I Hear You. I See You. I Trust You.

Reflections on a High School shooting from a relational perspective

Nat Damon, author of ‘Time to Teach - Time to Reach’ (forthcoming) and Lead-Associate for the Relational Schools Foundation in the US, reflects with Rob Loe on how we might frame our response to school tragedies like Parkland in a more relational way. This piece was submitted as an op-ed to Education Week, and will be published in an abridged form in their next upcoming print issue.

After a tragedy like the Parkland school shooting, one of the central topics of debate becomes how to keep our students safe. Discussions circle around ideas such as installing greater security measures, mandating better-armed guards, deepening armed-intruder training, even arming teachers in the classroom. It is not wrong to frame solutions by focusing on the physical environment of schools themselves. These buildings house the precious lives within and of course should be safely constructed and vigilantly protected. Yet a school is not a mall; it is not a corporation. Rather, a school is more akin to a village or even a family. In fact, for many students growing up in today’s disassociated world, school is the most stable form of family they have. Therefore, we must view solutions to the epidemic of violence in school, ranging from bullying to mass murder, through a humanistic, organisational lens.

One of the most rapidly growing movements in K12 education today is relational teaching. Relational teaching defines the interpersonal, qualitative elements of the teacher-student connection. It is based on trust first and foremost. Once trust is established, exploration, challenge, and all of the micro-bits of learning optimally form. Yet we all know that trust takes a long time to develop and a nanosecond to break. A teacher who leaves the stack of 5-page essays on the train from a weekend at a music festival in San Diego as a choice to make: tell the truth and express sincere regret or cover it up, lie, or (worst) marginalise the mistake with a glib comment like, “I’ll just count your next essay twice as much”. Trust requires connection, and students of all ages can identify authentic connection and feel safe as a result. They can also detect insincere connection – seen largely as posturing and distance – and feel anxious in that teacher’s classroom because the process of learning always involves risk.

In the case of the most recent tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Broward County Mayor Beam Furr said, "We try to keep our eyes out on those kids who aren't connected ... Most teachers try to steer them toward some kind of connections. ... In this case, we didn't find a way to connect with this kid." Schools that place relational teaching at the forefront of their instructional delivery and classroom culture do not have that defeatism. Because they understand that connection is the cornerstone of trust-building, they prioritise it. Jonnie Noakes, Head of Teaching and Learning at England’s renowned Eton College reminds us that “in schools learning is a social activity. Therefore, those (student-teacher) relationships are keenly important.” When learning is defined as social, and when relationships between teacher and student are based on trust, it is impossible to not “find a way to connect”.

There is a scene in the classic 80’s coming-of-age movie, The Breakfast Club, when Andrew, the school jock, and Allison, the school ‘weirdo’, talk privately about what makes her so sad. Andrew persists: “So what's wrong? What is it? Is it bad? Real bad? Parents?”

Allison responds, “Yeah...”

Andrew (presumably thinking physical or high-level emotional abuse) nods and asks, “What do they do to you?”

Allison replies (with a simplicity and clarity that blankets her deep pain), “They ignore me.” Allison's parents ignore her. They’re not abusing her or forcing her to be someone she is not or using her as a pawn. Yet the crime Allison’s parents commit is a crime of omission, of not-seeing. As a result, Allison retreats from the world, which means relinquishing her rightful place in school and losing her sense of belonging.

“I hear you. I see you. I trust you”. Los Angeles-based English teacher Jennifer Dohr recites this mantra when she recalls a colleague who physically ensured that every student was feeling heard, seen, and trusted. “This teacher would knock on each desk as she would say, ‘I see you,’ and it was so powerful. I remember the first time I saw her do that and was deeply moved. It was this combination of this physical closeness and this ‘in your face’ you matter to me so much, I’m not going to let you hide. It’s what I mean when I suggest that a teacher is deepening when she is connecting, because once you connect then you’re ‘in their face’ enough to deepen. Then the more you deepen, the more they know you care: Teaching becomes this loop of ever-deepening compassion and care.”

This example eloquently defines relational teaching. The practice is rooted in positive psychology, which the movement’s founder Martin Seligman defines as “a science … [that] promises to … prevent the pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless.” Nikolas Cruz’s life was barren and meaningless. He was a loner. His father died at a young age and his mother died this past year. He had a lengthy track record of school behavioural issues and was expelled from school. He was described by students as “troubled”, as an object of fear who “everyone predicted would do something like (commit a school massacre).”

Educational researcher Curt Adams states that “positive organisational practices bring out the strengths and potential in individuals through a relational context that supports basic psychological needs”. Dr Jonathan Zaff, Executive Director of The Center for Promise, the research institute for America’s Promise Alliance, in Boston, Massachusetts, states that “everyone – the receptionist, the nurse, the teacher, the coach, anyone – can do something for each student. Together, these ‘somethings’ are what keep students in school.” José Luis Vilson is a math educator in New York City and the author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, sums up the important role schools play toward developing a student’s sense of self-worth: “At their best, schools are places where children feel seen and heard, not discarded and left behind.”

As we move forward, the hope is that our thoughts and prayers are replaced with concrete solutions that not only address policy, but also address the role of the school as it contributes to the livelihoods of our youth. Are schools viewed through a corporate, quantifiable lens that places their successes and failures on student test scores and robotic teaching of a top-down curriculum? Or are schools viewed through a more accurate lens that acknowledges the relational elements that come into play when defining any type of village or family community? There is no greater example than the epidemic of school shootings in America to justify giving the latter view far more serious attention.

Nat Damon and Dr Robert Loe

Los Angeles/London & Cambridge, UK

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