There Must Be Space for Face-to-Face

Dr. Scott Seaman, Executive Director, AWSP
Jun 05, 2020
image of Guy Kovacs and students


If you are from the world of education, then you’ll understand what I’m saying about the feeling of going to the grocery store. It’s not just a grocery trip, it’s a school event. You don’t just waltz in, grab some things, and pop out. You also don’t go in wearing your favorite beer shirt and worst pair of pants.

No, going to the grocery store as an educator means a 100% guarantee you will see and have conversations with students and parents. It’s guaranteed...even if you try to drive to another town. They’ll be there too. And, the longer you teach or principal, then the likelihood of interfacing only grows exponentially over time. 

This isn’t a complaint, but rather one of the many realities you face in the amazing profession we call public education. But here’s the wrinkle. As you turn down the chip aisle and inevitably make eye contact with a student, group of students, and/or a family, there is one single factor that determines the type of interaction that is about to occur in front of the Juanitas –  relationships. You either did or didn’t have a relationship with the student or students. They are either excited to see you or the entire interaction is awkward because you don’t know their name(s) and there wasn’t a relationship. Either way, they are always surprised you have a life outside of school and actually buy groceries.

This begs the question, how do these grocery store relationships begin and develop? What makes them sustain throughout the year? What makes them last over the course of time and distance? And most importantly, what did the adult do to engage the student in relationship building in the very beginning? 

I recently caught up with a long time teacher friend. He’s a 30 year veteran US History teacher with a reputation of incredible relationships with kids. He blends humor, goofiness, and authentic relationships with high expectations and critical thinking. He can open the eyes of students to the complexity of the Civil War while at the same time challenge their knowledge of Sponge Bob. Kids love him. And his grocery store trips are more like a walk down the red carpet. 

During our conversation, I asked him his feelings about some of the scenarios being discussed regarding the opening of schools in the fall. As much as we joke and laugh in our normal conversations, his mood completely turned serious. He said, “We can’t continue this distance learning stuff. It’s not working.”

For how complex his thinking is when pushing kids to dive deeper into content, his rationale for this statement was very simple. To teach kids, you must have relationships. Period. Relationships take time, daily interactions, and most importantly, being in the same physical space. He went on to say, “Distance learning makes maintaining relationships extremely difficult. But, I can’t even imagine starting the school year next year with a new group of students and trying to connect with them virtually.” His final comment is what I have burned into my memory banks, “Scott, you know me. Distance learning makes it hard for me to do the two things that I do best, 1) I know my stuff (he used a different word), and 2) I know how to build relationships with kids.”

It’s pretty simple and not a secret. Great educators know this. You can’t get into their minds unless you win their hearts first. Hearts first, minds second. Relationships first, content second. Trust first, risk-taking second.

As we look to the fall and the various statewide workgroups and district committees examining our potential structures for opening school, can we please remember to create space for face to face? Can we rethink our system and find a way to safely have adults establish some “face-to-face” relationships with students before banishing everyone behind a computer screen? 

Teachers, building leaders, and the rest of the school staffulty do so much more than “educate” our students. We are big brothers and sisters, surrogate parents, counselors, coaches, therapists, advocates, first-responders, and beacons of hope. Most of this happens in the brick and mortar space of the school. We must fight to make sure our students can safely come back to these spaces in the fall. The social, emotional, and mental health of our students depends on it. 

I’ve been “out of the building” now as a recovering high school principal for about seven years. My trips to the grocery store are still filled with high fives and hellos from kids and families. As a principal, I always prioritized relationships above all else, and the evidence of that can be found in any aisle of the grocery store to this day. There is no way those relationships would have happened with sixteen little video squares on a computer screen. No way.

*Disclaimer, I know we have strong virtual-school systems out there that work great for both kids and adults. This blog is about what the rest of the students need.


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