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Using Agency to Deepen Relationships in Schools

Trust is a crucial element in developing strong relationships in schools. It’s a necessary ingredient to move from a more superficial dynamic to a deeper one, and the building of it takes time, patience, and opportunity. While it would be great to be able to speed up the timing and not require the patience, opportunity is a variable that teachers and school staff can play with, but for many teachers, this calls for a shift in perspective.

So much of what we talk about in education leans into our content areas, for secondary teachers particularly. From Kindergarten through twelfth grade, we focus on how students are reading, writing, solving problems, and thinking critically. There are clear, measurable goals that go along with this kind of content, and there’s an appeal and a practicality to being able to measure it. But schools teach much more than academic content. Schools may or may not knowingly lean into this with explicit SEL (social-emotional learning) work, but educators can always find ways to increase opportunities for agency with their students in the hopes of deepening the trust in their relationships.

Here are a few ways to think about it:

-How students act: Students make many choices every day while they’re at school. While all schools have some rules, the amount of latitude given to students greatly impacts the learning they can do. When all the rules are teacher-created and laid out, when almost every situation is preconceived and planned for, school staff rob themselves of so many moments where we could see students make choices and then talk with them about the results. When depriving students of the ability to make choices, especially ones that we may consider “bad,” we take away their agency and rob them of critical learning that they’ll most likely have to do, just later and with less support.

-How students interact: Humans are social, and the interactions that young people have are rife with opportunities to learn how to be kind, direct, honest, and considerate. Because we don’t work in silos, teachers and students have moments each day where they must choose how to be with someone, and in turn, this means we have myriad chances to learn from moments we got it wrong. When schools try to regulate behavior and anticipate every interaction students might have (with requisite consequences), schools deny moments of authentic connection and repair. Learning how to interact, fight, apologize, and move through discomfort are necessary skills, and ones that I hope my kids can learn about from not only our nuclear family but also their teachers and friends.

-What students produce: Teachers are constantly asking students to create things. Sometimes it’s writing, other times it may be art, a series of math problems, or an experiment. There aren’t always multiple options for what work can look like, but there are usually more options than students are given. For example, if a student needs to demonstrate how cause and effect work, they might be able to write a paper. They could also record a voice memo or podcast explaining their thinking. Or maybe they could make a video using visuals to aid their work. They probably wouldn’t be able to choregraph a dance that would show this, though maybe they could in addition to explaining their artistic choices through an oral presentation. When we give students the opportunity to design how they want to show something, we give them the ability to be creative and to solve problems in how they work, which are skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.

Sometimes it can feel like giving students more freedom and choice is bound to create more work, and, in my experience, it can do that. But even when it feels like giving students more agency went poorly, there are chances for teachers to help students learn and create deeper relationships with increased trust. It’s when we support rigid and inflexible systems to try and streamline “learning” that we miss out on these opportunities. While developing trust will inevitably take time, we can speed up the process by giving students more flexibility and talking with them about what happened and why.

Where do you allow your students to exert choice? How has that impacted your relationships with students? Leave us a comment and let us know!

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