Much of what we know about learning through relationships has its origins in the work of Lev Vygotsky, the child psychologist who asserted that learning is relational, and that language/conversation is central to the relational aspects of learning.
Teaching through relationships posits that teachers who have knowledge about their students will be better able to teach them. It is a fundamental idea that most progressive educators have long embraced. But teaching through relationships is more than that. Ultimately, it describes the complex social environment in which students and teachers converse, share experiences, and participate in activities that, together, make for engaged learning.
Traditional teaching is a formal affair, aligned with ideas of conventional professionalism that draw a very clear line between the teacher and the students. This formal arrangement discourages fraternizing with students in the belief that when the role of teacher, mentor, and guide becomes confused with that of a friend or a buddy, the instructional waters become muddied.
However, teaching through relationships does not encourage this type of fraternizing. Instead, it embeds formal knowledge in the world in which it actually belongs and from which it is born: that of the complex, historical, and social world of being human.
While maintaining the formal relationship between students and teachers, teaching through relationships, when done well, recognizes the human stories of the learners themselves (they are not blank slates), as well as that of the teacher. It is an approach that embraces our complex identities, biographies, and the stories we bring that serve to humanize the subjects we teach. This teaching “mix” helps to expand our knowledge beyond the artificial confines of a particular discipline.
Getting to know our teachers and our teachers getting to know us as fellow human travelers transforms teachers into something akin to a mentor and not a remote authority figure. One gets the chance to learn the real knowledge of a discipline, a knowledge that is largely social in nature and that gives them insight into the life of their teacher, and therefore a better understanding of the professional reality, work and social constructs that together, along with formal knowledge, create what we call “a discipline” or “area of development”.