Whilst I know it’s ironic that I don’t have a great love of university, considering I’ve managed to collect several degrees over the years, that’s not the point and this is not about me!
The other day I was having a discussion with a graduating teacher and what were the most important things which had or hadn’t been part of the course. The one thing which emerged was the fact that nothing was ever taught, workshopped or even covered about effectively building rapport with students. Thinking back to my days at uni, my course was the same. There was plenty of time wasted on pointless nonsense, but nothing on the most important thing a teacher needs to be able to do.
It seems for universities, that building effective relationships in the classroom is just an afterthought. One of the problems is however, the fact that uni lecturers don’t spend any real time in real school classrooms. Therefore, all of their educational knowledge is heavily theoretical. The lack of practical application becomes obvious throughout teachers’ careers and it’s often something teachers can really struggle with, especially as they become increasingly a facilitator and not someone who has an expert body of knowledge. Consequently, if developing positive rapport in the classroom wasn’t important enough before, it’s now absolutely critical to the success of students’ education, as we learn best from those people to whom we relate.
Previously, a lot of teachers could get away with a strong content knowledge and poor ability to relate to anyone. You would often find these people hiding in boarding schools behind canes. They knew the one textbook back to front and were great at mindlessly reciting it. There’s also the unskilled “yelly type” whose only way of interacting with students is through a raised voice. These types of teachers are great at building fear and contempt, two worthless qualities in education and only lead to further student disengagement.
Why, when it’s abundantly clear that students learn best when they have a positive rapport with their teachers, is this skill not taught at uni? Is it because it’s too hard? Is it because uni lecturers don’t know what rapport is or is it because it can’t easily be tested?
Working in outdoor ed, it’s often hard to assess outcomes for students, as the effects of outdoor education might not be immediately apparent. Sometimes, it takes years for an experience or series of experiences to really solidify into a life changing one for a student. Does this mean we just don’t bother doing it? Does it mean we accept that things such as building rapport and relationships, is often difficult to gauge, but so important that we must do it anyway.
I’ve seen many new and experienced teachers with no ability to relate to students. They could just be hopeless teachers, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that it probably wasn’t part of their training.
However, to improve classroom practice, we need teachers who can build a positive and effective rapport with students. It’s no longer the case of ‘Us and Them!’ the teachers versus the students, those with knowledge and those without. If you still look at education in those terms, it’s time to retire or become a dog trainer, as you’re quickly becoming a dinosaur as we speak.
Most of the work we do in outdoor ed revolves around rapport and relationships. Why? Because life’s all about relationships and working with others. If you want someone to be open to learning from you and your experiences, then you need to develop trust and respect. How do you do this? By listening to students, understanding what their lives are like and what challenges they face. What goals do they have? What makes them happy? What really engages them in something? This takes time, but it’s worth every minute of yours to ensure a positive learning environment.
This is something that can and should be worked on at uni, not just expected of a teacher ‘down the track’. The sooner training can be adapted to focus on what’s important, the faster our schools can become far more engaging and effective places in which to learn.