Teacher Susannah Sawnson talks her student Timothy Lewis, 11, during 6th grade social study class at Brookhaven Innovation Academy in Norcross last month.
Photo: Hyosub Shin/AJC
Photo: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Cultivating relationships has always been the heart of schooling

The daily emails began a few weeks ago. People from around the country had somehow found their way to a year-old guest column on the AJC Get Schooled blog by University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinsky. The essay discussed the importance of relationships to successful teaching and learning.

The internet operates in mysterious ways, so I’m not surprised when something that appeared on the blog a while ago suddenly sees a spike in readership. But this was unusual in that the column was prompting people to reach out to talk about their own experiences or to ask more about the teacher and district Smagorinsky had profiled. 

So, I asked him to consider why this topic was resonating with thousands of people around the country. Here is his response: 

By Peter Smagorinsky

Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see a surge of interest in something I wrote for Get Schooled a little over a year ago. The essay is titled “What if schools focused on improving relationships rather than test scores?” I wrote it following an interview I conducted with a Georgia teacher who had recently changed jobs, moving from a high-paying district where standardized testing drives all curriculum, instruction, and assessment to a less prestigious district that focused on relationships. 

The change made all the difference to her. At one point she had considered getting out of teaching altogether because the impersonal testing emphasis of her previous district had made her life miserable. The self-proclaimed corporate approach of the district had created a testing barrier between her and her students. Yet, her whole purpose in becoming an educator originally had been to work with kids and cultivate their growth in ways they found authentic and worthwhile. 

I won’t revisit that essay in its entirety here; the link above can redirect readers to the original. Here I’ll take up a question Maureen wrote after we had received many inquiries about the relationship-driven district from teachers and administrators across the country. We have been wondering how the essay returned to circulation after a year, and why it was provoking seemingly greater interest the second time around. She wrote, “This ongoing series of queries about your piece is amazing. You ought to write a piece about what you think is driving this interest—is it so hard to find a district where this is the culture?”

We still aren’t sure what prompted this new wave of interest from across the country. Possibly, someone came across the essay and re-posted it to an educational listserv. After the queries began to arrive following the re-publication, the AJC re-ran it, after which it got considerable traffic, ranked among the top three articles accessed by the whole paper’s readers. Why, we have wondered, was the emphasis on relationships of seemingly greater interest so long after its initial publication?

The inquiries have come from administrators hoping to get in touch with the principal of the school, so they might replicate its culture, from teachers wanting to contact the teacher to share their value on relationships, from teachers wondering how to balance relationships with the need for discipline, from a teacher relocating to Georgia who wanted to teach in a relationship-driven district, and others. 

The common thread is that these educators all appear to be fed up with the emphasis on testing and the deleterious effects that standardization has had on school culture. The inquirers all agree that what makes schools good places to learn is an environment where people know and care about the people around them. But how, they wonder, can such an environment be established in an era where accountability is so narrowly defined and where people matter less than numbers?

It would be convenient to blame one person, place, or thing for the disaffecting state of schooling. Some might point to the lack of empathy in the national political leadership. But the current administration is only continuing assessment policies from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies. There is no more or less empathy toward teachers and students now than there was a year ago, or five years ago; Arne Duncan is still hyping tests as the most important driver of educational quality

In the current administration, Betsy Devos has been near-silent on curriculum and instruction. She has focused her policies on enabling school choice that encourages privatization, revamping student loan policies, dismantling protections for LGBTQ and minority students, protecting males from accusations of campus assaults, and championing other issues outside teachers’ purview. She has not increased tests in the manner of her predecessors. 

Perhaps, her priorities suggest indifference to the quality of relationships, in that they primarily protect the rights of those who, like her, were born into affluence. But it’s hard to make the case that either she or her president have single-handedly produced the environment that gave new life to a year-old essay.

I suspect that testing fatigue is part of the reason that an essay on relationships would get a fresh life on the internet. Teachers have been complaining about standardized test impositions on instructional time for many years. 

I complained about them when I was a student in the 1960s. I complained about them as a teacher in the 1970s and 1980s. I complained about them for the next three decades as a teacher educator. Yet, they keep being imposed on teachers and students, seemingly more all of the time, with no new evidence that they are reliable or valid indicators of educational quality. 

Testing irrelevance is also becoming more obvious with each administration of these exams. Rather than relying on their good judgment, teachers are required to gear their instruction to tests developed by testing corporations. No matter how well they teach, the only thing that matters is how their students do on the tests designed by non-teachers, no matter how detached from what is beneficial to learn they are, no matter how oversimplified a conception of knowledge they embody. 

The tests rarely assess what teachers believe kids should learn, and at least a few administrators agree that they remove classrooms from their more important mission of cultivating student growth. 

A final factor I’ll review here concerns the effects of testing on how people feel about being in a school. If I were to identify a leading reason for the revived interest in a year-old essay on relational schooling, it would lie in how deadening a test-driven school can become. Learning has a strong emotional dimension. In 1984, John L. Goodlad, in his major study “A Place Called School,” characterized classrooms as emotionally “flat” because teaching and learning produced so little enthusiasm or engagement. That was well before the modern testing movement that began during the Clinton administration and that has been amped up many times since.

I recently spoke with a teacher who had returned from Ghana, where she had visited a school where children did a lot of dancing, playing, and laughing. They were also learning. The school didn’t have electricity, but the environment was electric with positive emotions, engagement, and enthusiasm. I suspect the people who found the re-publication of my essay with sharing and discussing feel that U.S. schools lack such motivating affect. 

Testing, I’m sure, is only part of the problem. Testing is symptomatic of a broader view that people and performances can be reduced to numbers, that corporate approaches are easily transferable to schools, that how people feel about where they teach and learn is irrelevant to measuring success.

But I doubt if these values can hold, and apparently, a number of educators agree. The nation has conducted a disastrous social experiment by trying to run schools on a numbers-driven business model, and the first casualty has been the cultivation of relationships that are at the heart of schooling. 

Perhaps the response to the essay is part of a larger discontent with what has happened to our schools, and a hunger for an approach that brings humanity back into the classroom. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that other essays emphasizing socio-emotional growth and relationships have recently appeared, including pieces in Get Schooled, the Washington Post, and by the resident conservative essayist for The New York Times, David Brooks.

I doubt if policymakers from outside schools are listening. They rarely do. It’s much easier to reduce learning to numbers than to invest the time and energy it takes to make schools emotionally and physically healthy places for people to be. Apparently, however, there’s a great yearning for schools to put relationships at the center of an education. I hope that there’s enough resolve to make it happen. 

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.