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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

The Power of Relationships vs. The Pressure to Achieve

Recently, the The New York Times ran an opinion piece by David Brooks on a subject that many of our parents connected to right away and passed along to me. I was grateful to see the resonance in people’s responses to Brooks’s piece; the article had been sent to me a dozen times by my colleagues here, who also saw in the article’s headline a message they knew I’d appreciate: “Students Learn From People They Love.” The subhead—“Putting relationship quality at the center of education”—spoke to so many at Rivers that the article eventually was shared throughout the faculty and disseminated in the internal newsletter in the Upper School.

Brooks’s piece, which cites cognitive research into the connections between emotions—positive and negative—and learning, points to the presence of meaningful relationships as the focal point of those emotions. “In good times and bad,” he writes, “good teachers and good students co-regulate each other.” The ideals inherent in Excellence with Humanity ring loudly through the essay. It’s easy to see why so many of you passed it along to me and why my colleagues were all talking about the article and the validation it offered for our approach.

I’ve thought a great deal about the article since first reading it. It wasn’t so much because Rivers’s philosophy dovetails with Brooks’s observations and reporting, good as that felt. Rather, what struck me was the fact that the article’s insights on the connection between relationships and learning environments were presented as news.

I speak often and proudly about the philosophy and execution of Excellence with Humanity, and every time I do, I confess to experiencing some embarrassment—born of the sense that I am trumpeting an approach that is (or should be) obvious on its face. Of course, I find myself thinking, meaningful relationships make for deeper learning; doesn’t every parent intuitively understand that already?

I’ve come to understand that many—perhaps most—independent school parents do understand this intuitively. At the same time, however, the culture is pushing them to believe something different—something they don’t like or agree with but get drawn into. That something is the pressure to achieve, to attain the measurable markers of success that often interrupt the relationships young people have with the adults in their lives. That pressure shifts the focus in the relationship away from a sense of partnership in a child’s journey and onto the need for measurable “wins” along the way. Connections become focused on an ever-receding finish line, and children are left to grow and develop on their own.

This is where our message breaks with that prevailing cultural push. At Rivers, what used to be thought of as “soft skills” are rightly seen as essential components of a successful life’s journey: Curiosity, passion, empathy, and the inclination to engage with a world in need, in the service of others. I believe these are the core competencies parents truly want to see their children develop, because they so clearly lead to that most elusive of finish lines, a happy and productive life.

“Children learn from people they love,” Brooks wrote in the Times, “and … love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.” I take heart in his observations and applaud the research supporting this approach, an approach captured in the philosophy I inherited here at Rivers when I arrived five years ago.

Excellence with Humanity is alive and well on the Rivers campus, where meaningful relationships form the foundation of the learning environment and where my colleagues in the faculty and administration have long heeded Brooks’s call to “design a school…[with] relationship quality at the core.” I can assure the larger Rivers community that we’ll continue to ask hard questions about how that philosophy can be demonstrated by every member of our community each day and how we can measure our success in this area.

And I’ll be glad to hear from all of you when you come across articles, books, or videos that celebrate—or challenge—our approach, which insists that social and emotional learning is not an add-on to the curriculum but “the way we do school.”

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