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by – Amy Velchoff

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Lilly Conference for the first time, thanks to an FCTL scholarship. At the conference, which took place in January 2018, I attended many informative sessions, but one in particular has stuck with me. The session was given by a licensed social worker who is now an Assistant Professor in the school of social work at the University of North Carolina. Her talk introduced relational theories which, according to the literature, acknowledge that “it is through the relationship itself that learning and change occur” (Mishna & Rasmussen, 2001), as “Our relationships with others become internalized and greatly contribute to our sense of self and others” (Szczygiel, 2018). In other words, healthy relationships can equate to great personal growth, especially for individuals who have had a paucity of such experiences.

Especially in social work, the student-instructor relationship can be used to develop and cultivate social work skills. Because the relationship is therefore more interactive, “This perspective stands in contrast to the traditional view of [the teaching] relationship as a hierarchical one, in which the supervisor is seen to be privileged as possessing knowledge, which is imparted to the supervisee” (Mishna & Rasmussen, 2001). Because I teach in Education Instruction, it is not hard to imagine how this approach might apply in the case of teaching students how to become teachers; one would hope to model the same sorts of relationships that these students can then go out and develop with the K-12 population. Essentially, a relational approach is offering an alternative strategy to classroom management, which makes it applicable to every discipline.

According to Szczygiel’s presentation, such an approach involves the beliefs that:

  • Interpersonal interactions impact students’ engagement in the learning process and their motivation
  • Classroom is a microcosm of power imbalances within society and this will surface in classroom interactions
  • Addressing difficult classroom interactions is important in the process of learning
  • Empathy is important
  • Validation of different experiences in the world is key
  • Willingness to admit limitations as a teacher can shift power imbalances and impact learning

The important takeaway from a relational approach to the classroom is that such an approach involves equalizing power dynamics in the classroom, and acknowledging and working through any breaches that occur head on. This puts it in direct contrast with traditional classroom management approaches. Tools for incorporating this approach included building relationships with students by quickly learning their names and interests, soliciting their feedback about important issues, being accessible and transparent about classroom policies, and acknowledging the vibe in the room/ apologizing when necessary. I highly recommend checking out some of the articles listed below for further reading on this topic.

Martin, A. J., & Dowson, M. (2009). Interpersonal Relationships, Motivation, Engagement, and
Achievement: Yields for Theory, Current Issues, and Educational Practice. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 327–365. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654308325583
Mishna, F., & Rasmussen, B. (2001). The learning relationship: Working through disjunctions in the classroom. Clinical Social Work Journal, 29(4), 387–399
Schore, J. R., & Schore, A. N. (2008). Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect
Regulation in Development and Treatment. Clinical Social Work Journal, 36(1), 9–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-007-0111-7
Szczygiel, P. (2018, January 6). A Relational Approach to Collaboration and Connection in the
Classroom. Lecture presented at Lilly Conference in TX – Texas, AUSTIN.
Tosone, C. (2004). Relational social work: Honoring the tradition∗. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 74(3), 475–487. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377310409517730