Back To School: A Modest Proposal To Leverage the Power of Relationships

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The very same rhythm that offers educators the ability to begin again each and every September can also result in the sense that we have unfinished business.

At the heart of the work that we do is a very complex, powerful and sensitive network of relationships: relationships with students, with parents and with our colleagues. It’s not a virtual network; it’s very real and very visceral. In a sense, it’s this complex network of connections that forms the central nervous system of our classrooms. And if it’s complex at the classroom level, imagine how that complexity grows when we look at the school level.

Yet it’s a well-accepted part of the way most schools are constituted that every June, ready or not, we are asked to detach ourselves from that network, take a short break, and prepare ourselves to commit whole-heartedly to a brand new set of relationships a couple of months later. It’s true for educators in the classroom, it’s true for parents and it’s true for students.  Now I realize that there are a few families with whom we are able to stay connected over the years, but this is the exception and not the rule. It’s really not the way that the system is designed.

The fact that we recognize all that the current rhythm of school entails, it doesn’t mean that we have to accept it as being optimal or the most effective way of doing things.

Think about it. As teachers, we’re with our students for 6 or 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 10 months of the year. That’s a lot of time invested in living and learning. For most students, teachers represent a primary relationship in their lives and, while it might be coloured with moments of tension and drama (!), the importance of the connection can never be diminished. Could a few changes in the way we think about school allow us to get more out of these relationships?

I have a couple of suggestions that I’m going to throw out there as real possibilities. One may be easier to fathom; the other may push the boundaries a little more. Here are my two discussion starters.

First, let’s revisit the idea of looping as a more common feature of school. Essentially, a teacher would be with the same group of students for at least two years (preferably three). A grade one teacher, for example, would more two grade two and, possibly, grade three with their students before going back and picking up another group of grade one students. The same thing could happen with grade four students. The same thing with grade seven students.

I’ve had a couple of experiences of looping in my career and, in each case, it was a positive way of changing up the structure of school. September was different and June was different. There was a different commitment to the relationships being formed and there was a greater sense of continuity in the work that we were able to do.

Second—and this one is, admittedly, a little more radical—why can’t we “shift the system” a little and change when one set of relationships ends and another begins. Imagine that, instead of having students begin a new school year in September, we shift things by about 5 or 6 weeks. Here’s how it could look:

  1. Students begin their year with a new teacher after the October Thanksgiving Weekend (Canada).
  2. They continue working with that teacher until the very end of June.
  3. The regular summer break is observed.
  4. Students return to that same classroom for the 5 weeks between Labour Day and Thanksgiving weekend (end of first week in October)

Some advantages that could serve to better leverage the power of the relationships that have developed:

  1. There would be less space between ending with one teacher and beginning with another
  2. The knowledge that students and teachers will be meeting each other again for the entire month of September would maintain a sense of continuity over the summer months.
  3. The closure that naturally occurs in the weeks leading up to the end of June wouldn’t happen in the same way.
  4. It would take less effort to begin again in September.
  5. There could be a smoother transition as students move from one level to the next.

I don’t think that we need to totally re-imagine our schools in order to take make best use of the time and energy that we spend each year in building the important relationships that are at the heart of the teaching and learning dynamic. Our lives as educators will continue to an inevitable series of hello’s and goodbye’s. But there may be ways to rethink some of the familiar infrastructure of school, allowing the investments we make in relationship-building pay even more dividends!

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