I enjoyed reading this chapter, with many elements of the conclusions drawn by the Howard resonating with my own experience of relationships.
Main takeaways from reading about collegiate relationships.
- Howard offers some insight into the rising epidemic of teacher employment self-alienation. As someone who has experienced this, it was encouraging to see in writing that someone else is appreciative of how real the impact of this can be. Howard states, on collegiate relationships: “We wait to see if others feel the same in the hope they may speak”. Quite often this is indeed the case – as professionals who are used to coaching young people through reactionary behaviours, I feel it is all too easy to trust our own gut instinct and speak up, as we are hyper-aware of the nuances of how relationships work. Howard comments on how detrimental this can be to teacher confidence, stating: “Our sense of self can only exist outside our own perception if we share it with others, and so if there isn’t an outlet to do so, we start to question the parts of ourselves that truly exist.”. As a teacher who has been through a period of self-alienation, I can confirm that this is a sensitive observation. With nobody to bounce ideas off, to talk to about managing behaviour, about difficult parents’ evenings or creative ways to approach lessons, it is all too easy to lose your confidence and in many ways yourself as a teacher. People who witness you on the other side of this all too often comment that you must remove yourself from the situation – the so-called branders of “toxic” work environments. While this may be the case – how do you leave the pupils who have become the sole reason you go to work every day? How do you sell yourself to your new employer when you are a shell of the educator you once were? Self-alienation is, I believe, one of the true reasons teachers are leaving the profession, and we must do things to address it.
- Howard is very aware of how challenging the work can be when relationships that turn toxic or are broken are overturned. She comments: “When you manage to do the grubby work of repairing relationships from what appeared to be a point of no return… that deserves credit”. It is a feeling comparable to nothing else when you find people in a department that you mesh well with – you inspire each other, you motivate each other and turning up to work each day gives you that teaching feeling that you thought you would never feel again after your first good lesson observation. You are valued and secure. But when relationships are more challenging, as they often are, or worse – if relationships fall apart, turning up to work can become nearly impossible. The pressure of coping with teaching hundreds of young people a day, reporting on their progress, managing your department projects, adding any leadership roles you have within the school but also treading on eggshells around a colleague or group of colleagues you wish to avoid conflict with is just too much for many individuals to bear. With all of the work pressure involved, and the business of each day at school, it takes real time and effort over an extended period of time to repair such relationships. Those colleagues who are willing to repair working partnerships like this, to put the time, energy and effort in to patching up a rocky relationship, can often become your closest allies. Those resilient individuals who find the time to do a job well, work through a tough relationship and make it a strong working partnership after a period of time, they definitely do deserve credit for the strength of character that takes on both sides. It was refreshing to see Howard recognise this.
- Another interesting theory that Howard discussed was the effect in a school of multiple working groups or leadership groups all differing in their approaches and goals. She coined this: “The Matrix effect” a combination of different professionally led groups but each harbouring an individual with their own personal-professional agenda. I have worked in a number of centres, each with a slightly different approach to working groups. One made it mandatory and allocated teachers automatically, therefore each group was filled with teachers who really had no interest in being there. One just had three – one for each RfA area. My current centre has groups based on teacher interest – if we are interested in leading something then we can form a group to support us. I feel that the transparency of this – they are teacher leader groups, and they are based on personal interest in some ways avoids this “Matrix effect” being negative. They are all given equal weight, equal time in INSET and equal support from SMT.
- I was heartened by Howard’s suggestion of the types of teacher we should surround ourselves with. She suggested four main categories: “The one who inspires us”, “The one we simultaneously learn from”, “The one who provides us with honesty” and “The one who provides positivity”. I can see how many of the teachers I associate with fit into these categories – with most of them pulling from all four but strongly falling in one over the others. For example, the teacher I have simultaneously learned from the most in my career taught in such a similar way to me so often that we could always rely on the other for resources or ideas. She grounded me when my ideas were too crazy and helped me make them more practical, whereas I helped push her creative boundaries. We were complimentary and we worked very well professionally. This leads me to the two problems I have with these categories – firstly, where is the space for the chaotic teacher who you can always rely on to have had a worse day than you? The Union-rep teacher who you go to if you need a little bit of a shove to stand up for yourself? The teacher that is so good with ICT and so patient with your mistakes that you know they were an angel in a past life. The social director teacher who always has some payday drinks planned up their sleeve if you need to offload. I would argue that these roles are just as important to have in one’s collegiate circle as the aforementioned first few. My second issue is only with myself: where do I fit in? Although this sounds self-indulgent, I mean this from a purely vulnerable perspective. Have I lost my professional persona? Perhaps I should share this musing with some colleagues and they can tell me which category I fit into – although maybe it’s best not to know!
- Howard’s final point about teacher wellbeing urges us to orchestrate an activity or a club of sorts so that kindred spirits can come together and decompress. She suggests a breakfast club as an example. I have attended some regular staff get-togethers like this over the past few years and they are excellent. I am in no doubt that this is the place to go to meet your teacher group, to form relationships and to decompress, but here is the big question that I have been left with after this reading. How can I make a staff social club work when we can’t spend time with people this year even for lunches due to social distancing rules, staggered breaks, room limits and department bubbles? I feel it is important that I try, because I would argue that we need it more than ever.