Featured From the team Jun 14

Two decades ago, one teacher changed my life: here’s why

Monica Milligan

Chief Program Officer, Gradient Learning

Last year, as K-12 schools experienced the closest thing to “normal” since early 2020, the news was filled with near-daily reminders of what the pandemic cost our children educationally. Take, for instance, the results of the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card. Only 26% of eighth-graders were proficient in math, a steep decline from 34% in 2019. And only one in three students met proficiency standards in reading. Educators expected bad news from NAEP, but the sheer magnitude of the declines were still a shock to the system, prompting U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to call the results “appalling and unacceptable.”

Faced with the challenge of cramming more instruction into the school year, educators and administrators are looking for approaches to “accelerate learning” to get students  on grade-level as quickly as possible. While schools focus on solutions like high-dosage tutoring, research points to another critical factor for academic achievement: strong, positive relationships between students and teachers. A report from The Education Trust revealed that deeper connections “can dramatically enhance students’ level of motivation and therefore promote learning. Students who have access to more strong relationships are more academically engaged, have stronger social skills, and experience more positive behavior.” Without those connections, solutions for accelerating learning like high-dosage tutoring won’t be as effective, and in some instances, may not work at all.

Research points to another critical factor for academic achievement: strong, positive relationships between students and teachers.”

In many ways, my life is an example of what’s possible when the relationship with a teacher creates an opportunity for a student to accelerate her learning. My family moved to Dallas, Texas, from South Korea when I was six, and as is often the case for immigrants, none of us spoke English. In these situations, adults often pick up their first new words and phrases from their kids, but my family didn’t have that luxury. I spent my first two years of school here sitting in the back of classrooms, rarely able to understand what my teachers were saying — and going largely unnoticed by them. Today, I can see it from their point of view: they had 30 other students, all of whom needed different things. I was quiet and easy to ignore.

As a result, I fell years behind my peers academically, just like many of today’s students did during the pandemic. By the end of second grade, I still struggled to read, speak, and write in English, and my language skills remained the strongest of anyone in our household.

Everything changed the following year, when my third-grade teacher unlocked this mystery language not just for me, but for my family as well. She went to the local Korean church and convinced the minister to translate for her. She then came to my house and explained to my parents how far behind I was at school. You can imagine how devastated my parents were at the news; they had left everything they knew to travel to a new country so I could have a better education, and two years later, they learned that all their efforts were for naught.

While my teacher could have stopped there, she actually returned to our house multiple times a week for the next few months to teach my family phonics — something that went above and beyond her job requirements. I began to thrive academically, even graduating as salutatorian of my high school class. My parents, who picked up my newfound English language skills, received a gift as well: the ability to engage deeper at work and with the community. 

In addition to my lived experiences, my work as an educator has left me equally convinced that one solid relationship with a teacher can lead to dramatic gains in academic achievement — particularly for students who are struggling. The relationship doesn’t have to result in something as dramatic as helping an eight-year-old immigrant learn a new language to be meaningful. The American Psychological Association, for example, says listening to students — genuinely celebrating their victories and providing support for their challenges — goes a long way toward creating that environment.  

One solid relationship with a teacher can lead to dramatic gains in academic achievement — particularly for students who are struggling.”

The APA also recommends that teachers provide frequent meaningful feedback to students in the manner that best suits their personalities, whether that’s cheering them on in front of the class or answering their questions privately. My colleagues and I at Gradient Learning created a tool called Along that promotes this type of back-and-forth dialogue between students and teachers. As an added bonus, it also gives students a chance to analyze what they’re learning.

Unfortunately, not all students experience the benefits of strong relationships with their teachers. The Education Trust’s report cites a survey showing that fewer than one-third of middle-schoolers and 16% of 12th-graders reported having such a bond. The percentages were even lower among students from economically disadvantaged communities. A survey by Gradient Learning further revealed that 35% of students said it’s “awkward” or “uncomfortable” to reach out to teachers, and 31% said they weren’t having regular check-ins.

Our students deserve better, especially now as student achievement has slipped to a 30-year low. Relationships between students and teachers are foundational and deeply connected to learning. That means setting aside more time for sustained attention than the typical two-week “getting to know you” period at the start of the year. Those relationships are worthy of becoming a school or district’s number one priority, as I can attest.

Monica Milligan is chief program officer for Gradient Learning, a nonprofit that works to give all students, especially those from underserved communities, what they need to learn. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Amherst College in Massachusetts and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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