The question that I am asked most often in my day-to-day reality is; “How do I Indigenize my classroom?” Or “How do I engage Indigenous learners?” and the answer is deceivingly simple.  The answer is relationship, kinship, and a student centered approach.  So let’s start with some basics:

Relationships are necessary

There are several great books and articles that link relationships to learning, and if you really wanted to read one I am positive that you would have already, so in the interest of expediency, here is the data you need.

Positive teacher-student relationships are associated with:

  • Increasing student’s feeling of safety at school
  • Increasing academic success
  • Increasing student understanding and meaningfulness of what is being taught
  • Reducing absenteeism
  • Decreasing student dropout

The data is in, and it is not new or even recent.  We have known for decades that positive relationships with teachers effect everything from grades to belonging.  But more directly, relationships are a core value in Indigenous cultures worldwide.  All things begin and end with relationships. They have a direct correlation to engagement, absenteeism, and even risk-taking behaviour. So if we know this, then … why haven’t we made it a priority?

You already have a relationship

Unfortunately not all relationships are good, teacher training is often content or curriculum focused, and one hour time blocks do not make it easy. Furthermore we often assume that any positive relationship will work and that simply is not the case. But there is good news.

When two humans interact a relationship ensues.  We have relationships with all kinds of people in all kinds of ways, and it is the nature of the relationships in your classroom that matters.  Relationships are based on obvious elements, like how we respond to and engage with those around us.  How and when you acknowledge a student’s presence, your expectations of their success and your interest in their lives has built the relationship that you currently have.

You need the right type of relationship

Learners need to know that teachers care, that teachers expect them to succeed, and that their contributions to the learning and the environment are necessary.  In order to show these qualities teachers must be interested in their learners’ lives, interests and barriers.  The relationship must be honest, caring, and above all focused on the learning.  While the emotional aspect of the relationship is necessary, it cannot be the only aspect and must be accompanied by the understanding of shared goals and the trust that is necessary to risk failure.

So how do you get there?

My current favorite Tedx talk is “Students won’t learn from people they don’t like”, because it really is the perfect place to start.  Be genuine, get to know your humans, care if they succeed or fail.  Make eye contact and share words with every student, every class.   Provide routines and standards that take the guess work out of success.  And if that doesn’t clear it up try this advice from Jackie Swift;

“Two binary axioms – firm and friendly: consistent and calm. As a teacher you need to be clearly in charge, you must set the tone and climate of learning in your room. Beginning teachers struggle with this, being too soft and friendly but it’s not what the students want, nor what they need, either. . . Tomorrow we start again. Indeed every new lesson is a new beginning, a fresh start. Sometimes preceded by a quiet word – we’re going to be brilliant today, aren’t we, X? You’d be amazed at how often that works.”