Do Our Policies Prioritize Relationships?


Canter-c120x148Formerly a teacher, now an administrator-in-training, Chris Canter blogs about his yearlong assistant principal internship at Fulton County Public Schools in Atlanta, Ga. Canter was a 2010 ASCD OYEA honoree.

Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan posted a letter on the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) website that placed teacher and student relationships at the center of every classroom. The letter has caused much public debate and my own personal reflection on my experiences in Georgia schools.

I must say that I agree with the secretary wholeheartedly: relationships are crucial. To engage students and fully influence their lives, we must know our students and their individual needs. Further, teachers need better data systems to monitor students, better training to use those data systems, and training on how to overcome challenges unique to their student populations (such as the effects of poverty, crime, and drugs).

I fear, however, that once again leaders are giving lip service to a good idea with little means to address the real issues. If teachers are to build meaningful relationships, they cannot be inundated with historically high class sizes, and standardized tests cannot be the sole determinant of teacher effectiveness. What do those tests say about the effectiveness of a relationship, after all?

To move beyond lip service, we need to provide adequate funding up front, not just to a handful of winning states, for the lower class sizes that enable relationship-building. We need to find testing models that actually measure student growth, not merely student baseline knowledge. Generally, we need legislation that practices what government leaders preach: differentiating for the needs of individual schools rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach to measure school effectiveness.

Truly, teachers are “the force that forges the meaningful connections at the heart of every great classroom,” as Duncan suggests. They are, however, being asked to produce more with less, each and every school year.

Duncan writes that the center of a classroom is not “a state or district policy, and it most certainly is not a federal law,” but we cannot write off the profound influence these have on whether or not relationships—the true center of the classroom—hold.

Do you agree that relationships are the center of the classroom? Which policies hinder or help support classroom relationships?


  1. I also agree, building relationships with our students are crucial these days. I also agree that teachers need training on how to overcome challenges within our student populations. In my high school, over 60% of our students receive free or reduced lunch, many community issues are also brought into school and therefore create a lot of crime and violence, and of course drugs are present. I also agree that teachers are asked to produce more with less. This past school year, I had approximately 25 students in each class that I taught, and I taught five classes. Our test scores improved slightly from last year. This coming year, we are projected to have approximately 30 students in each class. Instead of hiring another teacher, class sizes are increasing. I am frustrated because I wonder how teachers are expected to continue to meet standards when administrators and researchers know that small class sizes are beneficial; more learning occurs, teachers build a more meaningful relationship with their students, there are also less discipline problems when class sizes are smaller. I wish that my school budget would be adjusted. I feel that schools need more teachers and more training needs to be provided, this would improve test scores if that is what administrators are concerned with.

  2. I completely agree that relationships are crucial, and I base this on my own experiences. Twice I have been an experienced teacher who was new to a particular school, and both times I encountered a lot of acting out, challenges, and push-back at first.
    In school A, other teachers told me that their first years at the school had been similar, but that by the second year things had calmed down considerably. In school B, my classroom climate improved by the spring semester — a pattern that my principal said he’d seen with other teachers.
    I attribute these changes less to teachers’ sudden increase in classroom management skills and more to students just getting used to the teacher, and vice-versa. Students listen more to adults whom they know and trust. Those kinds of relationships and reputations take time to build.
    Given this, my policy suggestion is to foster teacher retention, and reduce teacher turnover in a building. Even if I don’t know my students well, when I get the new 10th graders in September, they will already know a bit about me. I anticipate a better level of student cooperation this fall than I had last fall.


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