Education Opinion

Best Teaching Is Based on Relationships

By Walt Gardner — August 18, 2014 2 min read
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When historians look back at the reform movement presently sweeping the country, they’ll conclude that it failed to deliver on its promises because it gave too little importance to the relationship between teachers and students, (“Teaching Is Not a Business,” The New York Times, Aug. 17). I’m not denying the role that technology plays in learning. But it is no substitute for the bond that forms when human beings interact in the classroom.

Teaching by its very nature is a person-to-person undertaking. I acknowledge that it’s possible to get positive quantifiable results when the human element is removed from the equation. Every day software proves that is true. But if we’re talking about non-cognitive outcomes, which I believe are every bit as important, then software is no match.

The trouble is that everything going on today undermines the teacher-student relationship. High-stakes tests are the only metric that truly counts. But what good does it do to teach a subject well (high standardized test scores) but to teach students to hate the subject in the process (low self-report inventory scores)? Positive attitudes toward learning are crucial if the goal is to produce lifelong learners.

Yet reformers are concerned exclusively with cognitive outcomes. Of course these are important. However, in the 28 years that I taught in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I saw many students who weren’t particularly good students go on to become highly successful because of the love they had for their chosen field. In other words, attitudes count far more than is realized.

I fail to see how even the best technology can take the place of what transpires between teacher and students. A parallel exists in the practice of medicine today, where technology is increasingly replacing clinical judgment (“Communicating, a Declining Skills in Medical Diagnosis,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 18).

I’ve written often before that I make it a point to attend reunions of past classes at the high school where I taught. Recently, I was invited to the 40th reunion. It was surprisingly well attended, with about 165 former students. Seeing what became of them after so many years confirmed my belief about the indispensability of building close relationships with students. They reminded me of things that took place in my English class that I had forgotten. What they seemed to remember most, however, was the caring atmosphere. I guess it’s true that long after subject matter is forgotten, attitudes remain.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.