The greatest challenge of being a teacher is managing students’ interpersonal relationships. Likewise, the most difficult task of a school leader is managing teachers’ interpersonal interactions. While it is okay for children to squabble, misunderstand, and fight, it is worrying when teachers engage in these immature responses toward each other. Additionally, it is easier to educate students to develop healthier relationships compared to teachers. Adults seem to be more set in their ways. This is particularly observed in their emotional responses to other adults.
At school, as long as each teacher is required to work on his/her own individual tasks (e.g. lesson planning, managing his/her own classes, assessing student learning, etc.), relational frictions are almost non-existence. Problems occur when teachers are required to work interdependently with others. Because teachers are used to working within a well-defined boundary, stretching and/or exposing personal space to others can be frightening.
Twenty-first century schools require teachers who are comfortable working closely with others. Due to the ever-changing nature of education and students’ needs, teachers need to readily disclose information about what they teach, how they teach, what resources are used, and how learning will be assessed. Without dialoguing about these, teachers cannot empirically ensure logical flow and meaningful connections across grade levels and subjects taught.
Types of relationships
Teachers relate to their peers in a myriad of ways. This corresponds to the number of people involved in a relationship. Idiosyncrasies are the only constant in relationships at school. They are difficult to predict and thus, prepare for.
According to Roland Barth, the Founding Director of the Principals’ Center at Harvard University, teachers generally relate to one another in one of the following ways; parallel play where they work in close proximity but do not desire to work together; adversarial where they deliberately withhold information from one another, despite knowing that the same could improve student learning; congenial where they appear friendly on the surface but do not like to talk about deep-seated hopes, passion, dissatisfactions and problems; collegial where they work interdependently for collective success.
Obviously, collegial relationship is what leaders want to encourage in teachers. Other types of relationships imply that teachers avoid talking about teaching. When teachers don’t talk about teaching, their instructional practices fail to directly address learning needs of students. Consequently, students under-perform without much hope for improvement because there is no way for individuals in the school to engage in intelligent decision-making.
Judith Warren Little, a professor at the Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley states that a school leader plays a significant role in reinforcing collegial relationships among teachers. To create and sustain a culture of collegiality, leaders should model collegial attitude and behaviors. Rewarding and protecting teachers who already demonstrate collegiality reinforce the same in others. More importantly, a leader who desires collegiality among his/her teachers should clearly communicate it to them. While talking about this may seem unconventional, teachers appreciate truthfulness from their leaders and would willingly oblige. They will take the leader’s words seriously and follow suit.
The extent to which a school progresses (academically) depends on the relational dynamics of teachers. Genuine discussions and vital dialogues about teaching/learning only take place when teachers are comfortable talking to each other. A positive organizational climate provides them with this opportunity. If there is any lesson that I learned as a teacher and school leader, it is that one cannot single-handedly affect constructive changes in a school, not matter how accomplished he/she is. School improvement must be anchored in steady, maturing relationships among individuals who think, feel, and do education!