Cecelia E. Traugh is the dean of the Graduate School of Education at Bank Street College and the co-author with Cara E. Furman of Descriptive Inquiry in Teacher Practice.

At Bank Street College of Education, where I am dean of the Graduate School, we hold that relationship is core to learning and true education. I am reading a book now, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, that extends that idea for me. Kimmerer argues strongly for the importance of and need for reciprocal relationships. She builds her argument by describing the kinds of reciprocal relationships native peoples have built with the earth and natural world. As Kimmerer develops the idea, reciprocity is developed through a mutual giving and taking, a recognition that in true relationship, the flow of gift giving is two-way.

Each of her stories has made me think about the importance of reciprocity in education and in human learning relationships. It has also made me think about a story a former student, Julie, told me a few years back about her attempts to build a relationship with a boy who was in the sixth grade for the second time and who didn’t want to be there. He showed his distaste in every way he could: he wouldn’t walk in line as sixth graders were supposed to do; he wouldn’t do his homework; he was generally defiant. The adults in his world responded in kind, in general seeing him as a bad kid. This was the student she was describing through the Descriptive Review Process for my class, and she was struggling to see the point until a chance event one evening (I’ve quoted at length to showcase her voice with her permission):

I’m so glad I’ve persisted in trying to build a relationship with him. Last night, I was walking home around 8 pm after chaperoning the school dance (which T. was not allowed to attend) and I ran into him on the way to the train. He and his 15-year-old sister were arguing with a police officer. I asked if they were okay, and they said no; they had found an abandoned puppy that was dying, and the police were unwilling to do anything to help the dog. T. had purchased food for the dog, but it couldn’t eat. They said they wanted to take the dog home with them, but they are living in a homeless shelter where animals aren’t allowed. The police officer told me there was nothing he could do about it, and there were no open shelters in the Bronx. I ended up staying with T. and his sister and calling 24-hour clinics around the city until we found one in midtown that would take the dog. The three of us took a taxi with the dog to the shelter. The cab ride took about a half hour, and T. and his sister talked my ear off the whole way. They said they’ve been living with their mom in a homeless shelter for over a year. I had no idea they were living in a shelter—both of them are stylish and appear well-put together. The three of them share a bedroom, and T. shares a bed with his mother. They have been to visit family members in Pennsylvania, and for years their mother has been promising them that they will move to that town and go to school there, but she hasn’t had enough money to make the move. T. told me he can’t wait to move and start a new school. He said, “I want to be someone new. I want to change the way I act.” I asked him to elaborate, and he said “I don’t want to behave bad anymore.” They told me about how much better people are in that suburban town in Pennsylvania. T. said “it’s different; people care about each other. Like if someone screams, people try to help. Not like the Bronx.” He explained to me that he wants to be an auto mechanic, and he was really excited to tell me what he had just built—a car that he wired a battery-powered motor into. His sister said, “Miss, he’s always inventing stuff. He’s got a big box of junk that he puts together and makes stuff all the time.” Both were expressing concern over the welfare of the dog the whole time. T. told me that he loves animals and he watches animal police on TV, and he couldn’t understand how someone could do that to the dog. We delivered the dog to the animal hospital, and the workers were very grateful. As we were walking back to the train at 59th St, T. and his sister were marveling at the holiday displays in the storefronts. T. said, “It’s so weird here,” and told me that neither of them had ever been to Manhattan! I asked them if they wanted to walk around a bit, but they reminded me that they needed to get back to the Bronx because their shelter has a 10pm curfew.

I found out yesterday that T. is a really good kid with a big heart, and that he is very bright. I have a feeling he won’t be able to move to the suburbs anytime soon, so I hope I can help him change the way he acts while he’s here. I just think it’s so ironic that he was one of two people in his grade on a list of students who were not allowed to attend the dance (for general bad behavior, not for any one incident—the other student on the list had brought a knife to school), and while everyone else was at the dance, he was trying to help a sick animal. My outlook on the situation really changed yesterday. After we connected in this context, I wonder if the way he acts towards me at school will change.

My student had extended herself to the boy and his sister and learned that there was a caring person under the mask of defiance he wore in school. He saw a teacher go out of her way for him and what he cared about and opened himself up to her. Two gifts given, a reciprocity of a kind. School continued to be a difficult context for T., although he did make the effort to change his behavior for a good space of time. However, except for my student, other teachers continued to treat him in ways that taught him he was bad and not able, and they poo-poo’ed Julie’s efforts to connect and see him differently. T. continued to learn the lessons school was teaching, and Julie had to worry about her status as a colleague. But, for those hours going to and from the animal hospital, another relationship was created. If the school’s culture had been different, one that supported reciprocity and relationship, I think possibilities for T. would have opened up. As described in my book Descriptive Inquiry in Teacher Practice: Cultivating Practical Wisdom to Create Democratic Schools, schools can develop the kind of ethic and practice that more adequately supports children and teachers. Descriptive practice of the kind described in this book and my student was learning can make it possible to treat the defiance T. gave as a message to listen to, to try to understand. Reciprocity is not always easy to establish, but the gifts of listening and learning are never wasted.

Photo from Pixabay