I’ve said it before…organisation is not my strongest point. I’m a big picture kind of person, and not so much a finer details person. I am definitely getting better over time, but I am also learning that no-one can be great at everything! So, in order to tame my anxiety over the things that don’t come naturally, I am learning to focus on what I am good at. And this brings me to relationships.
I’ll say at the outset that whilst I successfully develop strong bonds with students and families, I am still just a little awkward around colleagues until I have had time to develop a rapport with them. I am pretty ordinary at small talk and trivia, and have a history of doubting my own abilities and assuming that everyone else is coping so much better than I am with everything. So this part is a work in progress, but certainly progressing.
I had never thought too much about relationships in my work, other than the fact that I knew they were important. It didn’t register with me that this was one of my strengths until a colleague pointed it out with gusto, motivating me to ponder the issue and keep an eye on what others were doing. Over time I realised that building bonds does not come naturally to everyone. People would give me warnings about how difficult particular parents were to deal with, and yet I would get to the end of a school year without ever having had an issue with said parents. So, I have analysed it and come up with a few things that I think have helped me.
Creating a Safe Space
Almost all teachers in this day and age do this seamlessly, but I guess it still doesn’t hurt to share.
Working in a relatively low socio-economic area, I know that so many of my students come from homes where they don’t always feel safe. I think that growing up in a similar environment as some of these kids in front of me now has helped me to really get a good understanding of what they live with. The fear can come from so many things – not knowing whether they’ll be fed because of a parent’s substance abuse, a violent person in the home – parent, step-parent, sibling; emotional abuse stemming from another’s unprocessed personal trauma; poverty and homelessness. In order to make a difference to my students’ lives, one of the most important things that I can do is set up a space where abuse of any kind is not tolerated, and where I am constantly on the lookout for where things just aren’t right – no lunch, dirty fingernails and clothing, changes in moods and behaviours. When I see something that doesn’t look quite right, I act on it without any fear of being seen as overreacting or creating dramas. I was initially more reserved about acting upon my intuition, but time has taught me that no parent has ever been annoyed at my investigations into their child’s wellbeing, and there have been enough saves due to my vigilance to make it worth the discomfort of any phone calls or conversations. The children and families of my class quickly learn that they can trust me to have their best interests at heart.
So, what do I do? If I hear a child say something unkind to another, I jump on it immediately, and remind them that any disrespect for another will not be tolerated. I make a bigger deal out of it than necessary, just to really hit it home. We have a marble jar, where marbles go in for kindness and feel-good experiences, and come out for the opposite. We’re “filling our bucket”, so to speak (that link is for information about the book How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath – a great resource). If I see someone looking a little down, I have a quiet check-in with them. It’s usually something small, but occasionally something bigger. I respond without judgement, making connections to times when I’ve felt like that, and offering suggestions and support where there is space for it. Sometimes they admit that they need to talk to a parent, but that it feels too uncomfortable, and are totally happy for me to make contact and bring it up on their behalf. If someone has no lunch, I organise something for them to eat. It’s mostly little things, but noticing is the key.
Approaching all situations without judgement
I have a history of indignance. (Did I just make up a word? Look at me winning!) I used to feel indignant about everything that wasn’t morally or ethically right, asking “how could a parent allow that to happen?”. And then one day I realised that I am not perfect myself (I know – shock horror), and that I have actually done some things in moments of pain and trauma that I am not super proud of. I mean, I’ve never physically hurt my children, and I’ve always made sure that they were clean and fed, but there are some emotional traumas that they have experienced as a result of things happening in my own life. Once I learned to forgive myself for not always being perfect, I got better at forgiving others. Now my soap box rarely comes out.
What I have really grown to understand is that absolutely everyone is doing their best with what they have at any one moment in time. If a mother is speaking to her child in what we deem as an inappropriate tone, it will not help for us to get on our high horses and make judgements about her wrong-doing. Of course, we have to report any situation where we think a child may be in any kind of danger, but we do that without bringing assumptions about her inherently bad parenting skills. Perhaps she grew up being spoken to like that and it’s all she knows. Maybe she is in an abusive relationship and her fear comes out in the form of anger. Maybe her child is REALLY hard work and she needs support or a break. Is she a single mum? There is ALWAYS a reason for a person’s behaviour. Not an excuse, but a reason; and if we keep this in mind and approach from a place of love and compassion, we will always be more successful in developing partnerships with families.
So, what do I do? If it’s a wellbeing issue, I report it directly to my principal or the appropriate executive. Love and compassion do not stop me from acting accordingly when there is any risk to a child’s welfare involved. I consider who is being impacted and extend offers of support to those available – in the form of kindness…a cup of tea while Mum catches her breath, some time to sit or walk with a friend if it is a student during class time. The need for loving compassion isn’t usually this acute though.
Kindness and understanding is more often required for the little things, and is required to help me process things for my own sanity just as much as to support the child in my class. For example, I have felt frustrated with a parent’s lack of action with regards to investigating some learning difficulties for her son. I began to get carried away, and was halfway up my high horse when I caught myself and climbed back down. I approached this parent when I saw her in the playground one morning and asked how things were going with getting an appointment. She broke down and admitted that she was having significant financial difficulties, and that the boy’s father (they were separated) was not forthcoming in contributing to costs. So I said for her to leave it with me and I would see whether the school counsellor might have any suggestions. Well, I discovered that the counsellor was absolutely able to do some screening and get things moving, and she had some advice about where to next once we had some idea of what we were dealing with. So now I make no assumptions about what parents are or are not doing to support their kids, but offer a range of options rather than just handing over the responsibility without checking for obstacles.
In my first setting as a teacher I was confronted with an enormous range of traumas that students were experiencing. I had students in Out of Home Care, students living with an abusive parent, substance abuse, students who had witnessed extreme violence, students who were being severely neglected. And this was all in one class! One student came to school one morning with dark circles under her eyes and just wanted to go to sleep. After a check-in with her I discovered that the previous night her Dad had come around to the house when he was drunk and violent, and that Mum had stabbed him with a kitchen knife. She had spent the night between the hospital and the police station!
So what did I do when faced with so many challenges? I was brand new to teaching. I was an empathetic soul, but I was trying to prove myself as a teacher in a classroom where students had a lot more on their minds than phonemic awareness. I quickly learned that they needed safety more than anything else, but I also began to research ways in which I might best support them. I did some courses on trauma-informed practice, and read as much as I could, learning about the impact that trauma has on the brain and behaviours. I discovered that if I could train the students to expect to be safe in the classroom, they gradually became more and more able to let down their guard and concentrate on lessons.
I have more recently learned that there is no place for me to decide whose trauma is real and whose is imagined. I used to do this. Even thinking about my own life, I would say “well, at least __________ hasn’t happened to me”, and belittle my own experiences of trauma by doing so. I now know that trauma is relative to individual experience. The brain and the cells do not compare our own trauma to ones that could be seen as worse. One a cellular level, a trauma response is a trauma response, whether it comes from a relatively small car accident where no-one was significantly harmed, or from seeing your family shot by a militant group in the Middle East. Who are we to judge whose trauma is the most horrific? Our job is to support the human beings in front of us.
Education has helped with relationships every single time…supporting students with ASD and their families, supporting a student with Type I Diabetes, supporting students diagnosed as IM and IO, and so on. When you go out of your way to learn about what families are facing, not only does it provide pathways for more successful learning outcomes, but families feel supported and valued.
I used to spend hours and hours worrying about “my kids”. Sleepless nights, clouded thinking, a sense of no control. Do you do this?
Now, I have let go of the worry. The only thinking I do is around problem-solving. I have great relationships with families, even the ones who are known to be “difficult”. As soon as they know that I am not judging them as right or wrong, and that I can say “it must be difficult” instead, they relax and share. I must admit, it is easier when you have a supportive team. When you share your concerns about a student’s wellbeing and know that you’ve been listened to and plans made to address concerns, it is far easier to leave worries at school.
I guess the most useful thing you can do to build positive relationships within the school community is to just be humble. Keep your heart open and leave your high horse at home. And always remember that you are the living example for your students. Show them how to live and lead with an open heart, and they will be more likely to do the same. Trust your intuition. This is how we build a better world.