Education is All About Relationships

When I was in junior and senior high school I had little motivation for achieving anything resembling “academic success,” either internally or externally. I routinely failed to turn in homework, didn’t complete a lot of in-class assignments on time, and found copying and faking it to suffice for their purposes. I was also disruptive in class, although not all the time: when not engaged in shenanigans I was doodling or debating. Oh yes, I was that student: the one who challenged the American history teacher with Native American perspectives on history, and the one who made the debate teacher take him on mono-et-mono (and was happily trounced). That was me.
The only way I made it through school was relationships. Luckily I had an academic counselor who saw the need for me to get through, a teacher who ensured I was engaged in at least one class, and for their lack of interest in me getting A grades, I had parents who were committed to me not getting in trouble. My personal educational experience added to my commitment to working with young people for the last 20 years.

My experience working in dozens of different types of formal and informal learning environments has led me to come to believe that education is all about relationships. Now, I don’t want to underestimate the myriad complexities and depth of the learning process, and I understand that the value of the academic experience shouldn’t be distilled or boiled down in the name of easy consumption. However, the teachers who impacted me were those who I had a relationship with, positive or otherwise. Of all the people whose names I have forgotten or the classes I took that I couldn’t repeat what they were about, I am among the masses who feel that the experience of relationship is at the core of all learning.

My frameworks for meaningful student involvement have been situated in that premise, and for more than nine years I’ve been working with schools across the country to help them understand that the way every student relates to their peers and the adults in the educational settings in which they learn determines the entire course of their educative experiences. And I am not speaking with exception: even the autodidact‘s tendency to shun person-to-person interactions reflects their experiences of relationship. The academic achiever has relationships with their peers, their families or their communities that encourage their performance. The student athlete thrives on relationship, either with their teammates, their coaches, or their crowds. And even the quiet students the withdrawn students have relationships that define their educative experiences – positive or otherwise.

The center of every single student’s experience in schools is their relationship to learning as embodied by their relationships to their peers and the adults in their lives. This should be the emphasis of all school reform today. Meaningful student involvement positions the relationship of young people to adults as the central learning experience of all people throughout schools, including students themselves and adults throughout the education system. That should be the purpose and power of schools today, and nothing less.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

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