A Reminder That Personal Relationships Matter

I wanted to briefly point you all to an article by Atul Gawande in a recent New Yorker.  Gawande is writing about the adoption of medical advances, but his remarks about teaching rural nurses in less developed nations are as relevant as anything to education.

Gawande asks: what drives a nurse to internalize that hand washing or warming the baby are important for safe childbirth?  He has a fascinating description about how one nurse was able to persuade another nurse to change her practices by becoming her friend.  Not because the mentor nurse’s training was impressive, nor because she had the force of law behind her.  Because the two of them sat down to tea.

Gawande says that success at getting nurses to adopt improved methods—especially those (like hand washing or warming the baby) whose effects are only visible after the child has left the hospital—come from personal connections formed by mentor nurses.  Otherwise, no matter the law, no matter what classes or informational videos or glossy handouts you offer, change comes slowly if at all.  To me, this sounds a lot like convincing kids to learn mathematics or to want to go to college.

Indeed, I think that these observations, hardly a surprise to anyone who’s seen the success of individual tutoring and mentoring, have implications across education.  I suspect that a difference between successful charter schools and unsuccessful ones is while both shout “college! college! college!” from the rooftops, only successful schools forge persuasive personal relationships.  While MOOCs make great resources available, they still have to persuade people to invest time in their classes.  How much did you learn from your best teachers because you felt like they knew you personally, or because you admired them and wanted to be like them?

Anyway, it’s a great article.  Read it while thinking about teachers—especially the difference between great teachers and merely good teachers—and it will give you provocative new thoughts about education.

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

2 thoughts on “A Reminder That Personal Relationships Matter”

  1. Thanks for sharing this; I’ve been mulling it over as I start teaching college students again after a 2-year hiatus. One thing that I find frustrates me in trying to develop “persuasive personal relationships” with my students is that I’m in a position of authority over them: I have to assign them grades. Assigning grades is probably my least favorite part of teaching, but it’s not likely to go away, and I feel that it establishes — and even requires — a distance that makes it more difficult to connect personally. For instance, I was advised by several colleagues as I started my new job that I shouldn’t encourage students to call me by my first name; that I should be “friendly, but not their friend”. This sort of distance isn’t present at a summer program, which perhaps accounts for part of the relative success of such programs at forging such personal relationships. Obviously the barrier isn’t insuperable, but I can’t help wishing it weren’t there.

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