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Building Relationships


Every teacher I know has a story about that one teacher that believed in and challenged them. John Spencer and A. J. Juliani are no different. In the first chapters of their new book Empower, they tell stories of the teachers that saw their profession not simply as a job, but as a place to connect and let students learn about themselves.  These teachers challenged them but also formed a personal connection with so strong that it guides their work today.


When I hear these stories, I doubt that I have formed those kinds of relationships with students. I feel like it may be one of the areas where I have the biggest room for growth as an educator.


As George Couros champions in the Innovator's Mindset, it’s all about relationships. That catchy phrase “guide on the side” has poisoned me to wit in the back seat for the learning occurring in my classroom, and I’ve risked the relationships with my students. In the book, Spencer and Juliani speak of the power that a guide holds and the key role that guides play in every student's learning story, a.k.a the archetypical Hero's Journey.


There’s a great quote in chapter 2 of Empower that hit me hard,
“We must step aside as the gatekeepers and instead move next to our learners to take the journey together.” (pg. 20)


I’m pretty good at stepping aside as a the one true source of answers.  But, stepping aside doesn’t mean stepping away. When students are finding their own answers to their own questions, that doesn’t mean teachers don’t have a role to play. Defining that new role is something I’m struggling with.


In order to empower students by their side, it’s not enough to simply know the content that I’m teaching. I need to become a learner, too. I need to be open to learning about my students beyond performance on content assessments.  I need to know their strengths, challenges, interests, and aspirations. I’ve been working on this, but it’s a role I’m not used to.  Spencer and Juliani, outline many dynamic shifts required to create a learning environment that empowers learners. This is one of those shifts.  There will be times where teachers don’t have the answers. We need to be ok with that and be willing to learn along side our students and help navigate that path.


It’s one thing when students are exploring passion projects unrelated to course content. Teachers may not know the answers, but they can help in the discovery process. But, when studying course specific content, teachers can help find those connections between interests and content.  I know my course content and the skills associated with it. I may not have all the answers to how a student’s passions connect to my content, but I can help chart that course.


So how do I get there? I’ve had students work on digital personal learner profiles in the past.  But, without that collaboration between student and teacher, those meaningful relationships aren’t going to be built. In Empower, the importance of 1:1 conferencing is highlighted as a key strategy to building this relationship. I need to be explicitly be doing more of this. These conferences proposed are empowered conferences. This means that they are student led. The can be for seeking advice in the process, reflecting on progress, or demonstrating mastery. But in every case, the student owns the conference and the one who may be learning the most is the teacher.


It’s one thing to allow my students to practice a messy process of learning.  But, I’ve got to be willing to be beside each student in that mess. The teachers that I remember the most weren’t the ones who demonstrated brilliance in their content area. They were the ones who took an interest in who I was and helped me see that their content was quite exciting.

Mr. Gouse was my 5th grade teacher. Even though his expertise was science, I didn't get my love of science from him. He actually helped spark my love for telling stories. He was the teacher who allowed me to take time during class to write short plays. These plays were then directed by me and performed in front of our class in our performance space called the Rainbow Room. Yes, plays like "The Great Grocery Store Robbery" and "The Deal" were fairly violent. But, he didn't stand in the way of my of my creativity. He saw that passion and gave it the oxygen it needed to catch fire.

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