|Relationships always change according to context. The way we think and feel about people is in constant flux, especially where there is stress. School is a good example, and accordingly, the way that students feel about teachers is subject to change. Of course there are myriad ways we could discuss the evolution of school, but one of the single most significant changes is how much time school requires.
As you know, a quality education is not achieved between 8:30 and 3:00. There are all sorts of commitments after school, abundant work to be done at home, and an increasingly close working relationship between parents and teachers.
All of this adds up to a changing psychology of school. In essence, the division between home and school, between growing up and going to school, has been softened. Clearly these are not the days when a child went to school for a few hours as a diversion from agricultural demands at home. We want kids to know more than the basics; we want them to attend increasingly more advanced levels of education. It is widely understood that school is of key importance to one’s future. It is a trajectory that begins before most kids can tie their shoes.
With such an enormous commitment in time, there is an emergent need for closer, more personal relationships. Specifically, a child’s attachment to teachers is the linchpin of belonging, motivation, and performance.
This is not an argument to leverage better performance through attachment, but attachment is a non-negotiable component of effective school participation. I know there’s lots of buzz about student-teacher relationships, and how best to relate to kids, but this dialogue falls short of the notion of “attachment.” Typically, attachment is discussed with regard to parent-child relationships. We seem to understand that a parent can’t be wholly effective – can’t be close enough to influence a child – without a sufficient foundation of attachment. Now, we need to understand the same is true in school, and we need to raise the bar with respect to what teacher-student attachment implies.
Many people are a little burned out on arguments about curriculum, academic standards, and benchmarks. We tend to go round and round on these issues and still there is little consensus. And even if we get to consensus, we sometimes are talking about small things, rather than the sort of life-changing experiences school might include. Attachment is life-changing. Besides, attachment is not only essential for a child’s emotional well-being, it is also fundamental to academic performance. It speaks to the heart of how a child comes to belong in a classroom and school, and why she or he extends her or himself beyond the plateau of being adequate.
I’m interested in the line by the actor J.K. Simmons in the film Whiplash, who says “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” When I heard the line on screen I felt stung because I’ve used this phrase many, many times. I never felt as though I was undermining a person’s potential by saying “good job.” (And for those of you who have seen the film, I’m not recommending his character as a model of pedagogy.) But I’ve come to reconsider how language might unintentionally support adequacy, rather than excellence.
Maybe even more important than excellence are Carol Dweck’s (author of the book Mindset) insights about effort. Still, I can’t see how we can expect a great school effort in the presence of a poor attachment to teachers. This is not progressive idealism. This is human nature intersecting with the social, political system that is school. (As faithful readers doubtless know, my advocacy for students asks for excellence and effort only in the service of learning that has purpose and meaning – but that’s another article.) For now, let’s assume that attachment to teachers, and by extension schools, accords to those high goals.
Elements of Attachment
Respect is the foundation of any interpersonal possibility. Respect begins with love and attention, and it is the best word for the kind of caring affiliation shared between teachers and students. It means that someone feels recognized and accepted, and that one’s perceptions and personhood are welcomed in a classroom context. As I have discussed in many forms, an absence of respect is the primary reason for oppositional-defiance, tantrums, and a variety of other angry, regressive behaviors. If we want young people to be prosocial, constructive, and empathic – we have to make the first move.
An opportunity for bonding means time spent working closely with someone on an activity in which there is a shared goal, reciprocity, and collaborative decision-making. The late psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan had a masterful understanding of this need; it was the cornerstone of his “floor-time” intervention for autistic children. The same principles apply to high functioning students, whether they are five or seventeen. This could be as simple as taking a walk, or as complex as planning the spatial organization of a classroom.
Moral accountability means that when students are assessed for their work and effort, it should be done with reference to expectations that have been established and clarified by a teacher. I emphatically believe in making expectations personal and at least a little emotional. (By emotional, I mean in the sense of a coach who is hopeful and excited for a team member to excel.) This personal appeal is much more motivating than asserting requirements in an objective, non-personal manner. At present, too many discussions about academic performance happen at home. There is certainly moral accountability with parents, but the stress is misplaced. These discussions end in frustration in a way that is different from what could potentially happen if they occurred at school, or at least in the presence of a teacher.
Pride is also an essential element of attachment. If a teacher doesn’t feel pride in a child then there is no real attachment – and the child knows that. You only feel pride about someone to whom you are attached, and whom you respect. Pride must be palpable. We do this when we display student work, when we recognize the contributions of individual students, and especially when we convey our satisfaction with what students are doing in front of their parents and peers. When that reinforcement touches upon a child’s character, so much the better.
Attachment is a Prerequisite for Responsibility
When we are unafraid to convey our belief in such principles, we are projecting confidence and love. This is inherently attractive to any group that aspires to be a community. And when we make allowance for helping those who may not be blessed with the greatest natural assets to achieve, we further assert our belief that the attachment is not exclusionary. This is not a club for which there is any initiation test other than one’s effort and willingness to join.
In my own research, I have heard that students expect that teachers will love them, not totally unlike what they expect from their parents. I think this may come as a surprise to some, but I think there are many who have understood this need for years. This is especially true for those who teach young students.
It’s time for discussion about this dimension of school to become more public, and more practical. We need an opportunity to discuss the important ways attachment is manifest at school. This is one reason why I often advocate for a parent event when I am invited to do professional development work. Through talking with parents about the evolving role of school in children’s lives, I hope to instill an appreciation of the challenges of teaching, and the psychological experience of school for students.
We can also see how the increased need for attachment should shape the building of a school’s professional community. In particular, the hiring of teachers should address a person’s capacity for attachment to students. Whether we assess this through psychological measures, or simply through the acumen of school principals attuned to these attributes in teaching candidates is certainly open for discussion. Either way, I believe such considerations should be foremost in bringing on new staff.
Attachment is Long-term Thinking
It’s summer in North America, and most teachers are going into hibernation for a well-deserved rest before it all begins again. I think the concept of attachment requires a period of gestation and reflection. I wanted to share these thoughts before people settle into recreation and relaxation. Please take these ideas onto your porch, or your run in the park. Think how at home these ideas feel in the grocery store, while listening to your favorite music, or browsing at a bookstore.
And of course this is not just the work of individual teachers, it is the work of a whole school, and especially the vision of school leaders. Making attachment foundational to success shifts us away from the inherently transactional nature of school; where all the drama is about grades, and all of the anxiety has to do with whether success is at hand or seems beyond one’s grasp.
Is this a romantic idea, a harking back to the good old days? Absolutely not. It is part of a slow, but necessary movement forward. It is part of recognizing the broad influence of school, and by extension, the wonderful evolution of what it means to be a true teacher. As I write these words I know many of you are nodding in recognition. We’ve met, and I know you understand how respect and love have always been part of the equation of school success. I know you’ve done whatever you can to bring attachment to the forefront of going to school. Thank you for that.
I also know your efforts must be working for many students. I know this because so often I’m sitting across from young people who want so badly to please you, and to make you proud. Young people don’t have such feelings because they are mandated by parents or an institutional creed. It’s an attitude and motivation that comes from attachment — a recognition that school is personal.
Have a wonderful summer! Look forward to connecting in the fall!
More ideas on youth: If you find value in this newsletter I would like to invite you to visit my blog ideasonyouth.com.
I began the blog so I would have an opportunity to communicate more often, and about a wider range of topics. I have included posts on practical advice, and as is my passion, conversation about the purpose and direction of youth. So much is happening in our world with respect to kids, families, and schools.
I hope you might take the time to communicate with me via my blog. It is a privilege to share these ideas, and I thank you very much for your time and attention!
Parent Coaching The nature of my clinical approach is somewhat unique, and I find that parents in different parts of North America want to partner in helping their children and teens. To that end, I am able to do parent coaching via telephone, email, or Skype. In some cases, it works well when families can visit for an initial meeting, and then follow-up as noted above. (401) 816-5900.
“Fascinating and deeply moving.”
Deborah Meier, MacArthur Award Recipient, NYU Steinhardt School Senior Scholar