A recent family conversation reminded me of my (long-ago!) elementary school experience of learning who my teacher would be in the coming school year. I remember the sense of anticipation – who will be my teacher?.
Now, decades later, I am a college professor, and with each new semester, I begin working with new groups of students. I have related anticipation (not as intense, for sure, but related) as I wonder about each new group of students. Will they be excited to learn? As we meet each week for class, will they arrive prepared and ready to discuss the topics of the day?
Who we learn from or teach with is important because we all learn through and in relationship. And I propose this is true not only in school (at any level), but also in the workplace, communities, and other settings. Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) helps us understand this more deeply.
Relational Cultural Theory
Many readers of this blog are familiar with Relational Cultural Theory (RCT), developed by Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues in the Wellesley area and later the Stone Center at Wellesley College, now part of the Wellesley Centers for Women. For those new to the theory, RCT is a human development theory based on the idea that we grow in and through relationships. This challenges many predominant developmental theories which suggest that adults are at higher developmental stages when they are independent or don’t feel they need others. RCT is clear, we are at our best when we engage in growth-fostering relationships.
RCT and Education
While RCT was initially developed and used primarily in clinical settings (e.g. psychotherapy and social work), scholar-practitioners have also applied RCT in other domains including organizations, social justice, and education. For example, RCT is foundational in the WCW program Open Circle, which provides social and emotional learning curriculum and professional development for elementary schools.
RCT and a broader relational approach can also help us become better and more resilient teachers (whether we are in formal educational roles or teach as leaders and supervisors). RCT helps us understand how relationships and even single interactions can be powerful conduits for teaching and learning. Additionally, an RCT lens helps us explore power, cultural context, boundaries, and mutuality in teaching.
Connection and Critical Feedback
For example, the concept of mattering helps us understand the teaching and learning relationship and gives us an important tool for assessment. An essential element of assessment (whether one is a teacher assessing student work or a supervisor conducting staff evaluations) – is being able to deliver critical feedback.
The concept of mattering helps us remain positive and focused on the other person’s growth and development as we prepare and provide critical feedback. Offering critical feedback can be frustrating (for example, when we believe we explained an assignment clearly and imagine the student wasn’t listening) and stressful (e.g. when the receiver is resistant or defensive). By reminding myself that students and their learning matter deeply to me before I engage, I’ve been able to get myself in a good space for providing sometimes-difficult feedback on papers or in person. I believe that at least some of the time, someone receiving critical feedback will be more open if they sense that the teacher or supervisor is coming from a place of respect, care, and hope for improvement. In part, this is about the energy and affect we bring to the interaction. Additionally, a sense of mattering helps us frame the feedback with a sense of hope and belief in the recipient’s ability to learn and grow. So mattering helps us position ourselves for the interaction and frame the message.
Mattering is just one example of how a relational approach to teaching, supervision, and leadership can fuel teaching and learning in a variety of settings. The following questions help us continue to explore:
How have important relationships shaped your learning? How can a relational approach help us:
- navigate generational differences in the classroom and workplace?
- balance availability, authenticity, and boundaries in the age of social media and 24/7 access?
- be more resilient through the lows and highs of teaching and leading?
Harriet L. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Connected Teaching: Relationship, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education and Lead Scholar for Education as Relational Practice with the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, a legacy project of the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a professor of psychology and counseling at Carlow University.