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Learning happens everywhere — Tapping the relational web of the other educators in your students’ lives

Co-authored by Gary Briggs and Karen Pittman

Learning happens everywhere — Tapping the relational web of the other educators in your students’ lives
Left: Gary Briggs Right: Karen Pittman

Dear Classroom Teachers:

We can never fully acknowledge all you do for the learners who depend on you. Every day, we expect you to “show up” for your kids as you grind through your days — hit your data targets, finish your paperwork, go to meetings, do lunch duty, cheer at games and the countless other tasks and demands that keep getting added to your workload. We ask you to know your students, each and every one, and do everything you can to prepare them, academically, socially, and emotionally, for success in your classroom and beyond. You shoulder an enormous responsibility, and although it may often feel like you are, you are not alone.

Learning happens everywhere. You are an incredibly important part of a larger network of adults inside and outside the building who play meaningful roles in your students’ lives. Like you, many of these individuals have critical influence on your learners through developmental relationships. These other adults are educators too, a powerful asset for you and your students. Find out who they are, seek them out if you can, build connections, learn about, from, and with them.

Inside the building, other school-based educators — trusted adults besides teachers who have both formal and informal relationships with your students — include counselors, nurses, classroom aides, librarians, coaches, front office and support staff, and administrators. The counselor listens to your students when they are facing hard situations. The librarian knows what books and resources they are interested in. Coaches know how to motivate them to overcome challenges and achieve their personal best. Classroom aides see how your students interact with their peers when your focus is elsewhere. Front office staff communicate regularly with their families and caregivers and often live in the same neighborhoods. All these other adults in your school potentially have insights about your students that could help you better connect with them and tailor your teaching practice to meet their needs.

Outside the building, we know, of course, it’s also essential to build relationships with a student’s first teachers if we can — parents, caregivers, family members. But beyond that, your students interact with other adults in the community who have unique perspectives and influence on different aspects of their lives. These are tutors, afterschool and community leaders and staff, and other youth development professionals. Like you, their goal is to cultivate the assets of the young people they work with, make them feel safe, support them, and help them grow.

While it may be beyond your current capacity to reach out to all of these other educators, it is essential to know who they are and why they are important to your students. Ask your students who they know and trust in the building (and why). Ask them who the important adults in their lives are outside of school, at home, and in the community. And if a student’s relational web is limited, that, too, is important to know.

Enter into these conversations from a learning stance, giving your students the decision-making power to let you into their worlds. Explain why you want to know, that you want to be able to better center their interests, perspectives, and influences, to be better informed, to co-design their classroom experiences in partnership with them.

There is tremendous power in tapping into the network of influential and caring adults in your students’ lives. Not only is it an avenue for understanding your students better; when the conditions are right, this knowledge can also help cultivate much broader relational connections within and beyond your school. It can give your students a sense that there is a team of adults who have their back — a community working in their best interest, to cultivate their strengths and build critical competencies, to help them navigate school, life, and the world beyond with confidence.

Gary Briggs is director, professional learning systems, at New Teacher Center. Karen Pittman is partner at Knowledge to Power Catalysts and an NTC Equity Commissioner.