If you're ever in a meeting of educators and want to get heads nodding vigorously, here's what you say: “It's all about relationships.” This is one of the most agreed upon maxims of my career. It's also not all that helpful.
It's not that relationships aren't important. They are magnificently important. It's not that relationships aren't the stuff that make the job its loveliest. They are.
It's just that they aren't what education is “all about.” Education is all about advancing the long-term flourishing of people by guiding them into ever-deepening levels of mastery.
My job description, and yours, is not to have relationships with young people. My students' parents do not send their children to me primarily hoping that I will develop a relationship with their student. This is not the highest aim they have for their child in school. Further, my local, state, and federal governments do not invest taxpayer dollars into my school hoping to solve the civic and economic needs of society solely by creating relationships.
Now look: none of this is to cast aspersion on folks who say “It's all about relationships.” These are my colleagues, near and far, and I love them. I've never met a person who said “it's all about relationships” who wasn't also a person with the best of intentions. The thing is that, with lives on the line, we have to think a bit harder. We have to push ourselves past judging ideas on the intentions of those who express them and instead judge ideas based on the merits in the ideas themselves.
You do need a shorthand for discussing the things that matter most. Sloganish statements like “It's all about relationships” are not unimportant. Cultures are built on oft-repeated lines like these ones. You actually do need one-liners and slogans.
Which is why the one-liners need to be really, really good. They've got to be simple enough to be understood clearly and quickly. And they've got to be deep enough to withstand the rigors of close inspection and extended study and meditation.
So: may I offer that what it's all *actually* about is the long-term flourishing of young people. This is what our job descriptions boil down to — that we would teach or counsel or administrate or lead the people in our care toward that one end. Long-term flourishing is what the parents of my students hope for — that this will be a year in which their child's long-term prospects get brighter. Long-term flourishing is why education is the worthiest investment of tax dollars — because people who flourish long-term end up promoting societal flourishing.
Relationships are a critical means, not the ultimate end. They are a beautiful, non-negotiable, essential means! They are what give the work its deeper layers of meaning. They are why I delight in my job, even on the many days when it is emotionally or physically or intellectually or spiritually hard. But we can do better than statements like “it's all about relationships.”