Dr. James Comer said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” We, as teachers, believe this wholeheartedly, but often we become sidetracked with the ever-present stress of test scores. We are in an age of education where test scores are tied to funding; therefore, the push to meet AYP is the proverbial carrot that keeps us running at full throttle. I am one of the lucky ones, in my opinion, for having an experience that brought me face to face with Dr. Comer’s quoteto aid in understanding poverty. This experience reminded me that the relationship must come first, and the learning will follow. 

Hurricane Katrina brought many challenges and blessings to my district in Baytown, Texas. Many displaced students poured into our schools and tried to start over in unfamiliar surroundings. I will never forget my first student from New Orleans. My principal called me over the weekend and told me that I would be receiving our first New Orleans student on the following Monday. Like most teachers, I seized the opportunity to buy a binder, pencil pouch, pencils, and pens to make certain that this student had all of the physical tools necessary to be successful.

On Monday, just as promised, a handsome young man, smiling from ear to ear, came to my classroom accompanied by an extremely frightened mom.  She introduced herself to me and said, “Mrs. Albright, Michael is my only child.” Her eyes were pleading with me to take care of her baby, and I assured her that he would be well taken care of. Just as I was about to close the classroom door, she thought of something important to say. “Mrs. Albright, I need to tell you that Michael has a difficult time controlling his talking in class.” I assured her that I had taught 30 years, and I could handle it with no problems.  

After a couple of weeks with Michael, I was beginning to understand his mother’s subtle warning to me. Michael loved to “share” a lot in class. His father, who had been in Alabama looking for work, called for a conference when he arrived in Baytown. He wanted a suggestion on how to convince Michael to focus and stop blurting out in class. In all of my wisdom of 30 years, I said, “In my experience, I have found that having consequences at home and at school—possibly taking something that he likes away temporarily—will reinforce to him that he needs to change his behavior.”  Suddenly, the tears began to flow from both parents’ eyes, and Michael’s father said, “Mrs. Albright, Hurricane Katrina took away everything of value to Michael. We have nothing left.”  

The tears were flowing from all of us at this point, and we were in dire need of Dr. Phil! We all hugged and came up with a solution, but Hurricane Rita interrupted our plans. We were out of school again, and when the students returned, Michael did not.  Three weeks later there was a knock at my classroom door, and there stood Michael and his mother.

She was carrying a camera and said to me, “Mrs. Albright, there have been too many things in Michael’s life that he has lost and not been able to say goodbye to, but he has cried himself to sleep for three weeks knowing that he didn’t tell you goodbye after Hurricane Rita. We drove all night long from Alabama, where we have moved, to tell you goodbye. May I get your picture with my son, please?”

This was an aha! moment in my life. Dr. Comer’s quote came to life for me many times in my 30-year career, but at no time was it more poignant than at that moment. Relationships truly are the cornerstones to lifelong, successful learners.