In schools, relationships are everything

One

A woman in her mid-thirties sits alone in the beer garden of an East London pub. She is being harassed by a persistent abrasive man who has been table-hopping for free drinks for hours. We, a group of teachers, invite her over to join us to get away from him, and she stays for a few hours, tells us her life story moving in and out of faith as part of a religiously conservative Muslim family. We all talk together about teaching, and she begins to weep uncontrollably as she reminisces about her Year 4 teacher in a Newham school, who she still visits every few months.

Two

As you walk towards the escalator in Next, a young man seems to make an unexpected beeline for you. He smiles widely and says ‘Oh my gosh hi! Do you remember me?’ You look at his face, and behind the adolescent veneer you find a face that you taught algebra and Shakespeare to when it was smaller, rounder and less stubbled. You pluck the name out of your mental register and ask him how things are going, and you see him almost literally glow with the contentedness of being remembered and recognised.

Three

In a Year 6 classroom you watch a girl who has previously been quite quiet and shy as she shares a poem she has written about moving up to secondary school. There is a reverent hush and all of the class seem to be moved by her words, as if she is speaking things that they too have been thinking. Your eyes are drawn to those of the teacher, though, as she removes her glasses and bites her lip as she burns up with pride, and the electricity of the atmosphere. You feel a tingle in your throat, and as the young poet finishes speaking, her shoulders droop and she brings a hand to her face, the strain of her emotion making her crumble. The teacher, though, has already crossed the room and is hugging her before anything else can happen.

Relationships are everything.

I don’t mean just that they are important, or even that they are crucial. I mean they are everything.

Good assessment is framed within relationships – anyone with a red pen and a mark scheme can work out the score a child got on a test, but it takes a proper relationship between a teacher and their pupils to be able to interpret that in the context of the children as people, and to build it in to the work of the class. It is the relationship between them that allows a 25/40 to be something to be celebrated for some pupils, and something to be flagged as a concern for others. It is the relationship between them that will guide how this score will be shared; will it need to be revealed quietly to them and with a sensitive recognition that they can do better, or is the child better-served by being told quite bluntly that they didn’t do well enough because they struggled on fractions, and as such, they should go and practise their fractions. I know children who prefer that latter and I know some who respond best to the former.

A teacher’s excellent subject knowledge, which is the lifeblood of a rich and engaged  classroom, is only as useful as their ability to convey that knowledge to the children they teach. The teacher’s ability to ascertain the children’s prior knowledge and their particular areas of interest in a topic is what allows them to structure their lessons to maximum effect. If a teacher is out of tune with the children in their class, or if that connection is not there, they could find themselves still floating on a sea of indifference, whether or not they are scattering pearls of genuine wisdom.

Consider the three examples above. Our experiences at school – as teachers, as leaders, as pupils , as parents, as anyone working there and making them what they are – are all so closely tied to the human relationships between those we encounter there.

Thinking of the woman who still visits her Year 4 teacher, I wonder what we would have seen if we were to be a fly on the wall in that classroom that meant so much to her 26 years ago. That teacher may have had excellent subject knowledge or she may not have done. She may have had airtight behaviour management strategies, or maybe not. What we do know is that at some point in that year, something deeply meaningful was forged between her and one of the pupils in the class, so much so that the very thought of her could bring the pupil, now 35 years old, to actual tears, and the impact is enormous.

A focus on relationships does not stand in binary opposition to a focus on knowledge, or a focus on instruction, or on assessment. The relationships are the cocoons which surround whatever goes on in the classes.

In times of high accountability, we can fall into the trap of nodding along with the idea that the impact of a teacher, the impact of a school, the impact of education itself, is something that can be neatly measured and codified, either as a Progress Score, a set of GCSE results or a set of SATs test scores. These things do matter, and they do reflect the dogged hard work of teachers, pupils and leaders. But they are not everything.

The impact of a good teacher can also be what is seen when Ian Wright first sees Mr Pigden.

It can be seen in the way you get a rush of memories when bumping into a former pupil and seeing that they are doing alright for themselves, and similarly, it can be seen in the way a former pupil still holds onto that particular relationship that sustained them once.

Teaching is so nebulous that few things can really  be labelled up as being ‘simple’, but relationships are particularly complex.

You cannot attend a CPD session on the importance of building healthy supportive classroom relationships, and then just go off and do it, like a new ‘Tidy Desk’ policy. Our relationships with our colleagues, with our students as a whole class, and with our students as individuals, are so tightly linked to our own identities, experiences and in fact, our own existing relationships.

Children may feel that they can be immediately more candid and open with some teachers than others. Teachers are, let’s not forget, just people. Some people make easy connections quickly, and some people forge something meaningful over a longer period of time. Some people go through life with their guard up, and for them, this may be necessary. Some are eminently open.

Having positive supportive relationships does not require a particular personality, and there is not one particular ‘ideal’ type of effective supportive relationship. Some of the strongest and most supportive relationships I have seen are those between firm guarded disciplinarians and their pupils who display the most challenging behaviours, but equally, other strong relationships are between a pupil in crisis, whose life is falling into chaos, and the one teacher who demonstrates a willingness to see past the bluster and bravado, and to be there for them as an ally who doesn’t rise to provocation.

We should consider the role of relationships more strategically and systematically. I make no apologies for considering it as an integral component to being a good teacher, and I feel that children have a right to come to school, be listened to and to be recognised as a person. Now that may sound completely bullshitty and to be common-sense, but in reality, I don’t feel that this right is routinely honoured, but is instead ‘presumed’ to be happening.

For what it is worth, I lay a sizeable blame at the door of the particular accountability culture we have in schools, which forces the hand of teachers and leaders towards achieving the measurable short-term gains, and in this, the wider role of the teacher can be lost very easily.

This said, I think the most likely way to bring about change in this area is through conscientização on the part of the teacher – developing a critical awareness of the transformative potential of ‘the teacher’, and of the way in which, on an individual basis, we can teach better and impact longer by investing in improving the relational culture of our schools and classrooms.

When schools and the teachers within them begin to centralise the importance of relationships, it can have deep consequences. XP School in Doncaster forms a great case study of this, and they have worked closely with Relational Schools to ascertain the impact of their approach, some of which can be seen in the short clip below. Better relationships, and the relational thinking that can support their fermentation, support academic attainment whilst also doing far more than that.

The purpose of a school is fundamentally social. It is to enable young people to learn to navigate the adult world, to learn to develop relationships, to learn to deal with the rough as well as the smooth. It’s all these things which loosely could be termed development of character. – Tony Little

I find the example of XP particularly engaging for a few reasons, mostly anecdotal but nonetheless salient to me. The primary school I attended in Doncaster is very close to the site of XP, and this naturally leads me to consider how ‘children like me’ and like my classmates might have fared had they accessed a school culture like this. I had a few specific brilliant teachers in secondary school, with whom I am still in touch and for whom I will be eternally grateful – without their knowledge and investment in me, I would not have got to university at all, and certainly not the one I attended. This said, the school culture itself, in a general sense, was in many ways toxic. Bullying, sexual harassment and violence were rife and homophobia went always unfixed and often unchallenged for the duration of my time there.

XP also, as the video shows, places a lot of faith in the capacity of outward-bound work to have a transformative role in shaping relationships and identities; this is something Adisa and I recognise and relate to with our poetry retreat projects.

XP is brilliant to think about, and brilliant to think with, though perhaps not immediately practically useful as an individual teacher in an individual school that does not share the same institutional DNA as XP. What about individuals who want to explore how to do things differently?

What follows are a few ideas and reflections on things that, in my own admittedly subjective ambling experience, and from the experiences of those I know, have been insightful and useful for building a better relational culture.

Mentoring

With our Year 6 pupils, we recognise that additional stress that can be placed on them, through a combination of SATs, transition to secondary school, anxieties around growing up in an increasingly dangerous and risk-filled community, and children’s burgeoning recognition of the imperfection of the world they inhabit as they develop greater criticality.

In groups of three or four, children were allocated mentors, and teachers and teaching assistants across the school committed themselves to make some time for their Year 6 mentees. It is logistically difficult, due to the times that different teachers and the Y6 pupils are free across the school, so we tried to allocate pupils with the highest levels of need to the staff members who are best placed to be more present.

The mentoring has looked different with different teachers, and honestly, in some cases, it has not really worked at all. For some pupils, the mentoring relationship has become one focused on additional academic support; this has been the children’s wish, and they have gone to their mentor with requests for a bit of extra help in particular areas of the curriculum. Others, it is about having someone to have lunch with every week or so, just to chat about how things are going.

My timetable has a flexibility that the teachers’ timetables cannot have, such as my ability to delay my lunch break, so I and one of the other AHTs have taken on a slightly larger group of mentees who, for a range of pastoral reasons, we feel are the most ‘needing’ of these supportive relationships. Currently, I am still taking my six to the park every week, and it is reminiscent, in micro-form, of the XP expedition. Over time, this smattering of 6 pupils has developed a group dynamic of its own. The talk has not needed to be forced, and over time, it has opened up communicative space that would not have been there otherwise. What begins as a brisk walk, or chucking some grass around, or a visit to the outdoor gym, can turn into that short stolen 30 seconds of invaluable talk, in which one of these children – selected specifically because they do not speak up – plucks up the courage to ‘let me in’ a little.

Of course they love going to the park once a week, but it really is more than that. My understanding of them as people, having chatted more about their home life, their experience of school (very candid sometimes…) and their friendships, has helped me profoundly to support them academically in class. In fact, as I think about the six of them now, five have made what we would flag up as accelerated academic progress.

I am a fan of mentoring and its innately humanising effect. A question I am considering for next year is whether it is better to have every child be given a mentor, and to have less control over what that mentoring looks like, or to focus the mentoring on a smaller number of pupils and to invest more in working with a smaller group of mentors, so that we can embed more systematic approaches into our support.

 

Spirals of Enquiry and Pupil Voice

Unless we carve out a space for the children to genuinely reflect and share their experience of school, we are likely to be inaccurate in our own estimations of how they feel. Spirals of Enquiry is a model I am new to, having attended the training earlier this year with Whole Education, and having begun only the first stage of the model, but it is bearing fruit.

Spirals of Enquiry is framed around a simple set of four questions that is asked to pupils at the scanning stage. These questions are designed to elicit a sense of how well supported pupils are, and the extent to which they have a sense of ‘belonging’ in the school.

The first question to be asked is this one.

seizing-the-agenda-sustainable-school-improvement-with-the-spirals-of-enquiry-6-638

I have been asking this question, and others, to pupils in Years 4, 5 and 6, and their responses are very telling. Generally speaking, most pupils do feel well supported, and their biggest struggle was narrowing it down to two people who have the most impact. Several pupils selected a teacher and a class mate, and articulated how this belief looked different when coming from a teacher and from a peer.

Some children explained that they feel that pretty much every adult in their life believes in them, but there was a number of pupils – thankfully small, but still very concerning – who not only could not name an adult who believes in them, but who struggled to understand what that would even look like. One boy in particular stood out, and he said something to the effect of ‘People don’t really choose to talk to me very often about stuff – they go past me and speak to someone  else’.

This boy is a quiet one with a good tight supportive group of boisterous friends, but clearly they see something in him that is not seen by his teachers; this is in contrast to several other pupils whose character traits that allow them to build good friendships are the same ones that allow them to build good rapport with teachers.

Getting such a vivid and candid picture of pupils’ experiences of relationships in the school has been deeply useful. Firstly, whenever pupils (who know from the offset that the interviews are not necessarily confidential, but are welcome to make it so if they wish – I honour their wish) have reported such weak relationships, the teachers and I have discussed them and put things in place.

The most telling learning point thus far is that the same children who report a lack of being supported by their teachers are generally the same children who come to mind last of all, when teachers are asked to list from memory the names of the children in their class. Some children jump immediately to the forefront, whether for their confidence, poor behaviour, good behaviour, excellent learning or quirky personality, but some pupils reliably remain on the periphery. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an introvert, but having focused some of my own time on working with these pupils who reported having the weakest relationships, what has become very clear is that several pupils feel constrained by their own personalities, and don’t recognise what they are missing by not having fostered stronger more knowledge and supportive relationships with the adults who work with them.

Hello, My Name Is

At the Cambridgeshire Festival of Education last week, we heard about the incredibly inspiring, and deeply relational, ‘Hello, My Name Is’ movement, started by the late Dr Kate Granger and her husband, Chris Pointon. When Kate, a medical doctor who was herself terminally ill with cancer, was in hospital in 2013, she made the ‘stark observation that many of staff looking after her did not introduce themselves before provided her care’. As a response to this frustratingly weak communication, she and her husband initiated a hashtagged campaign #HelloMyNameIs, which aimed to raise awareness of the importance of introductions in healthcare.

In Kate’s own words.

I firmly believe it is not just about common courtesy, but it runs much deeper. Introductions are about making a human connection between one human being who is suffering and vulnerable, and another human being who wishes to help. They begin therapeutic relationships and can instantly build trust in difficult circumstances.

In my mind #hellomynameis is the first rung on the ladder to providing truly person-centred, compassionate care.

This campaign continues to revolutionise approaches to patient care worldwide, and has become a lasting legacy of Dr Kate Granger and of Chris Pointon, after Kate sadly lost her fight with cancer in 2016. Chris – @pointonchris – is currently crossing the world sharing this message, and it is so simple yet so salient for all of us who work in the ‘people professions’.

Schools are large (even the small ones). The school community is every single person who sets foot on the grounds, and sometimes, even the wider community around it. Whilst everybody would know the names of the Headteacher, how many of us – especially in larger schools – can confess to not knowing the names of the TA or the dedicated volunteer who works at the opposite end of the school to you. How many of us eat a school meal and thank those who have made it, without knowing their names? How many of us see parents every day and only go so far as to just transfer the child to them?

With regret, I know I have.

The ‘Hello, My Name Is’ campaign is such a powerful one for its simplicity. Value the relationships that are around us, and strengthen them by recognising them. We have a new head cook who started this week, and I needed to pop to the kitchen to put in a food order for next week. I introduced myself to her with my name, apologising for having not met her since she started last week; she replied, told me her name, and we had a little chat, and both left smiling. I could just have easily have put a post-it note on her desk requesting 75 cheese sandwiches.

Chris is currently fundraising to support the work of the Yorkshire Cancer Centre and St Gemma’s Hospice, and they are working towards a target of £500,000. Please consider donating to support the legacy of Dr Kate Granger and the ongoing brilliant work of Chris. https://hellomynameis.org.uk/donate-here/

 

I didn’t anticipate writing as much as this, so kudos to you and thank you if you got to the  end. Let’s carry on the conversation on Twitter.

What do you think about the importance of relationships? What good and bad examples have you seen? What impact have your own experiences of relationships in your own schooling had on your current approach as a teacher?

 

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3 thoughts on “In schools, relationships are everything

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