Relationships Make the School!

“Our most important resource is our staff.” How often have you heard this? It is so true, but too often those who say it are betrayed by their actions, not their words. It is no use “talking the talk” if you are not going to “walk the walk”, as some might say.

Schools are complex organisations, because they are centred on people. People are complicated! I believe schools will succeed or fail based on the strength of the myriad of relationships that shape them and give them their identity.

 Headteachers, and teachers, need to cultivate and develop a whole raft of different relationships,  and at different levels, to ensure schools are providing the best opportunities for learning and development of pupils, and staff.

Quite a challenge!

We are all individuals. We have had different experiences,and even when the experiences may have been similar, we will often react and respond in different ways. This further complicates the interactions between us all. We understand that we are responding, positively or negatively, to new people as soon as we meet them. Body language, body shape, dress, smell, voice, attractiveness are overloading our senses and brains and getting us to make almost instantaneous decisions about people and whether we are going to get on with them. We should also realise that a lot of this stuff can also be shown to be rubbish when we really do take time to get to know someone properly. No wonder relationships are difficult.

When we are developing working relationships over time, we need take the above into consideration, as well as how people act and respond to us, for they are carrying out all the same mental and social gymnastics that we are!

Headteachers may have some say over the appointment of staff they work with, and with whom they need to develop positive relationships, and such relationships and trust can only develop over time. In truth most Heads inherit a staffing compliment already in place, and the onus is very much on the Head to develop professional and personal relationships in order to bring out the best in all staff, and thus improve outcomes for all pupils.

Headteachers and teachers have no say over the pupils and parents they will have to work with, or the host of other partners they have to engage with, to meet the needs of all the pupils in their schools.  Time has to be given to develop these relationships. We recognise that it is the people who make the school, not the buildings, policies or paperwork, important though these are. Wonderful educational experiences can be provided in the grottiest of environments and, equally some less than satisfactory ones happen in the most up to date buildings, and with all the latest resources. Its all down to the people!

I was lucky enough to visit Malawi a few years ago. We visited various schools, many had classesof over 200 and pitiful few resources. The teachers were not paid much, if at all. When we were there, staff in some of the schools we visited had not been paid for over three months! But, children wanted to learn and teachers wanted to teach. The children in primary school were learning in two languages, English and the local dialect. They were experiencing a varied curriculum, with an emphasis on literacy and numeracy. (sound familiar?) The main element that was making this work was the commitment and enthusiasm of the teachers, who were not prepared to let a few little ‘challenges’ stop them from delivering the best learning experiences they could in the circumstances. They have a saying in Malawi and Africa about how it takes a community to educate a child, and I saw this demonstrated every day by the determination of the staff in the schools and the local communities to work together to give the children the best opportunities they could. 

We in our own schools should take time to develop all the relationships we need in order to shape and improve them to better meet the needs of all learners. All partners should be respected and valued as contributors to school improvement and development.

We need to demonstrate emotional intelligence and understand the factors that can impinge on our own, and other’s, performance from day to day. We need balance in our lives. Too much lip-service is paid to work-life balance and it is crucial to all that we have a measure of equilibrium in our professional and private lives. Headteachers need to demonstrate this themselves and demand it of staff. When there is a lack of balance, and where the job becomes all consuming, we end up with narrower individuals who are setting themselves up for difficulty. Teaching and leadership is very demanding and it is my belief that you can only function at your best when there is a balance between you life outside of school and your professional life. Your career and job are obviously important aspects of your life and personal identity, but they are not the only important aspects. You neglect one area at the expense of others.

I spent almost 20 years of my working life outside of Education. In that time I witnessed and experienced a wide spectrum of working practices and managerial styles. These ranged from the excellent to some ‘you’re not going to believe this..’ experiences. One thing I did recognise early on in my working career was that organisations that are based on hierarchical power structures don’t work very effectively. They are characterised by high levels of unhappiness, absenteeism, low output and high staff turnover. This is the same in schools. I have seen that success achieved by building on the good work of others, working co-operatively and collaboratively, and in organisations where creativity and innovation are encouraged. Organisations are successful and thrive where they keep reinventing themselves and where participants are not afraid to try new things, or make mistakes. Organisations that think they are marking time are, in fact, going backwards or being left behind. I would contend that schools are no different. 

I think we really need to get better at embracing a more open culture of internal and external sharing and co-operation in our schools. This is as much about the sharing of expertise and experience in our schools as much as anything else. We need to stop working from a deficit model of school development, where the focus is on what we are not doing well and putting this right. Rather we should use what we are doing well as a vehicle for bringing about improvements elsewhere.

Staff in schools are overwhelmingly committed to their jobs and constantly trying to do the best for their pupils, so they are a very good place to start from. To get the very best from all staff we need to develop a culture of mutual trust and respect, where all are valued and included in decisions about how to move forward and improve. Where good ideas and sound research are the currency for school and individual development. where no one person is seen as having a monopoly on these and where all are concerned for their own health and well-being and that of others with whom they work. Where mistakes are seen as acceptable and expected because how else will we ever improve or move forward?

We have to see the importance and currency of relationships within our organisations. Headteachers need to see these as crucial in the development of the school and the individuals within it. Heads don’t have all the answers, and we are more likely to reach the right answers, and ask the right questions, in a spirit of collegiality and collective responsibility.

Staff in schools are well educated and committed. We need to reognise  and to tap into the collective knowledge and understanding to help improve what we do together. We need to know staff well and be aware of the things that may be going on in their lives outside of school and how this may have an impact, as it does with each of us.

One word of caution, we need to genuinely walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Tokenism is soon detected for what it is and nothing destroys relationships and morale quicker than insincerity.

As Chris Barez Brown in his book ‘Shine’ notes, spending genuine time listening to other peoples dreams and concerns will mean they are much more likely to take notice of  yours!

George Gilchrist

Books that helped with this:

‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell

‘Shine-How to Succeed and Thrive at Work-Upping Your Elvis Factor!’ By Chris Barez Brown

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