“Good schooling is built on the oldest idea around: you learn by the company you keep.”
~ Deborah Meier, NYU Professor of Education & Small Schools Reform Advocate
One mantra in my work as Wildwood’s Outreach Director is “Advisory is Essential.” Those words emphasize that caring, positive relationships among students and with the caring adults who guide their middle and upper school experience are crucial. Advisory is Essential is also a tagline that clearly resonates with Wildwood Outreach Center’s growing list of domestic and international client schools.
And while advisory is essential at Wildwood, it isn’t everything. What makes Wildwood’s program work powerfully for our students is our intentional emphasis on relationships to guide all aspects of school culture—from classroom instruction to student assessment and faculty hiring. We know that fostering strong relationships, between and among students and faculty is essential in every classroom, not only as a stand alone advisory curriculum in middle and upper school.
Wildwood emphasizes relationships from a student’s first day in the Pods—where new kindergartners are welcomed and looked after by their teachers and 1st grade classmates—to high school culmination—when one’s advisor gives a personalized, public tribute to each graduating 12th grader.
Through the Wildwood Outreach Center, I work with hundreds of educators each year at public, charter, private, and international schools. While I often find myself working with like-minded teachers and administrators, I just as often face the healthy skepticism and fears of many of teachers I meet. Unlike Wildwood faculty, most have not been hired with an explicit view towards their skills at developing strong relationships—whether in the classroom or an advisory. Rather, they see themselves (especially in the middle and upper grades) as ‘history teachers’ and ‘math teachers,’ selected for their academic expertise, not their ability to shape strong relationships. If they can’t do it well, they don’t want to do it at all.
My encounters with these teachers and sentiments have pushed me to broaden my evidence base, so I can effectively help all educators see and understand the value of a wider perspective of support and possibly see reasons to make a shift in their own practice.
The good news: The research is now catching up with the Wildwood Way. The philosophy that has guided our program since 1971 is now supported by a growing body of academic and brain-based studies. Both anecdotally and in data sets, it’s clear that relationships do matter. Kirke Olson, licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience, and Mindfulness at Work in School summarizes a key takeaway: Though “the pressures in our school[s]…today may suggest otherwise, beginning with relationships and then moving to curriculum is the most efficient way to ensure students’ success.”
In support of the interpersonal focus of Wildwood’s middle and upper school advisory program, a recent study (McClure et al. 2010) demonstrated a relationship between the connectedness students feel to their advisors and higher academic achievement. Similarly, a 2011 study (Durlak et al.) showed a correlation between student engagement in a social-emotional learning program (like morning meeting at Wildwood’s elementary campus or advisory in the older grades) to both higher academic achievement as well as an improvement in social-emotional learning skills (e.g., self-management, social awareness, and interpersonal skills).
One source that often surprises the reluctant is the Gallup Group, the opinion research organization, which surveys students and adults annually on education issues.
Gallup has found that the need for strong relationships doesn’t end in middle school or even upon graduation from university. In a recent survey of 30,000 college graduates, Gallup found those who strongly agreed that they were emotionally supported in college were twice as likely to report that they were engaged professionally and thriving in their lives compared to those who didn’t strongly agree. In fact, the same survey also found that the college one attends and one’s major hardly matter to professional engagement and fulfillment in life after college. What does matter? How one does college (e.g., meaningful internships and coursework, along with active extra-curricular involvement) and being emotionally supported by professors and other mentors.
Those findings are supported by significant brain research.
In The Invisible Classroom Kirke Olson surveys the current studies that support the power of meaningful relationships. Building on the research of Stephen Porges and others, Olson highlights the role that positive relationships play on our autonomic nervous system (ANS)—which acts unconsciously to regulate breathing, heart rate, and blood flow to organs and muscles. The ANS regulates the fight or flight response to stress. Students cycle through dozens of these responses daily (both in and out of school), due to real or imagined stressors. The words, actions, and mere presence of caring peers and adults, Olson shows, can affect substantive physiological changes to counteract the fight or flight response—causing one to be more open to new learning and experiences.
Olson also highlights the interplay of trust and vulnerability in forging positive relationships and strong classroom and advisory cultures. Utilizing the work of University of Houston researcher Brené Brown and others, Olson argues that when teachers and students show vulnerability—by sharing a personal story or acknowledging an area for growth—they develop trust and safety within their group.
Furthermore, when we share something of ourselves in a safe environment, we release a dose of the hormone oxytocin. It sharpens our attention to others’ eyes and body language, helps us feel more connected and less stressed—also opening us up to new learnings and ideas.
Feeling connected, safe and able to encounter new ideas isn’t just good practice in advisory. Creating that environment for students is a fundamental good for classrooms and schools everywhere. It’s essentially human, and increasingly supported by current research and evidence.
At Wildwood, we make those values part of everyday practice, and we are pleased to share a philosophy we’ve been growing at home with educators around Los Angeles, the country, and the world.
~ Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach