It takes time and conscious decisions on a teacher’s part to build connections with students. With the pressures of pacing guides and content coverage, teachers can feel uncomfortable dedicating the needed time to connection building with students. Research is clear that many benefits can be gained from committing to building connections. “The need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water, and food.” (Dean Ornish)
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[00:00:00.410] – Steve [Intro]
Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of Steve Barkley Ponders out loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding, and my curiosity is piqued whenever I explore with teachers, the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.
[00:00:32.890] – Steve
Take Time to Build Connections: Trust the Research. I’ve always been a promoter of teachers investing time in knowing their students and having their students know them. I’ve drawn a closer understanding across the years of the value of knowing, belonging and connectedness. I recently read a book titled, “The Connected Species: How the Evolution of the Human Brain can Save the World” by Dr. Mark Williams. Dr. Williams is a neuroscientist from Australia. I’ve also had the privilege of speaking about the impact of connectedness on teaching and learning with Mark. He writes in the book’s introduction, “A significant portion of the human brain is dedicated to maintaining connection with others. Socializing is a very complicated process that requires the ability to identify and remember others, to understand what they’re feeling, read their body language, deduce their intent, and understand their emotions.” As I read that piece, I first reflected on the fact that the teachers engaged in that complicated process of understanding their students. But it took me a moment to realize that the students are engaged in the same process understanding their teacher. Williams shares a quote in his book from Dean Ornish: “The need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water and food.”
[00:02:26.110] – Steve
He dedicates an entire chapter in the book to the role of connections in learning. He shares studies showing that students who don’t connect with their teachers don’t learn as well as students who do make a connection, and that teachers who connect well with students create classrooms full of members in the teachers in-group. They have much better outcomes. He shares the need for connection to the person teaching is as important today as it ever was in the past. Here’s a summary statement found in his chapter on learning and connectedness: if you want someone to listen to you, or more importantly, learn from you, you need to connect with them first. They need to feel as though you are a part of their group, someone they can trust. Share with them who you are and why they should trust you. Otherwise, you might as well be talking to a stone. Take a moment to listen into an earlier conversation I had with Tara Brown. Tara is an experienced teacher, athletic coach, and consultant to schools internationally. Her experiences with at risk youth has solidified her commitment to the power of connections. She’s known as the connection coach.
[00:04:04.820] – Steve
If we know that there’s this strong connection between relationships, emotions and the brain, what would you say in the work that you’ve done, are some of the most common things we overlook, either within a classroom or within a school?
[00:04:24.150] – Tara Brown
Well, unfortunately, we’re still not totally trusting the research in some districts and some schools. When Rigor relevance and relationship came down from the educational mountaintop, I was like, that dog that kind of was like, “wait a minute.” I was immediately like, wait, that’s in the wrong order. That’s in the wrong order. And unfortunately, with the focus on end of course testing and data and all of that, we have put rigor in front of getting the brain in an emotional state of learning. And so you have teachers, literally, that have told me, I don’t have time to build relationships because I have so much content to cover. And I’m like, no, that’s not steeped in research. That is not trusting the research that says when we make sure that the emotional state of that learner is in a primed state, you’re going to be able to cover so much more content. And so I think that’s probably one of the biggest pieces that I see still in this country in certain districts is that hesitancy to take time to put emotional deposits in those bank accounts, to have non contingent conversations, to create an environment where there’s laughter and there’s collaboration.
[00:05:55.020] – Tara Brown
And so if we can just trust the research and believe that when we invest in time to get to know those kids, it’s going to be so much more impactful with how much we can cover over a year’s time.
[00:06:12.070] – Steve
It’s interesting because I’ve always said one of the things we also have to do is trust the kids’ brains. So what I’m hearing from you is, if we’ll invest in that relationship, if we’ll invest in having those emotions, then I can trust that the kid’s brain can handle the learning piece that’s going to come.
[00:06:37.390] – Tara Brown
Yeah. I was working with a staff, it was elementary and it was K-5 and before we started and there was probably like three different staff we were working with and I was just walking around chatting to people and I stopped at this one table and I said, “hey, just curious, do you all do like meditation, mindfulness morning meeting stuff?” And the lady who was a second grade teacher, she goes, “well, now K through 3 does.” And I said, “what happens to 4 and 5?” And she goes, “well, you know how they’re all about that content? And it’s like, okay. And so that’s a perfect example of us getting off track and not understanding the emotional piece and how relevant that is to priming the brain.
[00:07:22.750] – Steve
Mark and Tara’s experience and knowledge certainly reinforce taking the time to invest in connections, belonging and relationships. Making that investment even when we’re feeling the pressure of content coverage and the pacing guide. You’ll find links to both of their resources in this podcast lead-in. I asked Chat GPT for a summary of the research on teacher student relationships and their potential impact on brain function as it connects to education and child development. Here’s what I received as a response: One, research has shown that positive teacher student relationships can contribute to the development of social and emotional skills – skills that are important for regulating emotions, managing stress, and maintaining positive mental health. When teachers create a positive and nurturing classroom environment, it can positively influence students emotional well-being. Two, some studies have explored the neurobiological effects of positive teacher student relationships. When students feel safe, valued and supported by their teachers, their brains may exhibit reduced levels of stress hormones, cortisol, and increased levels of neurotransmitters that are associated with positive emotions – dopamine, and oxytocin. Three positive teacher student relationships can foster a more conducive learning environment. When students feel comfortable and connected to their teachers, they are more likely to engage in class, asking questions and participating actively.
[00:09:23.190] – Steve
This engagement can enhance cognitive function, information retention, and critical thinking. Four, attachment theories suggest that early relationships, including those between teachers and students, can influence emotional development. Secure attachments with teachers may lead to improved emotional regulation and resilience in students. Five, teacher student relationships can impact students motivation as well as academic achievement. Students are more likely to put effort into their studies when they feel a personal connection with their teacher and believe that their teacher genuinely cares about their success. And six, research has indicated that positive teacher student relationships can have a long term effect. Students who have experienced supportive relationships with their teachers during their school years are more likely to graduate, pursue higher education, and have successful careers. An important reminder – different cultures have unique norms and values regarding communication, authority, and interpersonal dynamics. Teaching practices, which often reflect cultural norms, can impact how teachers establish connections with students. Recognizing and respecting cultural diversity can lead to more effective communication and relationship building. I was just recently conversing with a school leader whose school has had several students from a different cultural background enrolling at the start of the year. The teachers there are going to need to learn from those students in order to build connections that will lead the students to knowing and trusting their teacher.
[00:11:32.830] – Steve
I encourage you – take the time, make the time. It’s unlikely you can find the time for building connections. Early on in the year, invest heavily in connection time. Plan for some purposeful. Connection time across the days and weeks of the year. Stop from time to time and reflect on what you know about your students. Do they know that you know? And what do your students know about you? There’s plenty of research to support your connections building plans. I’d appreciate hearing some of your strategies for making connections. You can drop me a note at barkleypd.com. I’d love to connect. Thanks for listening.
[00:12:29.130] – Steve [Outro]
Thanks for listening in, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.