Relationships with school and district leaders are just as important as the ones I establish with my students and other educators. Positive relationships improve the quality of the learning environment and allow teachers to meet student needs, grow professionally, and thrive. Yet, how much time do we spend building relationships with our school and district leaders to impact our students’ learning environment?
Over the years, I have grown to understand the importance of these relationships, so I intentionally seek opportunities to build them with my administration, superintendent, and school board members. Sometimes these encounters push me beyond my comfort zone, especially when I share the not-so-pretty realities about my classroom, school, and profession. I visit my principal’s office to touch base at least two to three times a week. After Superintendent’s Advisory Council meetings, I make sure to talk with my superintendent and/or our leadership team members about issues that matter to my students and colleagues. I attend school board hearings and other events that give me the opportunity to ask questions and share the concerns of policies being implemented.
While my perspective is honest and real, my ideas are not always popular with leaders. This doesn’t stop me. I find that my comments and ideas are respected, even if the outcome doesn’t mean getting exactly what I want. The important thing is to remember to maintain a problem-solving attitude rather than just a negative, complaining one.
Most decisions about curriculum, instructional delivery, entry into the profession, evaluation, and school day routines are all made outside the classroom. As an expert and leader in the classroom, I want to be leading the conversations as an equal partner in making decisions that create a positive learning environment for my students.
While initializing a relationship with leaders can be intimidating, understand that those in a leadership position share a common interest: they also want children to succeed. Building trust, understanding, and empathy takes time, commitment, and patience with one another. We should be equal partners in solving problems and taking actions that improve learning environments for students.
Stephan Pastis captured how I think most educators feel in his 2011 comic strip Pearls Before Swine. The comic strip shows a group of angry sheep who march to Farmer Bob’s door to complain about their living conditions. When he appears with a pair of shears, all of the sheep except Stevie Sheep discretely seek safety away from the farmer. Stevie Sheep is completely sheered by the farmer for presenting the demands of the sheep. The moral of the story is “Don’t be the one to speak up.” This type of thinking plagues our profession and the ability to affect systemic change.
We create classroom climates that allow students to take risks and feel safe. Imagine building relationships with administration, superintendents, and school board members that create a similar climate for us as leaders in the classroom. Imagine buzz words like trust, respect, and buy-in really meaning something. Can this really exist? It can, and it does exist in pockets across the nation where teachers and education leaders collaborate to make the tough decisions together.
“Systemic change requires collaboration,” states Anne O’Brien in When Teachers and Administrators Collaborate. For example, the California’s ABC Unified school district provides training where teachers, principals, and district officials receive the same information together and have the time to collaborate. Some of the themes addressed include emphasizing on teacher quality, focusing on student performance, and creating collaborative structures at all levels in the district.
You may be wondering, how do we get there? How do we reverse the top down model so we engage in meaningful conversations that drive educational decisions and policy? I believe it starts with having the courage and the confidence to build positive relationships instead of allowing toxic behaviors to dominate the conversation.
The Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) has had a major influence on my ability to build relationships with school and county leaders. Through conferences and conversations with other education leaders, I have come to understand that the power to create change lies within me. Relationships are at the core of every successful school system. Patrick Dolan refers to the need for “a deep healing change process,” in his TURN talk.
Dolan talks about the “we” in how union/labor relationships flourish, and the need to create a cultural shift that allows a place that “we” own and collaborate to do this powerful work. For systemic problem solving, practitioners need to work side by side with administration to “improve the environment, culture, and voice of teachers and their work so that it is owned, authentic, and deep in terms of responsibility.”
The responsibility and the work of education falls on all of us and our ability to form relationships beyond our classrooms. It is not easy work, but it is necessary if we want to change current systems that do not benefit our students. In an unpublished article, Adam Urbanski sums this idea up best: “We cannot build better systems, and certainly cannot sustain them, in the absence of good relationships. And building better relationships, if not for the expressed purpose of building better systems for students, is not really collaboration but rather collusion.”
Precious Crabtree, an elementary art educator and lead mentor teacher in Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools, is a 2015 NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow and the recipient of the 2014 Virginia Education Association Award for Teaching Excellence. She is also a member of the CTQ Collaboratory and blogs at The Educator Advocate.