Teaching ‘With” and not “To” or “For”

From SFUSD website retrieved by the esteemed Karen DeVoogd (no is longer available……… ……(the website not the person. The person is still available.))

Probably some of the best thinking about social emotional relationships comes from the scholars who have been working on how to resolve problems that exist between people and to restore relationships. We all know about mediation and we also probably wish more of the countries of the world would use mediation rather than bullying or war. Many organizations have embraced restorative practices not as a more democratic approach to relationships, but also an approach that reduces stress, anxiety, and helps to form more loving relationships. For more on this, check out Forest Whitaker’s Peace and Development Institute (wpdi.org) or the International Institute for Restorative Practices (iirp.edu) or California State University Dominguez Hills Masters in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding (csudh.edu/ncrp-ma)

In our task of seeking to teach ‘with,’ we must emphasize the importance of relationship because students don’t want to learn from someone they don’t like. That’s just common sense. Grades can often appear to be punitive and authoritarian (TO in the chart above) or teachers can be permissive granting grades which is paternalistic (FOR in the figure above). Students feel that the grade is punitive if they have fulfilled all the requirements outlined by the professor or the syllabus, but don’t get the highest grade. I sometimes hear, “Why did you take off points on my assignment?” Good point. Sometimes, I am not as clear as I should be about what makes an excellent paper in the syllabus. I always think of the language used by some professors when they talk about grades they ‘give.’ Students earn those grades in collaboration with the professor.

So for us the “systems, expectations, limits” need to be described in the syllabus or in class to provide as much clarity as possible. In my class, I am constantly changing the syllabus and online resources on Blackboard to increase the clarity. For example, I create frameworks in outline form to give students a structure to form their case study assignment of K-12 students’ literacy abilities. I talk through the framework point by point for clarity. I post several examples of excellent practice from the past and talk through examples of those. I model my thinking in a ‘think aloud’ as I am showing a video of the way I assessed a student using the assessment instruments. I also make sure to identify the flaws in my assessment to help students see that it is alright to make mistakes and let others know that you did. All these activities improve clarity.

Recently, a student asked why he did not get points for an assignment that he had emailed me instead of posting online on Blackboard. I responded that all papers had to be listed on Blackboard, but then I gave him the full points because to punish him for posting in the wrong place, would not have been ‘restorative.’ He remembered that later and thanked me personally after the class was over. Our relationship really was improved by that event when we realized that we both wanted to prioritize learning over bureaucracy. This is an example of having more empathy for a student. With all our students, we need to prioritize and reframe what we do in class as something that will make them understand that we are on the same team. We are working together. We are working with them. This is a kind of empathy.

So in teaching ‘with,’ we have to be encouraging and supportive, but also have systems in place that clarify and set limits.


  1. (From James Scarborough) I like your term, agile curriculum. It describes how we can be spontaneous and adjust, as circumstances dictate. It’s important that we accommodate individual students’ needs, pandemic or not. That’s what we’re here for, right? Adaptation is key.

    For two years, I have been teaching only online. As with my F2F classes, I wanted to engage students. Important to note: F2F engagement is not the same as online engagement. When I first set up the class, I was aware that a lot of my students had pressures outside of school. Some were parents (single or otherwise). Some had full- or part-time jobs. Some had to take care of elderly parents. In other words, I needed an agile curriculum.As I created my online classes, I wanted to be able to work with students on an individual basis. To learn their individual needs, strengths, and weaknesses. It turned out that online teaching achieved these goals.I dismissed the idea of synchronous lectures. I could imagine nothing more tedious. Plus, as you mention, I’d have students who would come to class knackered. Sitting through slide shows wouldn’t work.

    I decided to teach the class asynchronously. This way, students could to the work at 5 AM, 5 PM, or whenever they could. They wrote to say they were grateful for such a flexible structure.Weekly modules, each with a topic that corresponded to the textbook. Two responses to prompts, written in a conversational tone. As if we were in class. And a quiz. Instead of a lecture, I would record a five-to-ten-minute video. They would introduce that week’s material. They would contextualize it with what we had done before. And they would show that, oh yeah, there’s an actual person behind the online course.I created a discussion group called Who Are You? On one level, it lets students introduce themselves, as they would on the first day of a F2F class. But it also gave me invaluable information on their circumstances. Working. Parenting. Caretaking.

    In the first couple of weeks of class, I would gauge their work. Then I would reach out and set up a phone call or, less often, a Zoom meeting. I’d ask how they’re doing. What their biggest challenges are. With these sessions, I could customize the care I extended. Something I’ve noticed in two years: students are more frank in a virtual setting than a physical one.This system proved especially effective last spring. When classes suddenly went online, there was no disruption to coursework. I loosened deadlines. I’d record videos that would reassure them that things were going to work out. I wouldn’t have thought to describe it at the time but, looking back, prompted by your post, I was enacting an agile curriculum. Thanks, Glenn.

  2. Yeah, I think that makes some sense James. I’ll have to think about it, but it certainly would help if students could see the lectures and respond when they were a bit more awake.

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