Relationship Matters

A picture taken of participants in a summer school I created.

This is a slightly longer form article than my usual posts, so make yourself comfortable with a cup of your favourite hot beverage.

Having a friendly chat about sport without any regard for the physical proximity between you and the speaker; shaking the hand of a student as you greet them at the door; sitting across from each other at the table in the canteen as you eat and chat together. These are things we all took for granted about school life almost a year ago. They seemed routine, an absolute given, untouchable even, but many of us have found ourselves in a situation where these things aren’t even possible. The sharp interruption of COVID-19 has meant that we hold our common conversations with a 1.5-2 metres distance precaution in our minds, somewhat of a psychological barrier as well as a physical one. Its impact has meant that our relationships have had to adjust in order to potentially save a life. We’ve had to innovate on the spot, quite literally. Instead of shaking hands, we’ve bumped elbows, tapped our feet in some kind of synchronised jig or simulated hand shakes in the air resembling an amateur mime artist. 

School life has changed considerably. Naively, I thought the new school year would be like most others, full of energy, as well rested teachers belt out perfectly planned lessons to not so equally well rested students! Finding myself and many others struggling to forge relationships with our students, especially with new classes, or as a new member of staff joining the school, I’ve sat long and hard to think about how we can build meaningful and quality relationships with our pupils during this time.

We are relational creatures by nature. No man is an island. We are wired to seek out bonds and relational ties. It’s a fundamental part of our humanness: to talk, to laugh, to play, argue, and express our curiosity and interest in and with others. It’s no surprise then that strong relationships are the foundation of all good schools. Without strong connections, kids can feel disenfranchised and there is no real sense of community. Even as an adult, if I cannot engage in at least one quality relationship with a colleague, I have little if any attachment to the place of work. As teachers and school leaders, we create good relationships because we want our pupils to feel loved and valued. When they feel this way, they become confident enough to take risks in their learning and this begets good progress. Moreover, they learn to be better human beings, which is far more important than any number or letter attached to a subject as an emblem of achievement or failure. As we show our students that we love them, they in turn can learn to express love in healthy ways to others. Scherto Gill and Garrett Thomson call this idea “co-presence”, where human beings personally develop as a direct result of their interrelatedness. 

So What are the Current Problems?

In my own school context, this current pestilence has meant that our school day has been shortened to reduce contact time as a health measure. As a consequence, registration time has been cut the most severely, a valuable period where form tutors could build bonds with their students. Our advisory lesson (an hour long form class session) has been completely eroded (bar one year group), and with it a substantial amount of time to connect and get to know each other. The canteen now lies closed, a shadow of its once vibrant and bustling atmosphere. The breaking of bread; that metaphoric timeless ritual of bonding through the sharing of food is absent from our school. Playtimes and breaks are now confined to clinical classrooms where students take intermittent bites of sandwiches as they lower their masks to their chins. It’s quite sad as I come to think of it. But alas, no time for lamentation! This is a time for deliberate action!

So how do we adjust?

With any big change, after the grieving period, new life must be embraced. New ways of doing things sought out and that is what we’ve tried to do. As a pastoral team we’ve worked to put the following in place.

  • 1-1s with each child who we’ve identified as needing a bit more care. We’ve prioritised who we’ve seen working from the adage of healthy people not requiring a doctor. The Head of Year arranges a dedicated time to meet with the student and check in with them. This has been a great relationship builder. 
  • Developed a set of questions and conversation prompts/starters for tutors to use in order to find out more about members of their form class. We’ve thought about turning this into a game where the tutor is quizzed by their class and must try to answer correctly.
  • planned a series of interviews with some students in order to hear about their school experience at this time and what we can do to support them
  • in our form time, albeit limited, we’ve shared slides with the whole school to generate discussion around shared themes. This is to try and achieve some sense of community across all years.
  • arranged outdoor seating and work areas for teachers to foster more collaboration whilst adhering to all safety precautions

What lies ahead?

Has the pandemic forced us into considering more deeply just how much good relationships are important? In addressing the significance of relationships, Scherto Gill and Garrett Thomson assert that an “ethical education is one that provides spaces for students to build good relationships with each other.” Ethical Relationships in Secondary Classrooms (June 2020). As I consider how students have had little time to build new relationships, particularly Year 7, having been separated from many of their Y6 friends, I am forced to innovate the ways in which we help students to form new connections and the kinds of spaces that facilitate this. This has been really hard because of the imposed restrictions to keep our children safe: students aren’t allowed out during breaks; they talk to each other from a 1.5 metres distance, which further adds to the breaking of natural conversation proximities, rhythms and intimacies; they struggle to read facial cues as barriers in the form of masks distort the organic flow of good conversation. 70% of communication is nonverbal, making masked conversations extremely tricky in which to fully engage. As I write this, I attempt to think of novel ways to engender a sense of community during this time of separation. Maybe we should talk about resilience and strength. Maybe we should talk about our triumphs and victories over/during COVID! Like the phoenix rising from the ashes; or a butterfly, once a creeping caterpillar, emerging from its cocoon, many human beings have changed this life altering moment into something of a triumph of overcoming; a testament to the power of the human will.

Crises and Alternatives

In a crisis…

…we can tear each other down, blame colleagues for not doing their job, accuse others for shirking responsibility or assign more tasks. This may seem like the only way. But unlike what British ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in the 80s, there is an alternative*. 

The alternative could look like this: forgiveness; effort; problem solving; streamlining; teamwork and collaboration; and, (insert any other helpful way of overcoming the crisis as a team).

Stop. Consider your crisis. What would you like your alternative to be and what is your role as its Chief Architect?

*Margaret Thatcher famously subscribed to the acronym TINA (There Is No Alternative) during a brutal recession in the UK in the 1980s. I was just a boy then, but my community proved there is always an alternative. If you’re curious, you can read more about the notion of TINA, here.

Adjusting

Three things I’ve learned about leading during a global crisis:

1. Plans will change.
2. Plans will change again.
3. Plans will change some more.

Narrowing the Margins

The Margin

Margins will always be with us. They exist in every facet of life. If we’re deciding on what car to buy, we’ll look at price margins to determine the best value for our budget. In sport, margins separate winners from losers, and to what extent the loser has been defeated. But education isn’t like sport, despite politicians’ best attempts to degenerate it into a competition with national league tables and exam results.

The world is full of inequality. The disparity between educational experiences of different groups is as stark as a Formula 1 car racing against a family minivan. Margins you wouldn’t bear thinking about. For example, having parents that earn above a certain amount means some children can live in certain areas where the schools are superior- and thus the margin begins. Parents who value literacy and place books in the home- there goes the margin broadening once again. If a child comes from a family of degree holders- that margin has just become even wider. And wider and wider it grows until it becomes impossible to narrow.

But here’s the thing. It’s not impossible to narrow. If we are committed to reducing inequality, we can create a school system and wider community where we celebrate literacy and books at every opportunity given. We can commit to hiring the best teachers and equipping our schools with fine resources so that those kids know what the best looks and feels like.

In essence, we can narrow the margins if we are willing to do the work and pay the cost.

Pandemic and Pastoral

Some big questions have been floating around my mind as I try to imagine a school system which caters to the needs of its students during online learning caused by the pandemic.

  • How do we build community when many are distant from the physical school?
  • How can parents get involved and engaged when we cannot have them on campus in large numbers?
  • How can we acheive a sense of belonging and connectedness from our digital devices?

I don’t know the answers as yet, but these are big enough questions to keep me excited, apprehensive and expectant all at the same time.

*PS- If you have any suggestions, no matter how unusual they might sound, feel free to send me your ideas. We need collective thinking to solve these challenges at hand.