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Relationships Matter More Than Numbers

March 29, 2011

I was attending a recent school district meeting designed for the public when I first heard the phrase “human capital”.  Then I heard it again.  And again.  It appears this is a new buzzword administrators and other school personnel are using to describe teachers and other educational employees.  However, at a time when we are engaging in such heated national debate about the “value” of teachers and the purpose of unions, I feel a little alarm sounding in my head.  For me, that phrase “human capital” evokes images of the scene in Pink Floyd’s The Wall where the thought-controlling teacher is mashing the children through a meat grinder until they come out a worm-like mass.  It also brings to my mind thoughts of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and high school history lessons about our nation’s industrial revolution era, its legacy of fat-cat industrialists monopolizing markets, getting rich on the backs of underpaid, ill-treated workers. The phrase, human capital,  carries with it an implication that schools are really just big factories where we churn out test results and mass-marketed product. Where do we go for human capital? It sounds like something you can casually pick up at a store, where I envision rows of shelves containing bright, new packages of shiny, robotic human capital.

These implications disturb and offend me on a profound level.  Relationships matter in schools, they matter far more than current rhetoric will allow.  In the early education setting, we are acutely aware of the importance of primary relationships in a child’s household and we appreciate the importance of helping parents help their children. Children and families under stress are unlikely to “perform” at their best.  Honestly, though, I’m not looking for performance from my students.  Performance implies the finite and temporary.  I want development that is more genuine, complex, and less easily measured by the casual observer. While I do work to develop skills that will prepare my students for later school work, my underlying aim is to foster self-confidence, social competence, and to help them value and begin to master their natural curiosity.   The development of relationships with my students and with their families is a non-negotiable starting point in that work.

Below are just a few examples from my actual experience of how and when relationships matter.  I have kept examples vague to protect identities:

  • They matter to the family affected by domestic violence and in crisis mode.  Children need a safe haven and a school should be one of them.
  • Relationships matter when a family has become homeless after bank foreclosure on the home and when the adults need assistance in determining next steps.
  • It matters that a parent can talk to a teacher about the utter disruption in the family life caused because the other parent is about to be deported. It makes a difference when the teacher can guide the parent in navigating some of the legal processes to prepare for the dramatic changes ahead.
  • It matters when someone takes the time to help a child get to an evaluation meeting to determine eligibility for special ed services or when teachers make efforts to ensure that parents understand their rights regarding special education services for their children.
  • It has mattered to me as a mother when teachers have tried to establish a relationship with me to better understand my children. It has mattered even more when they haven’t bothered.

We have spent more than a decade, investing astonishing sums of money pursuing those all-important numbers associated with school test-scores, despite the fact that it hasn’t led to greater educational gains.  We have become a nation that worships and celebrates those numbers, failing to think critically about what we are doing to our children, our schools, our communities.  The companies that sell those tests are enjoying tremendous profits from our focus on the tests, even as our states are facing drastic budget cuts that will certainly reverberate in the public schools.  When I send my children to school, I want them to be with teachers who care about them as human beings, not merely as potential test scores.  I want them to have teachers who recognize that learning is an interactive, rather than passive, process.  Human capital?  In my classroom I’m helping to develop young minds by working with the individual child.  Try shopping for that.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 11:24 am

    Relationships also matter when the local school district has done badly by communities for years. Given my district’s appalling record of (not) educating children with special needs, why should parents of such children trust me? Many of my African American students’ parents experienced our state-leading opportunity gap themselves: what proof do they have that things will be different for their children?

    So it matters that I’ve been at the school for a long time. It matters that parents and neighbors see me around and hear about what my classroom is like. I am part of a system that is racist and classist; if I want an identity outside that system, I need to be humble and open enough to lay a foundation – and stay around long enough to build on it.

    So for me, the “human capital” of teaching is also compromised by the no-tenure, no-retention two-year “mission” model of teaching. Relationships take time.

    • mariasallee permalink*
      March 29, 2011 7:27 pm

      Too true…We live in a society with politicians and citizens focused on the appearance of quick fixes, even if they aren’t fixes at all. Apparently it’s better to throw money haphazardly into ill-planned “solutions” than to develop foundations for lasting change. Building and maintaining relationships, as well as developing trust are all things that require time and commitment.

  2. Frederika permalink
    April 1, 2011 6:32 pm

    Relationships may be all that really matter. Face-to-face, regular, engaged, thoughtful encounters with the people who make a difference.

  3. Kristen Dixie permalink
    April 4, 2011 5:29 pm

    Love the article.

  4. mariasallee permalink*
    April 4, 2011 9:00 pm

    Thanks for reading and sharing your comments!

  5. Chris permalink
    April 5, 2011 10:04 am

    “Human capital” is a term developed by economist and it simply means that productive inputs in a society aren’t just in it’s factories and tools (conventional capital) but in the skills, abilities and creativity of its citizens. It does not imply that education is a commodity or is limited to skills demonstrated on a standardized test. It does imply that teachers not industrialist are central to our future prosperity and security. You should embrace this term because the republicans that now control the majority of state legislature don’t care about your special relationships, but they do care about the future and you need to convince them that they’re eating the seed corn when they cut education funding to lower taxes.

    • mariasallee permalink*
      April 6, 2011 5:38 pm

      @Chris, while I can appreciate part of your point, I am still uncomfortable with the idea that we need to describe humans and certain tasks that can only be performed by humans within a construct defined by economists. It implies that we (and perhaps our students) do not have intrinsic value outside of that which we provide to the economy. I certainly believe in long-term planning and do expect that my input will eventually lead to more productive, successful members of society. However, the (very) young people entrusted to my care each day are much more than numbers to me and to the other people who love and work with them and that is the point of my piece.

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