On establishing connections and high expectations for all pupils… (Urban Education, 3)

(translated from duth: Onderwijs in Brussel is… urban education, verbinding maken met ketten (3))

Knowledge about the pupils and their environment

It is vital that teachers master the curriculum and teaching skills, of course, but these alone are not enough to be effective in a metropolitan context. Acquiring knowledge about the pupils and the world in which they grow up is essential for teachers in cities to be able to develop a robust educational approach. After all, to make learning relevant, powerful and effective for superdiverse classes, you have to be able to connect the subject matter to the pupil’s environment, prior knowledge and interests, etc. Ideally, as a teacher you will have gained these insights from your own experience, but most teachers will have to work on acquiring and developing this knowledge.

That is why, as a teacher, you have to actively create opportunities to get to know your pupils and the environment in which they live and move. A diverse school team can play an instrumental role in this (Delpit, 1995). All this requires extra time and extra effort. In a 2014 blog post Pedro De Bruyckere writes that in a metropolitan context you might have to ‘pay teachers with extra time, for example by reducing the number of lessons so that they can pay more attention to their pupils.’

Teachers in Brussels are already developing many initiatives in this area, creating opportunities to get to know pupils better in/and their learning environment.

A few examples…

  • Listening to students during informal moments, e.g. eating together, taking a break together, playing together.
  • Participating in extracurricular activities, e.g. playground activities: a lot of Brussels teachers commit to being the main organiser of playground activities at their school during the Easter or summer holidays.
  • Showing interest in pupils’ individual talents and commitments, such as going to watch the local dance school’s show. Many pupils have talents and commitments in the local community network; attending such events can mean a lot to these children/young people.
  • Connecting with the local community, such as volunteering based on one’s own talents (reading to children in the local library, teaching sports, etc.).
  • Establishing informal connections with parents or families, such as home visits or meetings with parents in ‘safe’ places.
  • Being present and visible in the neighbourhood, such as shopping in the local shop after school hours.

All of these things can help to build relationships – relationships that are necessary to be able to connect as a teacher with your pupils, who are very different from you and me! You can only strive for and expect excellence if you are also willing to connect with who that pupil really is (Haberman, 2018).

Read also: New meta-analysis shows how teachers can strengthen their relationship with their students.

Shared responsibility

When connecting with the pupil and their environment, as a teacher you will be confronted with injustice, poverty, other cultures and religions, other beliefs and styles of upbringing, etc. You will feel involved and disconnected, responsible and powerless. It is not your job to play an active role here; teachers are not social workers, debt mediators or family support workers! Families have to be able to fall back on a care team, pupil guidance centres, welfare partners, a neighbourhood network, etc.

Star teachers

In order to be able to make that connection, metropolitan schools need star teachers (Haberman, 2011).

  • Star teachers are able to accept that they work in a system that is not always supportive of their core tasks, and that the time and effort spent planning, doing ancillary tasks, etc. is all part of the job.
  • Star teachers are able to accept that working with ‘difficult pupils’ and pupils with specific needs is normal.
  • Star teachers are able to accept that a school has many goals and that it is an illusion to think that its only objective is to impart knowledge about the school subjects.
  • Star teachers are able to accept that it is the teacher’s job to motivate pupils. They can understand pupils’ behaviour from a developmental perspective, and also take into account group dynamics, and cultural and social diversity.
  • When problems arise, star teachers look for the root cause, the internal cause: does the curriculum need to be re-evaluated? Is the methodology inappropriate? Can I adjust my own approach? They are also willing to see and admit their own mistakes.
  • Star teachers are able to accept that the pupil-teacher relationship is one based on respect.

High relationships and high expectations

I would like to finish by putting these ideas about establishing connections into perspective by introducing the concept of ‘the warm demander’ (Bondy and Ross, 2008). Getting to know the difficult context in which some pupils grow up should never lead to that difficult context being used as an excuse – neither on the part of the teacher, nor the pupil! It should serve as an additional incentive to create an educational learning environment with high expectations.

A ‘warm-demander teacher’ is, on the one hand, warm and friendly with the pupils, establishing connections based on a real and genuine interest (high relationships), and, on the other, demanding and strict, bringing structure and discipline (high expectations). In other words: create a clear normative framework in the classroom and the school, and be genuinely interested in the person behind each pupil (El Hadioui, 2019).


Gepubliceerd door Piet Vervaecke

Directeur Onderwijscentrum Brussel

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