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What's so Professional about Relationships?


It's interesting, when you let go of the usual teacher/student hierarchy, as +Joe Mazza has with the idea of the 'lead learner', all else seems to slowly crumble around it. Take for example the notion of 'professional relationships'. I am not so sure which of the two words has had the biggest change. The profession to which everything has become seemingly so serious and accountable or the concept of relationships, which in the past were always so haphazard. Let me firstly look at the profession.

What's in the Name?

Often people say that you don't always choose your family, I think that the same thing can also be said about colleagues and clients (that is what students are, right?) This may have been different in the past where a student could have been 'expelled', where they would be shunted off to the next school and then the next school until they eventually flunked out of school. The profession of teaching has changed, subsequently highlighting the how unprofessional such actions are.

These days, students (and parents) have more rights as to where they go, often more power than the schools themselves, with their entrance often more likely to be dictated by location rather than anything else. (I would deem this a question of ethics rather than a question of professionalism.) Some complain that with the introduction of various institutes and the registration of teachers that the profession has become too legal minded. (Often these people are rather nostalgic and believe it was better in the past.) However, the one thing that this recognises is that, whether you think of it as one or not, teaching is a profession. Just like lawyers and nurses, teachers are now mandated to obey a clear set of rules and regulations. (I assume that there were always rules and regulations in place, but creating professional bodies makes them clearer and more explicit.)

One of the key changes is the sense of responsibility associated with the duty of care. When I was growing up, it seemed almost a novelty for a student to quip to the teacher that they (well there parents) will 'sue you'. The reality today though is that this is no longer a throw away line, it does happen. Teachers are responsible for providing a safe and productive environment to learn, that is their 'duty of care'. This means maintaining an orderly classroom and adjusting to the needs of each students. (I know it is more than that, I just didn't want to go into it here.) However, the biggest change that this move towards legality emphasizes is the seemingly arbitrary nature of it all.

Sadly, professional can often equal forced. I was talking with a clinical educator at a hospital the other day about approaches to education. She pointed out the seemingly obvious, that the nurses under her watch were required to complete various modules as a part of their competences to practice as a nurse. As she stated, 'it's in their contract'. What this points out is the current trend towards professionalism and the challenge that it brings to authenticity. The strength of professionalism is also its weakness, that is, in making everything more rigid there is something that is lost in the process. The idea of learning because you have some intrinsic desire to be better often goes out the door and is suffocated by the endless list of required learning. The question then is, how does this relate to relationships?

Relationships, Just Not Like That

I think that in the past if you'd spoken about having a 'relationship' with a child everyone would have looked at you strangely, whereas with the inundation of such measures as Restorative Justice, Ruby Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty and Ramon Lewis' Developmental Classroom Management, relationships have become the heart and soul of the classroom. It could almost be argued that in today's day and age the ability to build rapport with students is just as, if not more important, than having curriculum knowledge. You watch some teachers from a distance and it seems as if they possess some sort of magic the way they manage to extrapolate work where no work had ever been done before. It kind of seems obvious when you consider any filmic representation of a teacher, from Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers to Kenneth Monnitoff from Donnie Darko, but too often these examples were far from the reality in the past. When I think back to my own past, Mr F's reward of a Mars Bar (was this gamification in its infancy?) for carrying around the roll all week is the closest thing that comes to mind. (Let's be honest, I am probably being highly subjective and I'm sure their are better examples, apologies to all my great teachers who have helped guide my learning.) 

I think that the challenge today is to firstly find a way to foster a relationship with every student in the classroom and then to incorporate the new found knowledge to add to the special herbs and spices that make Kentucky Fried Learning, that secret mystical experience that occurs like a bleep on a radar and then disappears once again. It begs the question, what does the notion of relationships mean for a home economics or woodwork teacher? Teachers who may see a student only once a week and see hundreds more on top if that. Surely their experience of relationship is going to be different to the mathematics, let alone English, teacher who may see their student every day if they are lucky. I think that this is where taking extra classes and spending time out in the yard can be so powerful. This time is usually devoid of any notion of curriculum and is often solely about rapport. For example, a science teacher may be taking one of their students for a Japanese extra. In this situation all notion of teacher/student dynamics is broken down as the teacher (unless by chance they can speak the language) is just as much a learner as the student.

In addition to building a relationship outside of the classroom, it is also important to work as a team. Often one of the biggest challenges in starting a relationship is having some sort of entry point. While on the contrary, one of the first ways in which relationships fracture or are stunted is when a teacher may not be aware of an issue or some background information, subsequently sabotaging the whole situation. This is where working with a team and as a team can also be so useful.

One Moment at a Time

In the end, I think that the biggest thing to say about the notion of 'professional relationships' is that it does not occur naturally, that is, it is not chance, rather it takes time and takes effort. Often it may be a chance occurrence here or magical spark there. That is where developing relationship over years can be so powerful. However, one of the biggest difficulties is maintaining it. For as the saying goes, often it only takes one bad deed to undo ten good ones. The biggest challenge today with being 'professional' is persisting and persevering no matter what. The question that remains is how are you building relationships with your students and are they professional?

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