Student-Teacher Relationships

In a recent opinion piece entitled “Students Learn From People They Love,” New York Times columnist David Brooks discusses the crucial role the quality of student-teacher relationships plays in learning.

Citing research that shows the importance of relationships for learning outcomes, he bemoans the lack of emphasis on emotional connection between students and teachers in most mainstream classrooms. Show me the school, he says, where a teacher’s performance is evaluated in part on the basis of his or her ability to form relationships with students.

As I read this article, I found myself thinking, “Well, actually, Mr. Brooks, that would be a Waldorf school!” 

Grade 12 ZoologyAs a Waldorf high school teacher, I was fascinated to read Brooks’ piece. I realize how much of what he presents as cutting-edge scientific research is something Waldorf teachers have always known: students engage most deeply in learning when they are in a classroom with an adult who in is, in Brooks’ words, “offering active care for the [student as a] whole person.”

This is something every Waldorf teacher trainee is told from day one:  

  • you need to care about who your students are, what they have been through, and what they are struggling with;
  • you need to see and value them as human beings in a way that transcends their performance on any particular assignment or in any particular class;  
  • you need to honor your students’ gifts, even if those gifts have nothing to do with the subject you teach;  
  • you need to revere the potential of each student for self-fulfillment as a unique human individual. 

This is where we come from as Waldorf teachers, no matter what subject we teach.

In addition to telling me what I already knew, though, Brooks’ article led to further reflections on an aspect of the student-teacher relationship that is less explicitly addressed in Waldorf teacher training. This is the part about the teacher letting students see who he or she really is as a person.

David Brooks sums up this dimension of the student-teacher relationship with the pithy observation that “what teachers really teach is themselves.” He clarifies what he means by adding that teachers teach “their own contagious passion for their subjects and students.”  

This is certainly true, but I would add that teachers – especially in the upper grades when students are becoming young adults – also model their own ways of dealing with adversity, of working through moral dilemmas, of weighing the pros and cons of an issue, even of confronting existential issues or emotional pain.

Teaching at Sacramento Waldorf High School

As a teacher of the humanities in the SWS High School, I have noticed that this aspect of my relationship with students becomes especially important in 11th and 12th grades. At this point, students no longer need me to be the invulnerable adult or the (supposedly) all-knowing teacher in order to feel safe in the classroom.

Instead, they need me to show them how I work through doubt or how I deal when I’m facing a challenging task.

Thus, for example, I will share with 11th grade students how difficult it is for me to teach World War II as a topic because of the trauma my parents and grandparents had in connection with it. But I will also emphasize that I continue to teach the class in which World War II is covered because it’s important for me to share the experiences of people who lived through the war, even though this pushes me to my limit.

When I ask myself why I reveal my own struggles in this way, I would say it’s because it shows the students how a particular adult works through something that is difficult.  

In addition, I would say that I consciously choose to make myself vulnerable when interacting with older students. In opting for vulnerability, I want to encourage them to let themselves be vulnerable, too, and their hearts be open as they mature and begin to have a sense of who they are.

Because this is really what Brooks’ article boils down to: if your heart is open, your mind will be open, too – and only an open mind can continue to grow.  

Sacramento Waldorf School Humanities Teacher - Dunja PopovicDunja Popovic is a high school humanities teacher.