“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” — James Comer
Coffee and Relationships: Why Both Matter!
There was an idea over morning coffee, maybe not a great one, but an idea; what if I was to get a group of colleagues to collaborate on a monthly blog. Would it work? Would people read it? Would there be value in it? Hey, at the very least it would be a reason to get together over dinner and exchange some ideas and catch up on the month. I had written a few blog posts throughout the summer and have read hundreds throughout the years. I have always found them to be insightful and thought-provoking and I always chuckle when someone would retweet or like one of my posts. It was an acknowledgement of what I said mattered or resonated with someone. So I floated the idea, and it was met with a resounding YES! We met over dinner, came up with a group name (very important), a catch phrase (Collaborative Reflections from Passionate Leaders), and decided on our first topic. What follows are our collective reflections on the importance of relationships as we start the school year.
The Power of What You Value
One of my tasks each year is to meet with new teachers at the start of the school year. Each of us in our roles as leaders has the chance to spend time with new teachers to kick off the school year. I truly enjoy this part of my job. It is an opportunity to welcome them to my district and community. They are eager to get to their classrooms and get started, but it is important for us to spend time as a group sharing our vision, team building, and getting them ready to start the school year off correctly. This introductory meeting is step one in building relationships with teachers and having them see the power of relationships.
How do you introduce your teachers to your district and school? How do you share your values and beliefs with them?
Last week we had our new teacher induction program for almost 20 new teachers. As I spent time over the summer preparing for this introductory meeting, I made sure the focus of the time we spent together was centered around the importance of building relationships; this was critical to me. We did various team building activities to help staff get to know each other and also to help them begin thinking about what matters to them as teachers and educators. These activities helped people to get to know each other, think about their own core values and beliefs, provided them with some practical examples to implement with their students, but also focused on the importance of building relationships with kids. As we all know without those relationships being built and formed limited learning can occur. As Rita Pierson so bluntly put it, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
How do you build relationships with you students on day 1…day 2…throughout the year?
At the end of the first day, I did an exit ticket with teachers and asked them for their takeaways. When I asked for a volunteer to share out, one hand went right up and said, “The Ashland Public Schools places significant value on building relationships with kids.” My mission was accomplished; they got it! As we start the school year, get to know kids, share something about yourself with them, show them you are human, make those connections, and build those relationships. The time you spend the first 3 days doing that will positively impact the other 177.
The Power of Your Name
Remember when you were in your own middle school years? I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was incredibly nervous upon entering my junior high school for the first time. However, one person stood out, whose priority was making his students feel warm, safe, and welcomed, and that was our principal, Mr. Joseph Bishop. He knew that the foundation of building a safe and welcoming environment for students was to connect with each student with intentionality, beginning with their name.
“Good morning, Mo!” he declared with a big smile as I entered school.
You see, Mr. Bishop used to stand outside my school entrance and every day as we entered the school as shy, slightly uncomfortable, awkward pre-teens, he would greet us with a big smile, give us a hello, and use our name. I remember the first time he called me by my name, and thought “How does he know who I am?” When I realized he knew every student’s name…I was in awe. Completely in awe. Thirty years later….I’m still talking about Mr. Bishop, a celebrated Gardner, MA principal for over 25 years, because he took the time to learn my name.
Many years later, at the age of 23, I started my own teaching career in an urban Massachusetts high school. At this school, I had a morning duty in a hallway and was overwhelmed by the hundreds of students who passed me by and a veteran teacher provided me with some sage advice, which echoed the practice of Mr. Bishop years ago:
“You have to learn their names, use their names, every time you see them, without fail. It makes all the difference that you are noticing them and showing you are caring about them. Even when they look away, or try to avoid you. Use their names. It shows that they matter.”
These stories came up in our new teacher orientation this week in Mendon-Upton, where we discussed the significance and impact of learning students’ names on the first day of school to build connections. I asked our new teachers to picture in their mind someone who is really charismatic, warm, endearing, and fills the room with joy. The kind of person you just want to be around. Everyone closed their eyes and could quickly pinpoint THAT person in their mind.
What qualities do these people exhibit?
- They use your name, frequently.
- They ask you questions about your life and they want to hear YOUR story
- They listen with intentionality
- They provide positive feedback
What if we were THAT person for all of our staff and students? What if we are Mr. Bishop standing at the doorway everyday greeting every student by name? What if we are the teacher truly getting to know their students and take time to learn their stories? What if we are the building leader who listens with intentionality? How far will a little positive feedback take our students?
This year, the challenge is to be THAT person, for every child, on every day.
The Power of Community Learning
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
In my role as assistant superintendent for teaching, learning and innovation, I am often asked what I do in my school system to help educators “innovate.” The answer is not a sexy, shiny, high tech idea. It’s a rather old-school one, but most important in a day and age when society defaults toward division, specialization and over-reliance on technology to do what people should still be doing. Cultivate an authentic community of learning and you’ll find the ideal conditions to brew innovation–which I define to mean making adaptations in our profession that yield higher results for students in a more creative and satisfying manner than before.
There is no substitute for the learning relationship that exists between teachers and students and that relationship is enhanced when the teacher is part of a professional learning community (PLC) that moves beyond calling itself a PLC in name only. The conditions for the highest quality teaching and the most innovative teaching are simple to recreate as noted in the graphic above. A sense of community is established when, as Hill, Brandeau, Truelove and Lineback (2014) indicate, there is a clear sense of purpose within the learning organization, there is agreement on the what and why of shared values and the norms for engaging as professionals are defined. These are simple ways to ensure that staffers can collaborate with each other in meaningful ways and in doing so create the most innovative learning environments for kids. Innovation, therefore, rests on relationships.
Relationships Really Really Matter: Treat People Well, Be Kind, and Listen
Relationships matter almost more than anything else. Education at its core is a people business, and at the core of human interactions are relationships. I once read somewhere that people do not really remember what you say (which in my case is often a very positive thing); they remember how you treat them. It can be very powerful to purposefully treat everyone well. This sounds easy, but when you are faced with competing priorities and multiple deadlines it can be challenging. In education, particularly in larger schools or school districts, it can be very easy to forget that every student is the most important person in someone else’s life. In the age of big data and data driven instruction the recent push for social emotional learning is a positive and important movement that is essential to teaching and developing the whole student. Every teacher is potentially a partner, parent, brother, sister, best friend, aunt, uncle, or grandparent. This makes every teacher also the most important person in someone else’s life. So the conclusion is clear, everybody is important and we need to treat them like they are important and treat them well. If we all focused on this simple premise a little more our schools would be better places where positive interactions with others and customer service were an expected norm.
The Dalai Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
Every interaction can be driven by kindness. There are simple things we all can do to build relationships, make those connections, or show some kindness. Sometimes we all forget a simple hello in passing, asking about someone else’s day or about some key aspect of their work can have an impact. It does take a little effort, but the payoff is well worth it. That being said, kindness should not be seen as transactional and a calculated game of quid pro quo. This becomes quickly apparent if there is a lack of sincerity. If you are kind to others the benefits will come back to you in building and supporting a positive climate and culture.
In my role as superintendent I do a great deal of listening. I regularly attend large, small, and individual meetings and listen to proposals, issues and problems, conflicts, new ideas, and for many other purposes. It is very easy to become inattentive and drift to emails, texts, or social media. It is much more effective and often more difficult to focus and listen attentively; but this is also when the best outcomes occur and the most positive relationships develop. Active listening is becoming more challenging in the age of digital distractions. As a leadership team we are all making an effort to be present and engaged during our meetings, and I am hoping this carries over into all meetings. There are also times when the problem is not really solvable but just hearing someone can have a positive impact. Sometimes just listening is enough and that is all a person needs.
So to summarize, treat people well, be kind, and listen. These three things can provide support and build positive relationships with others. These are also things that are being taught in preschools and kindergartens across the country; the more we internalize those early lessons, the better off we will be.
Never Underestimate the Power of a Positive Relationship
I was lucky enough to spend the majority of my summer weekends on the Cape. Labor Day is always the symbolic end to summer. The air is different, days get shorter, nights get cooler, kids and teachers are back to school. This weekend was my “last weekend” on the Cape. Sitting with friends by the fire on Sunday night, they asked how the start of the school year had gone. I told them fantastic and gave them some highlights of the first week. As the conversation shifted, I had the moment to reflect on the start of the school year. Fresh starts, hope, optimism are just some themes that came to mind. But seeing the kids faces as they came off the bus, greeted by friendly and familiar faces of principals, assistant principals, teachers, staff, and faculty, I was reminded of the importance of relationships.
Good luck to everyone as we begin the 2017-2018 school year and remember to never underestimate the power of a positive relationship.