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Rich Nourie on the Transformative Power of Authentic Relationships in Learning

February 12, 2020

Families and teachers alike who are new to AFS are sometimes surprised that teachers are called by their first names. Most of us have grown up with the custom of honorifics for adults when addressed by children, so witnessing that teachers and students are on a first-name basis can be a little jarring for folks at first.

The practice of calling teachers by their first names, common at most Friends schools, is rooted in the Quaker testimony of equality and a principled approach to the concept of authority. Early Quakers were wary of positional power—the idea that a title alone conferred authority. Instead, they preferred to recognize a more genuine source of authority in a person’s wisdom, care, expertise or experience, qualities that should be acknowledged and respected regardless of position.

In this Friends school culture, a teacher’s authority is not conferred so much as lived each day in their subject matter expertise, the careful planning they do for their classes and the care and commitment they have for their students. And the culture also makes room for the authentic authority to be found in students’ voices, in their work, in their fresh perspective and in areas that they inspire passion.

What I love about this culture is the unusual pairing of relative informality and high expectations. The informality invites openness, honesty and the type of searching and vulnerability that the deepest learning requires. The high expectations are for profound respect for each other and the value of the work we are doing together in and out of the classroom, for full engagement, hard work and a continual, shared search for excellence. Close relationships with teachers ensure that students are well- known in their interests, developing passions and ideas, in their life story and where they are, literally, coming from. Being seen clearly, affirmed and challenged leads to the most genuine and lasting learning.

Teaching and learning in the context of relationships allows us to keep issues whole, connecting technical skills to ethical issues, to socio-historical context, to the emotional impact learning can have at its most powerful. Learning with a caring, talented and knowledgeable teacher opens the door to honest feedback in both directions. It also invites questions about what this learning is for and where it is leading. This is education as empowerment and an education with moral meaning.

All the best,

Rich Nourie




Rich Nourie, Head of School

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