The Heart of it All

Dawn MacFarland · January 15, 2020

As a teacher who has served military-connected families for the past two decades, I see first-hand how building strong relationships and using a whole-child approach to teaching can transform young learners as well as school communities. I was witness to the importance of strong relationships in both respects during 9/11 when I was teaching at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) Naval Base. Our school community had to band together in very unique ways to ensure our military-connected students were not only receiving the highest level of educational services possible but were also receiving the LOVE they needed to survive in a place our nation decided was the “least worst place” for the newly arriving detainees of a war that was about to commence. 


At that time and place in history, love and strong relationships in school were the answers my students needed to survive. As my career moved forward, I could see that no matter what the situation, my students always needed love and meaningful relationships in school.


I quickly realized that real teaching goes beyond homework and test scores; every aspect of learning and student development is crucial in helping our students write their life stories. 


The power of relationship building is a belief that resonates in the hearts of many educators—whether they are in traditional classrooms or not. It is also a clear reflection of the love, care, and deep thoughtfulness that all parents want for their children.  Ultimately our kids, whether they are in our classrooms or not, are still our kids. In an era with such advanced technology, we must not lose sight of the individual connections that we forge each day with our students.   


We must look to leaders, past and present, who recognized the power of relationships as a teaching tool; educational leaders like Fred Rogers, who reminds us that, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”  As teachers, we have the power to create a culture that deeply appreciates the humanity in education and to help our students see the heroes within themselves. We have an opportunity every day in our classrooms to highlight our shared responsibility, to take a long look at this ever-growing need, and to respond in measure.


The heart of relationship building lies in compassionate and mindful leadership in the classroom and beyond. It is about modeling these values on all levels, from district leaders to administrators, from administrators to teachers, from teachers to their students, from students to their peers, and finally, out into communities in which we all live.

By shaping our school and classroom climates, we as educators are shaping what our world will look like. What we say and do in our schools matters. The totality of our students’ education matters. Our kids and our communities are watching us, and we must take care of one another—because it matters. 


Building relationships and investing in the love of our students and our profession is also about opening the hearts of the leaders and policymakers in education, some of whom feel that showing vulnerability and love in educational leadership, in the classroom or beyond, is somehow equated with weakness, or is somehow lesser than the more cerebral aspirations of academia. On the contrary, leaders who can show vulnerability and love in the midst of such divisive and challenging times are among the strongest and bravest.  Let us be strong and brave together, and let us model how to build strong and meaningful relationships that will instill a love of life and learning in our students.



“Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear is a part of who we become.”—Fred Rogers



Dawn MacFarland

Dawn MacFarland has 20 years of service to military-connected students and families through DoDEA (Department of Defense Education Activity). She began her teaching career in Tucson, Arizona, and has since taught in London, England, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as Hanau and Stuttgart, Germany. Ms. MacFarland teaches language arts and humanities, and her lifelong commitment is dedicated to educating the whole child—mind and heart. Ms. MacFarland’s career is cultivated by a mindset that looks beyond typical markers of student success and dives deeper into areas of long-term student development and growth. Her entire concept of teaching revolves around the idea that in education, as in life, leaders need to build relationships, and create climates of security, in order to get the best out of the communities they serve. Ms. MacFarland was a finalist for DoDEA 2020 State Teacher of the Year, and she is the 2020 Europe East Teacher of the Year.