Relationship is key

In comparison to majority culture students ([…] primarily of European descent): the overall academic achievement levels of ____________ students is low; their rate of suspension from school is three times higher; they are over-represented in special education programmes for behavioral issues; enrol in pre-school programs in lower proportions than other groups; tend to be over-represented in low stream education classes; are more likely than other students to be found in vocational curriculum streams; leave school earlier with less formal qualifications and enrol in tertiary education in lower proportions.

Sound familiar? I suspect that both Canadian and American educators can easily fill in the blank in this quote, which actually comes from a study addressing educational disparities facing Maori students in New Zealand (see Bishop, Berryman, Cavanagh, & Teddy, 2009).


Recently, I took part in a Professional Learning day at a local high school, and the topic of one of the sessions was relational and culturally responsive pedagogy as it relates to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) students, who continue to face barriers in our educational systems. The simple, yet powerful message was that increasing outcomes for FNMI students has more to do with how we teach, rather than what we teach.

The speaker referenced a transformative program in New Zealand called Te Kotahitanga that has helped to improve outcomes for Maori students, who have long felt (and continue to feel) the negative effects of social, economic and political disparities between the descendants of the European colonisers and the Indigenous Maori people – effects that are strikingly similar to those observed within Canada among students of Aboriginal descent, and which are reflected in educational outcomes. In particular, the program is based on a relational and culturally responsive pedagogy, which (to briefly summarize) means creating learning environments where:

  • relationships of care and connectedness are fundamental;
  • power is shared between self-determining individuals within non-dominating relations of interdependence;
  • culture counts;
  • learning is interactive, dialogic and spirals; and
  • participants are connected to one another through the establishment of a common vision for what constitutes excellence in educational outcomes.

To summarize further, when addressing educational disparities facing FNMI (or other minority students, depending on the context), it seems that relationship is key. (I highly recommend looking into the work of Russell Bishop, Mere Berryman, and other researchers involved with Te Kotahitanga – I’ve referenced some of the articles below -, to which this post doesn’t even begin to do full justice.)

This was an idea that really resonated with me, because I think that we (teachers) very often get stuck thinking about what instead of how. As a result, many may think that accommodating our FNMI students simply means, for example, having students solve problems involving teepees, fishing, hunting, and bannock, regardless of whether these students (many of whom grew up in the city) have actually had any first-hand experience with these explicit aspects of FNMI culture. In my opinion, this kind of tokenizing approach can actually be harmful, because not only does it assume all FNMI students share the same culture and experiences, it can also single them out and thus erode their feelings of belonging if the teacher has not first built relationships with and among students and established a classroom culture that values individual differences.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be integrating FNMI content and perspectives into our teaching – we certainly should –, but that our approach to doing so should take into account our students’ unique experiences and perspectives. It follows that our first course of action should be to build relationships with our students, to understand them as individuals, and to make them feel safe and welcome in our classrooms. The most beautiful thing, perhaps, is that this approach can help all of our students develop confidence and achieve success, regardless of their background.

“When teachers listen to and learn from students, they can begin to see the world from the perspective of those students. This in turn can help teachers make what they teach more accessible to students. […] Further, students can feel empowered when they are taken seriously and attended to as knowledgeable participants in learning conversations, and they can be motivated to participate constructively in their education.” (Bishop, Berryman, Cavanagh, & Teddy, 2009)


I would love to hear your thoughts, perspectives, and/or criticisms.


Bishop, R., Berryman, M., Cavanagh, T., & Teddy, L. (2009). Te Kotahitanga: Addressing educational disparities facing Maori students in New Zealand. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(5), 734–742. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2009.01.009

Bishop, R., Berryman, M., Wearmouth J., Peter, M., & Clapham, S. (2012). Professional development, changes in teacher practice and improvements in Indigenous students’ educational performance: A case study from New Zealand. Teaching and Teacher Education, 28(5), 694-705. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2012.02.002

Bishop, R., Ladwig, J., & Berryman, M. (2014). The Centrality of relationships for pedagogy: The whanaungatanga thesis. American Educational Research Journal, 51(1), 184–214. doi: 10.3102/0002831213510019

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