I'm in some grad classes right now and in one, we were assigned to discuss, "Does building relationships with students really matter?"
Prior to the discussion, we watched Rita Pierson's TED talk and read two articles: The Post on differences between white and black poverty and a piece from mic.com on white poverty in America. (Both links are to annotated copies of the articles.)
My unedited response to the discussion thread is below.
I must admit, I've started and restarted this post several times this week.
Of course building relationships matters. If we neglect to build relationships, we are missing a fundamental aspect of teaching and learning. Regardless of culture, our species is reliant on relationships with other members. We are predisposed to bond with other people from birth through death. Teachers are in the unique position of spending more time with students than anyone besides their parents, which leads to relationships in some capacity.
Fostering positive relationships will help lead to emotional and mental stability that students, especially students of poverty, are often lacking. We get into dangerous territory when relationships become the only support mechanism for the poor instead of improved services and social programs. In the Post article, the plan to open affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods is only hindered by the free market and social biases. There is nothing stopping housing developers from lowering rent other than their own bottom lines. Poverty can be combated with solid public education, but to really change the landscape of American poverty, we need larger social change.
The support offered by teachers is critical, but so is support from school counselors and social workers. Since those services are underfunded (or nonexistent in some schools) teachers are left to figure it out on their own. Recently, the 'grit' narrative has taken hold, which is can lead to less obvious, yet counterproductive, results. Jensen (2016) and Kidd (2013) note that most poor families work more than their wealthier counterparts, so teachers encouraging students to get through their issues with perseverance and a belief that they can do better with harder work perpetuate the misconception that the poor are lazy. Students already working hard will be reluctant to form genuine relationships because grit places the blame back on the student, not by recognizing root causes.
Building positive relationships takes more than goodwill and a focus on mindset. Seeing students as people with real needs and real challenges is critical. Recognizing that our life circumstances do not reflect many of our students' builds empathy and allows bonds to form.