cannot be quantified. Math teachers may herald numerical relationships, but students are not numbers.

I used to shun the idea of “emotional competency” between student and teacher—I didn’t want to become too attached, and was reluctant to let kids into my personal thoughts and life. When I eventually did, I realized how much greater the community knit together.  How much more relevant I could make my instruction for them. And how much more engaged they—we—were.

So, perhaps—to mollify the number wonks—a teeny tiny correlation exists between test scores and relationships. But it will never capture the whole story.

We don’t remember numbers or labels. We remember memories, people, and feelings. I couldn’t place a monetary cost on most of my stolen belongings, because memories are what made them valuable. And when you ask teachers about their students, they don’t recall numbers—we recall what matters most—the person, memories, and anecdotes behind the numbers and the labels. We recall the greatest value added compensation in the form of hugs, tears, laughter, stories and artwork from students, impish grins, or ah-ha moments in our world. And yes, even the challenges.

Sometimes a gentle nudge through the terrain of our teaching pressures and mountains of data is needed. Remember to look beyond the numbers, the data, the labels—remind yourselves of the person behind the “student” moniker. Act as your own advanced alarm system and put yourselves in the deputies’ shoes. Ask what “has been stolen?” during all the years of your students’ schooling. Which of their valuables have been whisked away, damaged, or rendered inoperable by those without regard? By those with disposable concern? Or by those who felt a label, data set or assumption was worth more than a second look or a second chance? Who took what is most meaningful—someone they knew or a stranger? And more importantly, which ones can we, as teachers in their lives, return, rediscover, or find new value in as we remember what matters most?

When we are down, our ability to reframe our positions and our problems determines precisely how we go about finding their solutions. The most effective paths always start with a relationship.

Because as humans, what we measure with numbers remains irrelevant to the value in our hearts.

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