Squishy and Amorphous: The Curious Business of ‘Relationships’

As squishy and amorphous as ‘colleague relationships’ might seem, it is encouraging that research alerts us to the evidence of student achievement, teacher wellbeing and organisational growth that can be made as a consequence of teachers combining experience with thinking and working together. These though are technical and transactional aspects of teachers work, professional collaborations and duties if you like. Are they relationships though? Aren’t relationships something even more interpersonal? Aren’t relationships the antecedent to collaboration?

Teaching is an intensely personal venture but rarely a solo activity. When we reflect on our own professional formation, it becomes quite clear that our beliefs and practice are the result of multiple interactions that span life-before, and life-during teaching. This can occur as a result of directly interacting with others through chance or manufactured circumstances, or indirectly through studying other people’s work/ideas, perhaps in literature or some other means. As I have noted in a previous post, collaboration can privilege extroverts, but I dare say few of us can deny the benefits of collective effort. The noble ideal that relationships between teachers will flourish by way of collaboration troubles me. As Esther Quintero points out in the excellent and recently published Teaching in Context;

“While there is no single model of collaboration that works better than others across contexts, research suggests that certain features are always desirable. For example, scholars have pointed out that effective collaboration must be regular and ongoing. In addition, collaboration should not be “contrived” – administratively regulated, compulsory, and oriented towards implementing an idea from the top – since this type of cooperation fails to produce the benefits of more spontaneous, voluntary, and open-ended routines and interactions embedded in the daily work lives of teachers.”

It is comforting to read practitioners’ accounts of the emotional-relational features of our work. @lasic beautifully captures the internal turmoil and hope of being a teacher. @debsnet unpacks the many personalities and pressures a school leader has to juggle. These posts remind us that without exception, teachers have to encounter each other for one reason or another, in one way or another. We cannot be forced to like one another, agree with one another or believe in the same things or do things the same way. Some teachers will connect and bond along lines of personality, belief or portfolio of work. Others may experience the pain of fractured or taut relationships because of these same things. Teaching is a deeply personal experience that radiates its impact into almost every dimension of our life.

Some may argue that relationships and personalities need to be suspended in order to perform our roles to maximum efficiency. Are we merely after the professional collaboration of teachers to get a job done – functional, efficient but convivial? It’s just not that easy though. We work as part of a network of people and trust is important to us. It is not easy to come by or earn, but trust is a fundamental attribute of relationships and the lubricant that keeps an organisation moving and supports better working conditions. Where it is absent, there is the potential for conflict, and with it risk on a personal level. It can also cause division, as Hargreaves (2002) notes:

“Teachers typically avoid conflict by establishing norms of politeness and non-interference, or by clustering together only with like-minded colleagues who share their ideas and beliefs.”

Teaching would be boring if we were harmonious in all of our interactions. I think we also need to be cautious if we suggest that dissent and conjecture are features of destructive and toxic relationships. They can actually bring about a closeness among colleagues if we acknowledge and respect alternative perspectives and don’t malign one another by rubbishing personal views that aren’t consistent with our world view or field of thought. The challenge for schools is how to harness and support alternative views of our job without harming productive working relationships between teachers and also managing to do our work as best we can.

Teaching and work relationships don’t have to be all squishy and amorphous. They can have form and substance, rich with trust and respect.

2 thoughts on “Squishy and Amorphous: The Curious Business of ‘Relationships’

  1. Another great post Jon! I have been exploring the idea of Cognitive Conflict with my team this year and have found the 7 norms of collaboration from Adaptive Schools a great way to scaffold this. Feeling okay with dissonance and conflict in a team that trusts each other is a great way to reap the benefits of collaboration.

  2. Great post, thanks for sharing! I like the acknowledgment that collaboration can be a difficult process for introverted teachers; having it forced upon us is often detrimental in various ways. Informal collaboration amongst peers, in my experience, has been much more effective in developing professional practice.

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