I am writing in response to the thoughts expressed by both Diane Reay and Robert Loe on this blog. Diane recognised the problem of high stakes testing in schools, which, if given too much importance in schools, overlooks the wider roles of developing character and non-cognitive skills. Robert recognised humans as ‘society’s greatest resource’ and wrote about the importance of relational health in schools. I would like to add my thoughts to this issue by focussing on relationships in schools.
In our daily life, we have multiple encounters with individuals which can be positive, negative, or conflicting in emotion (Lagattuta 2014: 92). When focussing on schools, we are always dealing with human beings; staff, students, parents and other stakeholders. Each is an individual with his or her own experiential biographies (Starratt 2011: 1). Although schools are about learning and development, schools are all about relationships; leaders to teachers and teacher to students being the two I wish to focus on here.
Leading Through Relationships: Leaders to Teachers
If leaders are treating their staff with respect and the teaching staff feels safe and supported, this can have wonderful effects on the students as well (Booth et al. 2000: 9; Crippen 2012: 196; Day et al. 2000: 178). Examples of respectful behaviour between a leader and a teacher would be open dialogue involving the leader listening to the concerns of the teacher, leaders improving the working conditions and workload of teachers and thinking about the interests of teachers when making decisions. If then the teacher feels satisfied with their supervisor, he or she can then focus all of their attention and efforts on the students in their care.
Authentic relationships are based on mutual trust, reliance and belief. An authentic relationship requires work, nurturing and takes time to build and maintain. Authentic relationships involve building professional goals, mentoring and transparent and collaborative evaluation of performance (Hargreaves and Fullan 2012: 178). This is an ongoing and fluid process requiring the scarce resource of time and the skills of talented professionals to adequately address.
We all have the capacity to nurture each other’s potential and the act of leadership is all about dealing with human development. Dealing with humans not as cogs in a wheel, not as items in a budget, but rather in their humanity; as individuals with their multiple talents and interests is vital. Human beings within the context of the work of schooling can be considered as bringing their human resources to that work, resources still partially and unevenly developed, but nonetheless resources that make the work possible, and possible as distinctly human work. Educational leaders should be leading a community and an institution that is committed to the growth of human beings as human beings, as they engage in the work of the school (Starratt 2011: 1). A culture of calmness and harmony, security and calm should be at the core of any educational institution (Crippen 2012: 197).
Ethics is at the heart of good leadership (Ciulla 2004: xv). Ethical leadership captures employees’ perceptions of ethical behaviour inferred from the leader’s conduct; through his or hers personal actions and interpersonal relationships. Leaders who are trusted are those who are fair, honest, principled, and take responsibility for their own actions. Ethical leaders exhibit high levels of integrity and tend to show a high level of concern for other people. Ethical leaders find ways to promote well-being and quality of work life. Ethical leaders listen to their employees, put themselves in their position, and think about their interests when making decisions. Employees are more engaged and ultimately more productive under such conditions. Ethical leadership is positively related to employees’ perceptions of psychological safety. Employees should be attracted to their leaders as role models (Piccolo et al. 2012: 294).
Learning Through Relationships: Teachers to Students
Students’ positive emotional attachment to peers and teachers promote not only healthy social, emotional and intellectual functioning but also positive feelings of self-worth and self-esteem (Martin and Dowson, 2009: 330). Feeling related to a group is a fundamental component of motivation and essential for well-being (Martin and Dowson 2009: 335; Church et al. 2012: 2). Also educators should find ways to infuse agency, as Howard et al. (2009: 106) recommend, so that young people can strengthen their self-efficacy, internal motivation and future goal setting in the context of what Fielding (2012: 679) describes as an inclusive and caring community. In the context of schooling, there is a need for teachers to know their pupils as individuals and to create opportunities for interchange between and among their culturally and linguistically diverse students (Langford, 2013: 105).
In facilitating these relationships and positive interactions, schools have an opportunity to create what Cook-Sather (2009: 180) calls a “listening culture”; listening and responding to students in an atmosphere of mutual trust. Listening to students’ views allows them to have some empowerment in their learning and schooling and supportive relationships are a critical factor in keeping them motivated. Teaching practice has shifted to become more student centred and the empathetic teacher, one who shows special concern for another’s welfare, is a key component to student well-being (Keller 2013: 104; Corcoran 2014: 1). As learning is partly what IIleris (1999: 3) would call the interaction processes between the individual, the material, and the social environment, the teacher has a responsibility to nurture personal connections with students to encourage that learning to take place. A school’s ability to create a positive learning environment may also influence educational outcomes (Gemici et al. 2013: 15).
School culture is one of the most important factors affecting student achievement. Schools are all about relationships, and relationships are developed through caring, listening, trust and collaboration (Crippen 2012: 197). They are about reaching out and trying to understand our students and colleagues. These issues have implications for both teacher and leadership training programs. The DfE in the UK has recently launched a character awards initiative, recognising those schools who lead in character education. I would welcome such a step in teaching non-cognitive skills and character.
Character is a skill not a trait (Kautz et al. 2014: 2) and perhaps this skill can be further developed for those in leadership roles as well as in young people. People who are in leadership positions have the vision for the goals of the institution, yes, but they also need the interpersonal skills to communicate, engage, inspire and develop others so that those working closely with students are able to give their best to them.
Implications for Policy Makers
- Consider professional development for teachers and teacher leaders in empathy and relationship building in the work-place.
- Have child psychology and behavioural psychology courses compulsory components of teacher training programs.
Empathy has the capacity to generalise positive perceptions from those directly involved in the interactions within the community of which they are a part. Schools should aim for both adults and children to understand others and have everyone feel like they are part of that community.
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Ciulla, J.B. (2004) Ethics: The Heart of Leadership, Westport, CA: Praeger Publishers.
Cook-Sather, A. (2009) “I am not afraid to listen”-Prospective Teachers Learning from Students, Theory into Practice, 48 (3), 176-183.
Corcoran, T. (2014) Are the Kids Alright? Relating to Representations of Youth, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, DOI: 10.1080/02673843.2014.881296.
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Day, C., Harris, A., Hadfield, M., Tolley, H. and Beresford, J. (2000) Leading Schools in Times of Change, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Fielding, M. (2012) Education as if people matter: John MacMurray, community and the struggle for democracy, Oxford Review of Education, 38 (6), 675-692.
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Illeris, K. (1999) How We Learn, Oxon: Roskilde.
Kautz, T., Heckman, J.J., Diris, R., ter Weel, B. and Borghans, L. (2014) Fostering and Measuring Skillls: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success, Cambridge, MA: National Institute of Economic Research.
Keller, S. (2013) Partiality, Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Lagattuta, K.H. (2014) Linking Past, Present, and Future: Children’s Ability to Connect Mental States and Emotions Across Time, Child Development Perspectives, 8 (2), 90-95.
Langford, M. (2013) Book review: Internationalizing Teacher Education in the United States, Journal of Research in International Education, 12, 103-112.
Martin, A., and Dowson, M. (2009) Interpersonal Relationships, Motivation, Engagement and Achievement: Yields for Theory, Current Issues and Educational Practice, Review of Educational Research, 79, 327-365.
Piccolo, R.F., Greenbaum, R. and Eissa, G. (2012) “Ethical Leadership and Core Job Characteristics: Designing Jobs for Employee Well-Being”, in N.P. Reilly, M.J. Sirgy and C.A. Gorman (eds.), Work and Quality of Life: Ethical Practices in Organizations. London: Springer, pp. 291-305.
Starratt, R. (2011) Refocussing School Leadership: Foregrounding Human Development Throughout the Work of the School, London: Routledge.