Contributed by Lois Brown Easton
What did you think about as a result of reading my last blog post on motivation? In what ways have you created a culture of engagement in your classroom or school? In what ways are you providing for voice and choice in your school? To what extent do these encourage engagement?
Voice and choice, leading to a democratic community, are great and necessary, in terms of creating a culture of engagement, but they are not enough. What’s needed are affiliations and accountability.
I remember working with a group of interns (college graduates who had not yet decided they wanted to teach, but wanted experience working with youth). They were working with at-risk students and – at first – they wanted to “save” these “poor, misunderstood” students. Then, persuaded that only the students could save themselves, the interns wanted to be friends with them. We had a great discussion about what friendship would look like between these interns and high-school age students who were not that far removed from the interns in terms of age. Friendship, they decided, was not exactly what they wanted if they were also to be the students’ teachers. They wanted something else.
“We want to be approachable,” they said. “We want students to see us as someone they can come to if they have any problems.” We settled on affiliation to describe what they wanted to have with students; they wanted to work with students as affiliates, comrades, and allies. I think the key word is actually the preposition with.
To what extent do you see yourself as affiliated with students, as a comrade or ally? To what extent are you approachable? Do students see you as more than a teacher? Do you see students as more than students? Why would a teacher want to be more than a teacher and think of his or her students as more than students?
One of the interns described above summarized the importance of relationships in Engaging the Disengaged: How Schools Can Help Struggling Students Succeed: “Any meaningful and positive learning experience must be built upon a strong relationship. This relationship does not necessitate a friendship, but [it does necessitate] an honest and transparent understanding of intentions and communication. Perhaps the most central theme in any real relationship is trust. Trust allows all agents involved in the learning process to move to the conceptual and theoretical levels of knowledge by letting themselves become more receptive to different forms of analysis and critical thought.”
I couldn’t have said it better. He continued, “If a young person does not trust the instructor,” he continued, “the attempt by that instructor to teach the student content. . . becomes futile. If the young person cannot trust an adult simply as a human, how can this person trust what the adult is trying to teach? Without trust, a young person won’t accept any learning; he or she will only dismiss the information, process, and material as another imposition of values from ‘above.’
“With trust and transparency in a relationship, both parties are receptive to reciprocal advice, feedback, and input. Deep discussions and exchanges can more freely take place. Both young people and adults feel confident that the relationships will not be negatively affected by challenges. Adults can challenge young people on attitudes and emotions and, inversely, young people can challenge adults on treatment and content” (p. 21).
What’s interesting to me is the connection between relationships and accountability. I think accountability is essential in a democratic community, based on voice and choice. Ultimately, those who promote something (through voice) and then choose what to do must be accountable for results related to their choices. Relationships foster accountability.
Again, an intern (at that time) said it best: “Personal relationships allow for people to hold each other accountable, thus raising the proverbial ‘bar.’ This concept applies in both academic and personal growth arenas.” Two students shared their agreement with him. One said, “If I have a relationship with someone, I’m not going to let him down. I’m going to work hard for him—and, for me, too.” Another student commented wisely, “It’s a lot easier not having relationships, I guess. You can just go through life not caring. But when you’ve built a relationship and you care about others, you really think about them and about who you are and what you do . . . in relation to them” (p. 24).
What are your thoughts about affiliation and accountability? How does affiliation lead to engagement? How does accountability lead to engagement?