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Commentary: Educating as a personal art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 15, 2011 - "At least I don't dread coming to this class," a senior said the other day. Naturally, I took this as a compliment. What teacher of high school seniors would not? We feed off such crumbs. Graduation is getting closer, and it is beginning to matter less and less to my students what happens in class. So goes the conventional wisdom.

But maybe that's not true. Maybe what happens in class matters even more, given that we tend to remember the most trivial things we happened to be doing right before momentous events. Just to be safe, therefore, I am attending to the face-to-face experiences I have with these seniors as if Something Very Big and Important is about to happen to them.

Here's the thing about teaching: For it to be done well, and by well I mean in such a way that the student can make meaningful use of the stuff learned, there has to be a positive relationship between the teacher and the student. There have to be other things, too, but without that affective connection, the place where learning happens remains sterile as a pot of dry peat. Learning and teaching are social processes.

The problem is, those who wield power over the way we Americans "do" public education right now are not teachers. They are legislators, and business analysts, and hedge fund managers, and publishers of text books, and test-prep-material vendors. They are anyone who believes that the personal relationship between a teacher and her students is less important than curricular content and standardized test scores. But guess what? The teacher/student relationship is the curriculum. It is the course of study, the complex, tangled root ball where learning takes place. Or does not take place. Or does, but in a way that it will be soon forgotten, or leave the student alienated from school and schooling.

Does anyone really believe that there is any child in the world who, given a caring, attentive adult who knows how to connect with and respond to that child as an individual across cultural, ethnic, temperamental and socio-economic differences -- does anyone honestly believe that that child will not learn anything that teacher has to teach?

Think of the things you learned a long time ago that you still know how to do. Scramble an egg. Ride a bike. Wrap a present. Tie your shoe. Multiply 4 times 9. Spell "because." Perform open heart surgery.

Think about how this happened. It happened because you cared enough to make it happen, and it also happened because someone who knew more than you did about these tasks cared enough that you knew more, too. Or at the very least, didn't get in the way of you watching and figuring it out on your own.

So why are we not talking about improving teacher/student relationships on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times? Why are "test scores" and "skills" just about all we are talking about in this public conversation?

Because relationships are a lot messier than numbers. Relationships go wrong. Then they go right. Then they go wrong again, and wronger still. Then suddenly they go extremely right. More often than not (ask any teacher) relationships go right and wrong at the same time.

Anyone out there want to sit down and quantify this? It's like trying to measure a root ball.

But what if we imagine that root ball wedged in a transparent glass rather than ceramic container. We might see a little more, not everything, but maybe enough to help us help the root ball to get what it needs to support a healthy, flowering plant. And what if we asked the root ball to talk to us, to tell us a little bit about what it believes is going on in the places we cannot see.

What if, in other words, we actually started paying attention to the things good teachers pay the most attention to? We would actually improve teacher/student relationships, which would lead directly to improving student performance.

Oh, and by the way, we would also improve the quality of the lives of the people who spend 10 hours a day caring for other people's children.

Inda Schaenen is a writer and teacher in St. Louis.