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Kindling a Fire: Education is Personal

Kindling a Fire: Education is Personal

Over the past three years, I’ve written extensively on the research and practice of effective teaching: from the science of reading to the benefits of experiential learning to the neurological structures behind effective pedagogy. These topics are critically important to student learning, and they are too often ignored by schools who prefer to chase the latest trends rather than the most rigorous research.

But as valuable as research papers and academic studies are, sometimes we administrators can overcomplicate things. Two recent student speeches reminded me of a timeless truth that shouldn’t be ignored: teaching is a deeply relational act that works best when a skilled educator knows and nurtures an individual student on a personal level.

At our recent cum laude banquet, senior class scholar Marley Handler noted the significant influence of teacher relationships on her academic success:

From the 3rd grade teacher who jokingly put me in a recycling bin, to the 5th grade science teacher who really sparked and fostered my passion in engineering and space, to the 7th grade math teacher who taught me algebra when I lived in Germany…I have felt that my teachers support and care about me not only academically but also as a person. And of course, that support didn’t end in middle school. In high school I have been supported in my many Makerspace endeavors—even during the pandemic—and had teachers spend days working through or explaining a question or problem to me.

Sometimes these connections happen in the classroom, but often they do not. As Marley recalled, “I have teachers whose office I go to for a five-minute question and end up spending an entire free bell talking about school, but also more personal topics.”

Summing up her experience, Marley explained that “the personal connections that arise from the academic support are what leave the greatest impact on me.”

Similarly, senior Parker Corbin was recently named a finalist for the prestigious “That’s My Boy” award for top Cincinnati football players who are also outstanding scholars and citizens. Parker, a multi-sport athlete, student council president, and 4.0+ student, highlighted the importance of educators in his success:

My nomination would not have been made possible without the work and dedication of Coach Dennis Coyle, Coach Ken Minor, and our amazing athletic trainer, John-Michael Leppert. These three role models have influenced me in ways I could never have imagined, and I credit my success on and off the football field to them. I am extremely grateful to all the faculty and staff who have pushed me to be the student and person I am today.

Marley and Parker’s testimonials warm the heart of any educator. But they are also grounded in – you guessed it – extensive research. A Review of Educational Research analysis of 46 studies found that strong teacher-student relationships were associated in both the short- and long-term with improvements on practically every measure of student achievement: better student academic engagement, stronger attendance, higher grades, and a better sense of belonging.

Another recent study noted the “cascading benefits” of strong teacher-student relationships, from more academic knowledge to better mental health outcomes. Significantly, these benefits start young, with positive teacher-student relationships in kindergarten resulting in gains in reading achievement and social skills by middle school.

But for me, the students speak louder than the research. What Marley and Parker describe is truly life-changing: not higher test scores or grades, but a sense of purpose, a sense of self. That’s why teacher relationships have always been at the heart of Country Day’s mission, from the days of Herb Davison and Lee Pattison to today.

We know these connections don’t happen by accident, which is why we continue to prioritize small classes and outstanding faculty to foster these opportunities. In addition, our strategic plan calls for new investments to recruit and retain the teachers of today and tomorrow.

Even small operational changes can help. For example, we have included structured office hours in our new Upper School schedule to allow students to intentionally develop faculty relationships and practice self-advocacy skills that will help them in college. Marley’s example is a reminder that sometimes a casual conversation in a teacher’s office can mean as much as a great classroom lecture. Because, as she explained, “the personal connections…leave the greatest impact.”

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This ran in the May 2024 edition of the publication.