Part 2 The Power of Relationships in the Classroom

In Part 1 of this series, I summarized chapter 1 of Teaching With the HEART In Mind, by educator Lorea Martinez. As a reminder this fantastic book is a highly accessible and readable entry-point to Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Check out Part 1 for more context.

Chapter 1 focused on the key role emotions play in powerful learning. Chapter 2 highlights the power of a positive adult relationship in the classroom.

Relationships Can Alter Your Genetic Makeup

According to a new field of research called epigenetics, a person's environment - experiences + relationships - can affect the expression of certain genes. It works a little like a light switch- the experiences that a person has can turn a gene on or off, encourage or inhibit expression. This is particularly important in child development. We know that certain adverse child experiences (ACES) have short and long-term consequences for a child's mental and physical health. But on the flip-side, a the presence of a consistent caring adult can serve as a protective factor that works to counteract some of the damage caused by chronic stress + adverse experiences.

Why does this matter for teaching? Teachers are one of the primary adult relationships in a child's life. A teacher's ability to build strong, positive relationships with students could have an enormous impact on future outcomes.

So what are the elements that influence a positive teacher-student relationship?

  • Emotional Connection. This mean trying to make space during the day to connect with students about things outside of academics, sharing some of your personal story, and making it abundantly clear how much you care for them and believe they can succeed.
  • Trustworthiness: Teachers can cultivate trust by being honest where appropriate, making sure they are coherent and consistent in their policies and values, and showing students at every possible opportunity that they care deeply about them first, before the grades and the outcomes.
  • Cultural Responsiveness: In order to build relationships with students teachers need to make genuine attempts to understand their students lives. This means teachers, especially white teachers in majority black + brown school districts, should make an effort to understand a student's stated identity as well as their culture and community.