Six Relationship Rules for School Teams to Follow in Order to Lead by Example

I was very excited when Ashley McLellan, a dynamic young educator who had been spending some time with me helping me think about impact and learning, introduced me to the resource The Third Path: A Relationship-Based Approach to Student Well-Being and Achievement. As I read through it, I couldn’t believe how much the authors were getting right! And it seemed to describe what we were trying to do at The Mabin School so perfectly! Not only that, it captured so much of the research I had learned about in my journey writing my own book, Pushing the Limits: How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow. Back in 2013, my co-author, Kelly Gallagher-McKay and I had set out to find success stories from across Canada of educators, schools and systems pushing the limits of what was possible for kids, and in 2017, we finally had a book full of these stories to show for it!

So, I acquired 30 copies of The Third Path and gave one to each of the educators at The Mabin School over the Summer Holidays last year. I invited them to read a paragraph, a page, a chapter, or the whole thing, but to come back to school ready to talk about one piece of the resource that had spoken to them. When we got together in our “grade teams” in late August, we started with a circle, and each person spoke about an idea or quotation that had resonated. Here are some of the ideas they mentioned:

  • The focus on relationships has always been a focus at The Mabin school, where relationship is the fourth “R” (Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic, and ‘Relationship);
  • Children and adults both need a safe space to make mistakes, since mistakes lead to learning;
  • We liked the Mental Effort Bar as a visual of how we can keep kids engaged and energized — and a reminder of how we can keep OURSELVES engaged and energized;
  • The reference to the attachment spectrum excited us. The idea that sometimes students self-sabotage to regain control is such an important one when we view misbehaviour and determine causes and responses;
  • We loved the idea that academic learning is a vehicle for human development, and that human development is really the business we are in;
  • We found it incredibly useful to have a research-based document to support both our intuitive and intentional practices.

At The Mabin School, we have committed to really working on our relationships with each other as well as our relationships with our students, their families, and other community members. Relationships between students are a large part of our curriculum and always have been. We use a variety of tools to support us — Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind, research about self-regulationJo Boaler and Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset, Restorative Practices, the Child Development Institute’s school-based SNAP programPositive Discipline, and so much more — in the context of a student-centred, inquiry-based curriculum. So, student voice and action is huge. We are really good at helping students solve problems and persist through challenge. They spend lots of time setting goals, reflecting on their progress, and communicating their learning.

That’s not enough, though. We believe that all adults in the building are teachers (intentionally or not!), and so if we really want students to understand how positive relationships work, we need to model them. When times are good, maintaining positive relationships is easy. When stress increases, being our best selves with each other can be tough. We rely on six co-constructed norms to keep us honest:

We will:

  1. Maintain open, honest, brave, mindful, respectful, open-hearted, empathic communication, while maintaining confidentiality;
  2. Be intentional about how we spend our time together so that it is collaborative, solution-based, allows for changemaking and professional learning, and includes joy and whimsy;
  3. Always make decisions based on what’s best for the children, research, and the school’s core values. When we disagree about what that is, we will try to come to a consensus and be unified in our actions;
  4. Listen empathically, without judgement, and accept and appreciate difference;
  5. Assume good will and deal with conflict directly, sensitively, empathically, and humanely;
  6. Do our best to be flexible and responsive to each other — regardless of our role.

We review these norms frequently and hold each other accountable to them. They direct our actions when times get tricky and become a safety net when we need to have challenging conversations with each other.

We do not always meet the mark. We make mistakes. We are certainly not perfect. But there is some comfort in knowing that we agree that these norms should guide us, and in being able to refer to them when we get off track. Many times, a staff member has come to me and said, “I want to have a courageous conversation and deal with something directly.” When that happens, I know to brace myself and “listen empathically, without judgement…” Most of the time I can do it. And on those occasions where I cannot, the conversation continues at a later date when I am more able.

We continue to work on these norms daily, weekly, monthly and annually. We believe that the more explicit we are about this work, the more we will be able to build trust among each other and learn together. Like David, Lori, and Tom, the authors of The Third Path, we believe that learning cannot be separated from emotional and social health and well-being. The eight conditions that they identify as being required for both learning and well-being for students are the same conditions required for adults. To be a truly developmental organization, we need to be paying attention to relationships at all levels. I am excited, through this network and forum, to tease out what this means for all of us as educators, as parents, and humans. I hope that others will join me in this journey.