It’s that time of the year when psychologists like myself are doing end of the year, academic consultations at schools. The focus is on trying to summarize the progress of the current school year, and set goals for the next year. Inevitably, there is lots of emphasis on grades, and especially, the results of any psychological testing that has been done.
But let me tell you from two decades of experience that preoccupation with learning differences and disabilities masks a deeper truth about the most important thing that goes on in a classroom: relationship and relevance.
First, effective teaching is built on a student’s positive and reciprocal relationship with his or her teacher. There must be mutual respect – this is the important business to be addressed the first few weeks of school. A student must believe he or she can go to a teachewr with a problem, and that she or he will be treated fairly if there is a conflict. Mostly, students want to belive that their teachers love them! Does this sound unreasonable? Sorry, but it’s true! In this case, love means respect – and it is communicated through our voices, facial expressions, and words. Don’t fight it, just do it! Learn to pay keen attention to your non-verbal communication.
The second big issue is relevance. When school has meaning and personal relevance, students dive in with enthusiasm. For example, being allowed to pick the books you read is an important way to build relevance, and to motivate reading. It’s also critical to help students relate what they are learning back to their own lives. This means school has to make space for students to tell aspects of their personal stories. When students are encouraged to use language in this way, we help them to integrate diverse experiences; to make their lives and learning more coherent. There are somethings that have to be spoken aloud before they fully make sense.
For most students, “the most important subject is me.” A meaningful education has more gravity and staying power. It improves memory, and boosts effort. It fuels student engagement – and makes school a place to learn about life, as well as facts.
Every facet of a community should support relationship and relevance. As important as it might be to have psycho-educational assessments, incentives for good marks, and tutoring programs, at the end of the day nothing beats relationship and relevance for results and happiness!