From the Top Down

As some who find themselves reading this may know, my family recently moved halfway across the country. Personally, this meant a move closer to family and to a community we knew, even as it did bring me farther from where I grew up and my family in that area. Professionally, this meant a new position in a new school division.

(Note: “School Division” is a largely Canadian term used the same way “School District” is in the US)

With this new position came meeting new people, attending new employee workshops, etc. Things most of us have been through once or twice in our careers — at the very least, at the start of our careers.

I’ve been at new schools and/or new school district/divisions 5 times in my career. 4 of them had largely the same new teacher orientation information:

  • How to get paid
  • How to request time off
  • Expectations of teachers
  • How to file grievances
  • Welcome to our team! excitement (either genuine excitement or not, this always exists)

This one was different. And I have to share why.

When the superintendent spoke at the beginning of the orientation, there was a bit of the “here’s what we’re doing as a division this year; here’s our new strategic plan for the next 3 years; etc.” That’s pretty standard.

But before he even got to that, he started with talking about trust. He started by talking about how all the teachers in the room (there were about 40 of us) were going to build relationships with our students and with each other, and how that was the most important thing that we do. RTI, PLCs, curriculum, best practices: these are all important supports. But the most important thing is the relationships we have with our students and the community of support that we build.

I was blown away.

I’ve never had the leader of entire school division say that, much less kick off the year by saying that. But maybe it was an anomaly. He might have the most powerful voice, but maybe other senior administrators didn’t buy in to that same philosophy.

Then it was an assistant superintendent’s turn.

He shared with us 8 Standards of Excellence in Teaching. But he highlighted one in particular that was the necessary starting point: Interpersonal Relationships. He went on to say, “Building relationships is the foundation of your classroom practice.” Essentially, if you don’t have that one, the others aren’t really going to matter nearly enough.

Think about those words. “Building relationships is the foundation of your classroom practice.” If I had asked you before this post who said that, what would you say? A classroom teacher? A former teacher turned speaker? Perhaps a principal? The impact of a superintendent saying these words is significant.

I felt it in myself, and I saw it in my colleagues as we understood. It was clear what is important to this school division. It’s not just the academic outcomes that we lead our students toward. It’s an adult caring about every student. It’s every student having an adult who cares about them. It’s about helping each student feel a sense of belonging. It’s about community. It’s about relationships.

I thought this was as amazing as it was novel to me to hear it from the highest administrators in the division.

Then I really started to think about it.

When the primary directive to teachers is to build trust, community, and relationships among themselves and among their students, that’s going to look different than what I’m used to. I’m used to raising test scores. I’m used to graduation rates. I’m used to proficiency targets and goals.

When the first thing talked about from the top down is student scores, that is the desired target. Everything teachers do, then, becomes about raising student scores. Good teachers know that relationship-building is part of this.

When the first thing talked about from the top down is building relationships, then that is the desired target. Everything teachers do, then, becomes about building a community with their students. Good teachers know that this will raise student scores.

What is the message you send, when you get to talk to others? Whether you’re a teacher, administrator, parent, or student: what is your focal point? If it’s student scores, then everyone who comes through the doors of your building is ultimately a number. They’re a lot of things along the way, but they come in as a number and they leave as hopefully a higher number. Any thinking or practice otherwise becomes dissent.

If the message is trust, community, and relationships, then everyone who comes through the doors of your building is a person. They’re a lot of things along the way, but they come in as a person and they leave as a hopefully more enriched person. Any thinking or practice otherwise becomes dissent.

I would dissent if I had to. I’m fortunate that I don’t. Others are not so fortunate.

I will leave you with this thought. I believe that most people in senior administration in school districts believe in the importance and power of relationships and community in education. I’m not sure how many think it’s the most important thing, but they know it’s quite important. For those in those roles: are you communicating that to your staff? Do they know that you believe that? How? What are you doing to show that every day?

What will you do today to show those around you that you believe in the power of trust, relationships, and community?

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