“Remember, when you see somebody at the top of the mountain, it’s unlikely that they fell there.” — Unknown
In this article, I’ll discuss relationships in schools. Luckily, this is nice safe ground for Teachers to explore. After all, we value relationships in schools quite highly. Sure, there’s some variance in just how valuable we perceive them to be, but there’s a basic universal agreement among the teaching populous that relationships are important.
In fact, we’ve come to prize relationships so highly that there are occasions when they seem to dominate our classroom landscapes. One such time is now – the very beginning of the school year. During the first couple of weeks, many Teachers of all phases are allocating significant time to “getting to know my students first.” After all, we have a direct intention that these relationships will form the basis of a positive, harmonious, and friendly learning environment.
This plan sounds wonderful in theory and it would be very easy for me, as somebody motivated by relationships and personal interactions, to agree with it. But I won’t – because it just doesn’t work. The notion that you can spend a significant chunk of the annual learning time you are allocated, without any focus on learning, defies the very purpose of schools. Learning must be at the forefront and this is why we shouldn’t wait until March or later – once we’ve deployed every icebreaker activity we can Google – to get learning.
A singular focus on relationships, at the expense of learning, will also create a skewed expectation from your students that can hinder your classroom functioning throughout the school year in two concerning ways:
1. Your students will view your Student-Teacher relationships as ones where the Teacher does all of the work. Teacher supports, Teacher nurtures and, to be honest, Teacher mollycoddles in the endless pursuit of harmony. While these relationships will initially be appealing to students, they have a particularly short shelf life. In time, low-expectation relationship bore students; and we can expect disruptive rather than collaborative relationships if we open the doors to boredom. This would also erode the level of respect that students have.
2. Teachers will need to establish expectations at a later date. And this will undoubtedly absorb more of your teaching time than you’d like. The reason for this is that expectations, boundaries, and norms are far more labour intensive to change than they are to sustain. If in the first month of the school year the expectations are set too low, then you can expect resistance when you start cracking the whip to make learning the main focus later on.
On the other hand, have you ever heard the expression “Don’t smile until Easter?”. Many “old school” types swear by it. The truth is that the intention may not be quite as sinister as the expression. Most who adopt this mantra don’t actually stick by it to the letter; what they are trying to do is emphasise the importance of very clear expectations and minimum standards for behaviors in their classroom. Expectation clarity is critical if you want your classroom to be productive.
There are many ways to achieve clarity for your students and selecting the right way forward for you is worth a few quiet moments to mull over. Most teachers then end up at something of a crossroad – do I lay down the rules or do I try to draw classroom norms from the students?
I once heard a great expression “When you come to a fork in the road, take the fork.” I think that is the case with rules and values in the classroom too: you don’t have to choose. Both rules and values are paramount if you want your classroom to function in an effective and sanity-preserving way.
This leads us to a key question for teachers and educators everywhere. How exactly can we demonstrate our commitment to relationships AND our commitment to high learning expectations at the same time? It’s all about having relationships in perspective and knowing which type of relationship builder you are – and I suggest that there are two types:
1. Blind Builders – These Teachers focus so heavily on building and maintaining relationships with students, that very little learning seems to be taking place. You can almost smell the incense coming from these classrooms! There appears to be an endless running of class circles / meetings and ‘Kumbaya’ has been adopted as the class anthem. We’re all getting along famously – but not much work is getting done.
2. Lever Pullers – These Teachers build relationships THROUGH the learning process. They use icebreakers and games to take notes in establishing a knowledge base of students’ interests and learning styles to marry against their academic evidence of each student. This evidence then informs immediate programs and units of work. These Teachers pull the relationship like a lever – for the very specific purpose of improved student performance. This is a Teacher committed to the great quest of the contemporary Teacher – differentiation. This Teacher’s students won’t be starting a new school year behind the 8-ball.
The wonderful aspect of the Lever Puller’s work is the willingness of the students to be in these relationships. Think back for a moment to your own favourite Teacher from your school days – it’s unlikely that this person was undemanding of you. They, very likely, believed in you and pushed you to do more and to do better. Even the laziest of students enjoys being in these relationships where a high level of expectation is matched with a high level of support.
So, put the Kumbaya lyrics away and get to teaching – all the while absorbing every little detail of your students to build a larger and stronger lever. The stronger the lever … the harder you can pull.
Have a fabulous year of teaching in 2015!
1. Start teaching … now!
2. Establish relationships THROUGH and not DESPITE the learning process.
3. Take notes about your student personally to match your academic data.
4. Be reasonable, fair, and honest about rules in the classroom
5. Be a Lever Puller in your relationship building.
6. Establish high expectations early … because they are tough to change
– Opinion piece contributed by Adam Voigt, a former School Principal. Adam partners with schools to build high performing cultures and frequently offers advice and tips for teachers, parents, and principals. He is a regular contributor to many education publications, has appeared on Sunrise as a bullying expert, and delivered a TEDx talk on how to open a new large urban government school as a Principal.
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