Ours is an excessively conscious age. We know so much; we feel so little. Everyone seems a little indifferent this year. Maybe, it is an exhaustion that, possibly, breathes a rancid distrust of society. Often indifference brings with it an unkindness, a lack of integrity, an arrogance, disloyalty, a systemic break down in societal code. Because I work so closely with people, I have witnessed it first-hand. There is a schizophrenic-societal-brutality that has thrown society into a complex human-adjustment-syndrome (my own term). But what is it that needs adjustment? And a syndrome of what? I cannot speak for other industries and corporate entities, but within the educational milieu, it becomes easier to consider what has been lost, and more importantly what has the potential to be found, reconstructed, retheorised on; altered.
You’ll remember that last year, I didn’t give a director’s speech at Prize giving; I was exhausted then; I’m not as much this year, though it has been a busier year. So, let’s talk about what was lost online, during the 2020 Covid lockdowns, and perhaps the past 620 odd days of lockdown – and what it takes to recover and alter the social constructs necessary in education and for learning. I’ll use an old concept of ‘’teaching through relationships’’ that needs to be made new again; that needs to be revisited to understand what will forever be lost in ‘’lockdown teaching and learning’’. Teaching through relationships needs to be rephrased to teaching through partnerships, because relationships (as we all know) are messy!
So, what would teaching through partnerships mean in an educational space? What does a a partnership look like? While teaching through relationships is a fundamental idea that most progressive educators have long embraced, it’s an idea that will be grappled with within the space of ‘’teaching and learning’’ because teaching through learning is more than just having knowledge about students, rather it ultimately, describes the complex social environment in which students and teachers converse, share experiences, and participate in activities that create a partnership. Whereas a relationship simply denotes emotion; a partnership, on the hand, is all about emotional integrity. It requires an ongoing commitment to the relationship.
My problem with teaching through relationships use to be pretty straightforward; in my own education, and in my own early teaching days, teaching was a formal affair, aligned with ideas of conventional professionalism that draw a very clear line between the teacher and the students. It looked a lot like online learning – just in a different form. I did form a very close relationship with my English teacher, but only after school, and it was her who insisted that I teach with her. It was her who reassured me that even though I wasn’t the top English student in my matric year, that I was more than that; that my understanding of people and society and the complexities thereof outweighed my ability to write that the frenzied monotony of the grey-day rained its gloom on the blistered trees, like welts burnt into the skin – I mean, what does that even mean if you don’t understand metaphors? I did notice -- with some degree of awe and envy -- that some of my friends were able to form close alliances with their teachers whilst at school. At that time of my life, I believed that you had to be brilliant or one of the hip, savvy students who had the chutzpah to see teachers as something akin to a mentor and not a remote authority figure. These savvy students even went to parties with their teachers. That wasn't my story. Getting to know my teachers and my teachers getting to know me as a fellow human traveller was not something that I wished for, so this was fine with me – at the time. In retrospect, the relationships and opportunities that I could have had and didn't make me feel a bit regretful
The formal arrangement of teacher-student relationships has discouraged fraternizing with students in the belief that when the role of teacher, mentor, and guide becomes confused with that of a friend or a buddy, the instructional waters become muddied. The phrase ‘fraternising with students’’ also has a subtext of ickiness that has difficulty distancing itself from scandal and inappropriate behaviour. However, teaching through partnerships does not encourage this type of fraternizing. Instead, it embeds formal knowledge in the world in which it actually belongs and from which it is born; that of the complex, historical, and social world of being human.
While maintaining the formal relationship between students and teachers, teaching through partnerships, when done well, recognises the human stories of the learners themselves (they are not blank slates), as well as that of the teacher. It is an approach that embraces our complex identities, biographies, and the stories we bring that serve to humanise the subjects we teach. This is what we lost online in 2020, we lost the complex biographies and stories that humanise a subject.
Making these complexities part of our teaching "mix" helps to expand our knowledge beyond the artificial confines of a particular discipline. Much of what we know about learning through relationships has its origins in the work of Lev Vygotsky, the child psychologist who asserted that learning is relational, and that language and conversation is central to the relational aspects of learning. Vygotsky's work emphasises the role of community and how that facilitates the learning process. Moreover, the philosophy of Martin Buber, also, understood that the social framework of teaching is fundamental to how we learn and to the development of human culture in general. Buber was an early proponent of the idea that the best way to teach a student is to see them not as an "it," but complex, and empathetic human being.
Teaching through partnerships, somehow, passes the student through that mystical threshold when formal knowledge leads to hidden knowledge. What is hidden is the process of discovery itself and the connections between thought, everyday life, and other seemingly unrelated ideas and disciplines. When students can make this connection via "teaching through partnerships," they begin to see themselves as co-learners along with their teachers, as well as with the greatest minds in history.
So, what is the role the teacher in this scenario? Firstly, it means getting to know where they are in terms of their knowledge, abilities, and potential. More importantly, it also means getting to know their interests, personality, and background. For the teacher, this body of knowledge opens up the possibilities of growth and dramatic learning opportunities. One of the many challenges I had with the social aspects of teaching is that it sometimes appears to get in the way of instruction. Its true instruction sometimes get benched so that teachers are given an intimate understanding of your Tupperware addiction, what dinner you eat (every night), what you said to the noisy neighbour at 12am on a Sunday morning, what dog food you buy (and why it’s the best!), what time you had to get ready for church (5am is a little early) and the jackets have been in your cupboards for the past twenty years for sentimental, but never-worn reason. We know more than you than you think we do!
My challenges with building partnerships in the classroom reached a peak in two situation; firstly when I found myself in a situation where the students were not friendly to each other in class and secondly in 2020 when the social grease that is, very often, seen as a distraction (in a real-time classroom) was absent, and I realised that the class lacked the social vibe that energises the classroom. The silence in both situations was not that of students focused on their work, but of the social awkwardness of people not able or willing to bridge a social gap. And, herein, lies the downfall of online teaching and learning. The silence was deafening. A teacher was no longer part of a complex social construct, but rather merely a tool in the fast and furious world of technology! And with it came the indifference, that I first suggested. We know now so much more about everything that we did 18 months ago, but we slowly felt less and less. We felt exhausted. And, were distrustful of many things, if not everything.
So, have we been successful in recreating our framework for partnerships in the past year. Absolutely, we certainly learnt that a relationship is easy; we can have relationships online (most teenagers do now-days!), but partnerships required more work, more time, more effort. Even at the expense of completing a curriculum. It the hidden knowledge, the hidden curriculum that was the gem, the real treasure under the dragon’s underbelly. And I will fight for it a thousand times over just to know that humanised a story. A student’s biography. Our lives.