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Relationships at the Heart of Learning

By Judith Ross-Bernstein

“Development is on their side.” In my head, I can hear my mentor say this to me, an early career teacher, with kindness and wisdom. She said this to me often, reassuringly, as a keenly attentive listener to my classroom stories. After a rigorous discussion, “development is on their side” was some landing point, a pearl of her early childhood wisdom that then extended to my teaching in higher education. Without a doubt, I had the privilege of being in relationship to her: boss, office mate, colleague, and friend. Ours was a uniquely devoted relationship. The unspoken shared meaning between us, from the very young to young adults, was that students face developmental challenges. Their path is a growth process; “development is on their side.” Sadly, we are unable to have these conversations today and I’m curious. Did she mean, pay attention: consider both being and becoming? Was it my job to see each individual as they are, through delight and struggle, and guide them toward who they are to become?

But just last week I caught a Facebook entry, from one of my former Cornell students, someone I mentored through his undergraduate days. It read:

“Excited (and nervous) to be starting my first week as the Director of Bilingual Programs at XXX College. As a XXX student (15 years ago!), I would have never dreamed I would end up in this position. Life sure takes interesting turns… Hoping I can continue to strengthen the program for years to come.”

To this comment I posted, “Fantastic!”

He posted back, “None of this would have happened without your encouragement Judith Ross-Bernstein!! As an amazing educator, you saw something in me that I didn’t. Thank you!”

(Wow. OK…THIS is RARE and yes, it made my day.)

To his comment I replied, “Plain as day…talent. So excited for you.”

His last comment back to me was this, “I felt so lost then but you kept inspiring me and guiding me in the right direction.”

Provocative. His nearly 20 year-old reflection on “being lost” speaks to me today, loud and clear. Can I confess? What was “being lost” to him, appeared irresponsible to me. Repeatedly irresponsible: late papers; no show in class; absent and disorganized in field study, many deals agreed upon and missed. I chased him down too many times, begrudgingly. But it all didn’t match up. And I have a distinct twenty-year memory of feeling annoyed and confused about it. On the one hand when he was in class, his ideas were the game changers. He’d typically offer his thoughts at the end of a discussion, there would be a pause, heads would tilt, eye-contact exchanged, a short spreading silence, and then further doors to conversation opened- important doors. Likewise his submitted written work was at a critical and integrative level flavored by a tender knowledge of individuality and diversity. And then on the other hand, he wasn’t dependable or consistent.

If he were to read this blog now, he’d say with an incredulous smile, “Remember when we had the discussion?” Through our sporadic contact over the years, the discussion became a touchstone. Honestly, I don’t recall exactly what was said then, but I was both caring and extremely direct about what to do, and what not to do, to harness talent in that college context. And reciprocally, he was direct about his obstacles. There were tears and laughter. We made a plan. He did step it up and the rest is history. His trajectory is his own, and I feel enormous pride in his success. But I am again reminded by his post, “I felt so lost.”

In that twenty-year-old discussion, I learned some things that mattered, deeply mattered.  That in his family of origin, he was a first generation college student. How and why to belong to  Cornell was confounding as he struggled to find a sense of purpose both in college, and life in general. I learned he was at the edges of his emotional capacity while in the throws of his emerging sexual orientation. Unique and personal, his story shed new light on his external behaviors. In hindsight, his inner life struggles map directly onto Chickering’s (1969) model of identity development, a model that provides a window into challenges many college age students face.

I can imagine that my story is more universal than not from the perspective of being a faculty member. I continue to be humbled by college age students’ developmental challenges and humbled by our role in making affordances for them. Widely accepted principles of teaching inform me that when we teach, we do not just teach the content, we teach students the content. Understanding our student’s background is essential. That I was inclined to label him irresponsible does not reveal my generosity of spirit, but for that I am recognizably human. Busy, distracted, overwhelmed. I fully understand that this student was more than irresponsible; thank goodness I did not miss it completely. I’ve had other student stories that would make me sit bolt upright in the middle of the night with worry. Mary Lynn Crow’s (2015) sentiment, “hard on standards, soft on students” aligns with mine. She believes that as professors:

…”it is our job to press for students to reach their academic potential. But while we are holding to challenging requirements, consistency of application and academic rigor, we also must be engaged in empathy, compassion and nurturing. …Many students, (and not just first-generation students), need to be psychologically nurtured to make it through any one course, not to mention an entire academic degree.” (University of Texas System, Academy of Distinguished Teachers, 2015, pg.6)

Development IS on THEIR side. I began this blog on August 11th, with the realization that on that day my mentor celebrated her 82nd birthday. In her current aged and failing state, writing felt deeply bittersweet; development is not on her side. However, her powerful impact on my learning honors her and our relationship, as my student honored me, and I recognize the powerful influence we can have on each other in the context of being and becoming.

There are structures in place to help you support student success on the Ithaca College campus. The Academic Alert Program (AAP) is a collaborative effort between Faculty, the Academic Advising Center and students in support of our student’s academic success. The ICare Team for Students in Distress supports students, faculty and staff when patterns of behaviors or consistent decline in a student’s functioning across academic, social and emotional domains warrants intervention.


Carnegie Mellon, Eberly Center, Teaching Excellence and Education Innovation. Principles of Teaching.  Retrieved from  
Chickering, A. (1969). Seven vectors. Retrieved from                                                                                                        The University of Texas System. (2015). The Little Orange Book. Short Lessons in Excellent Teaching. Austin,Texas: University of Texas Press.                                                           Uprichard, E. (2008). Children as ‘Being and Becomings’: Children, Childhood and Temporality. Children and Society, 22, 303-313.

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