If you were to ask young people preparing to return to school over the next couple of weeks what they were looking forward to the most about “going back”, I suspect that the number one answer would be, “I’m looking forward to seeing my friends.” A close second might be, “I’m anxious to see my teachers”. There is no more energetic place to be than on a schoolyard or in a cafeteria on that first day back to school! And you know something? It’s not only the students that anticipate this time of reconnection. It didn’t take long for me to realize that those first days where teachers wandered back into school in order to prepare for the coming year were not very productive from a “getting things done” perspective. Instead, they were filled with hallway conversations, sharing of summer stories and photos and general catching up on things. A time of connection and reconnection.
Schools are many things to many people but I think that it’s important to remind ourselves (frequently) that schools are primarily a place of relationship. I know that might sound odd to the 21st century ear, but it’s something that I have come to believe.
Relationship is at the heart of the teaching/learning dynamic; it’s at the heart of the engagement puzzle and it is situated right at the heart of most of the other issues that schools are called upon to address. Acknowledging the importance of relationship is the first step; actively nurturing it is another.
One of the threads that was woven through the recently released CEA/CTF study, Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach: Now and in the Future, was, in fact, relationship and just how important it was to the visions that teachers had for the work that they do. Relationship was seen to cut across many of the other dimensions addressed in the study’s findings including the way that teachers worked with colleagues, parents, school leadership, the students within their class and the wider community.
And when we asked teachers to tell stories of when they felt they were at their best, almost all of what we heard was grounded in a sense of strong, positive relationship. One teacher talked about getting down on his hands and knees, crawling under a desk and sitting with a student who tended to spend a good deal of his day in that position. Another spoke of how making a phone call to each parent at the beginning of the school year set such a positive tone, not only among the parent community, but among the students as well. Yet another recalled how students would return to her classroom at the end of the day, “just to talk”.
At the same time, teachers told us of the things that they believed would help them to be able to teach the way that they aspire to teach more often, many of which could be seen through the relationship lens: being able to have time and space to develop strong and positive relationships with colleagues, time to plan together, freedom to develop learning environments that were more responsive to the needs of students, flexibility to craft schedules and timetables that allowed for richer and more robust learning experiences, the ability to take the time to “be” with students and colleagues without feeling that something is “not being covered”!
Schools are places designed for learning; there is no disputing that. But I sense that we may be losing sight of one of the prime mediators of learning: relationship.
As we move back into our schools over the next couple of weeks, and as labour negotiations take a more central place in the conversations around board room, staff room and family dinner tables in many Canadian jurisdictions, I’m hoping that the very positive stories that we encountered in the Teaching the Way We Aspire work might serve to both temper and inspire the conversations—and the relationships!