How Relevant are Relationships?

One cliche that has made its rounds in education in the past decade is that "rigor, relevance and relationships" are the three keys to a successful high school education. 

And I guess it would be hard to argue against the idea that a challenging curriculum connected to student interests and delivered by people who enjoy working with teens would produce better results than unrelated fluff presented by militant old women who tracked out ages ago and are waiting for a retirement package, huh?

(Did that bring back bad memories for anyone other than me?!)

But the idea that relationships are important to the success of the schoolhouse spreads far beyond simple cliche.  In fact, Roland Barth—founder of the Harvard University Principal’s Center—has long believed that the success or failure of schools is largely dependent on the nature of the connections and interactions between colleagues.

Consider the following Barth-ism, taken from a 2006 Ed Leadership article titled Improving Relationships in the Schoolhouse:

Relationshipsquote_barth

(Image used in background: Verde Amarelo by Alex DeCarvalho)

Barth goes on to describe a range of different relationships that exist in the typical school—ranging from teachers who spend years next to one another without ever realizing that peers actually exist to the colleagues who "lob metaphorical hand grenades" at one another as they unprofessionally challenge practices in an adversarial manner. 

Successful schools—according to Barth—are places where teachers have established relationships defined by shared observations, collective conversations about craft knowledge, a spirit of joint adventure and a willingness to embrace challenges together. 

So what do you think? 

Do you agree with Barth about the role that relationships between adults play in the success or failure of our schools?  Are your students more likely to succeed when the teachers on your hallway are working together productively? 

Is it possible to for you to succeed without having positive relationships with colleagues?   Can EVERY teacher succeed without positive relationships?  Are relationships something that we can control and encourage—or are they an interpersonal skill that one either has or doesn’t?

Just how relevant are relationships to the overall well-being of our schools?   

4 thoughts on “How Relevant are Relationships?

  1. Patrick

    Bill,
    Thanks for the response and feedback. We are of the same mindset when it comes to picking the small group of innovators and moving forward with them; it’s one of the methods I have tried to employ frequently. The only problem is when the same group of teachers show up for everything.
    We always do well when we create time for teachers to work together. Often, districts allow teachers to close the door and just do what they do. We are always trying to get them out of the rooms for this and for that. We meet with resistance, but that’s OK. The reward is usually in the energy that comes out of meeting with their colleagues.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Patrick wrote:
    So, my vote, is that I agree with Barthes on this one. The key phrase above, for me, has to be “teachers have established relationships defined by shared observations, collective conversations about craft knowledge, a spirit of joint adventure and a willingness to embrace challenges together.” That is my biggest challenge right now.
    Great to hear from you Patrick—and I’m looking forward to learning more about your work this year. I know it’s new to you and I know that I respect your thoughts—so hearing how things are going will be cool!
    Second, what makes the challenge that you describe even more difficult is the traditionally isolated nature of the work in schools, huh?
    Teachers have never had a reason to work together or embrace challenges jointly. It just isn’t something we’ve had to do—so it’s something we’ll naturally resist or struggle with.
    Two suggestions from my “classroom teacher” point of view:
    1. One of the initial reasons that I resisted collaborative work is it takes so much more time than the work I do by myself. If you can find ways to create time for teachers to do the kind of work that we describe above, then you might get less resistance or metaphorical warfare between the teachers who are being difficult now.
    What you might be seeing is a resistance to new tasks that are time consuming rather than a resistance to peers.
    2. Also, consider trying to work with a small handful of interested teachers first. All too often, staff developers overwhelm themselves by trying to support EVERYONE at once—including those teams that are the least likely to embrace collaborative work.
    We advise teachers to identify essential outcomes and eliminate the rest, right, knowing that trying to cover the whole curriculum just ain’t going to happen?
    Why shouldn’t the same apply to staff developers trying to change the culture of a building?
    Invest the bulk of your energies in supporting pockets of innovation and innovative teachers. That will give YOU the chance to feel successful and to polish your practices.
    As you get those teams on the right track, you’ll have more time—and more strategies/insights to bring to the more difficult teachers in your building.
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  3. Patrick

    Bill,
    I am relating to this one directly at the present moment as we are rife with some serious teacher discontent in one of our buildings. There has been cutting banter back and forth between teachers of two distinct classes, and my role now has become both mender and quasi-defender.
    You are absolutely on the mark, as of course if Barthes, in saying that our nature as colleagues has a direct effect on the attitude and performance of our students. How can it not? I take my home as an example. When my wife and I are stressed about something, it’s palpable for our little ones–and they react. Students react similarly, I feel.
    So, my vote, is that I agree with Barthes on this one. The key phrase above, for me, has to be “teachers have established relationships defined by shared observations, collective conversations about craft knowledge, a spirit of joint adventure and a willingness to embrace challenges together.” That is my biggest challenge right now.

  4. Ariel Sacks

    Bill, I would have to agree that adult relationships set the tone for a school. Kids (especially middle school students) observe adult relationships and use these as models of appropriate behavior. When adults don’t communicate well or nicely, students easily learn how to play off that and figure out how much they can get away with. It’s not that middle school kids are really devious. I think they do this out of anger and fear, that they are not really safe or truly cared for. When teachers don’t work together and trust one another, students don’t really trust teachers. I wonder, though, if all teachers in a school put students as first priority, would the teachers naturally figure out how to work out their personal and professional issues with one another in the interest of the students? My guess is that most adults need some training in how to deal with conflict. I took a conflict resolution course this summer and it was really eye-opening. One thing the prof. said is that the most reason people get fired from jobs is not because they aren’t good at them; they lose them because they can’t get along with their coworkers and/or boss. So I guess relationships are important…

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