by: Maureen Mulderig
“Which is more important,” asked Big Panda, “the journey or the destination?”
“The company.” said Tiny Dragon.
You may have seen this page from Charlie Mackesy’s beautiful book about life, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. It is one of my new favorites as it randomly illustrates numerous reflections on life – powerful stuff! This page in particular really got me thinking and reflecting on my 33 plus years as an educator. Having retired recently, in various roles throughout my career I can look back at the journey and see a clear theme weaving through my work – the focus on the company I kept during that journey. Developing relationships with my company (students, parents, and colleagues) is a top priority for me; there is absolute power in relationships. For me, I found and continue to find fulfillment in my professional (and personal) life through the quality relationships I develop with the company I am keeping along my journey.
As a young teacher working in primary school classrooms, I never really had any issues with discipline. It certainly wasn’t because of the lack of challenges. My first teaching position is filled with memories of children with a variety of struggles. One child in particular spent the first few weeks of school laying on the ground and spinning around in circles while yelling out. When I called home the noise and chaos in the background and what I learned about the child’s home experience shed light on the challenges that filled her time outside our school walls. In my second teaching position, I had two brothers in my developmental kindergarten class who I learned had stabbed one another with knives at home. The situations were numerous, but the point is that I didn’t have easy students. So why was it that I look back and ponder on why I didn’t have discipline issues with my students and only ever engaged the principal’s help one time in my teaching career? It is clear now to me that it was all about relationships.
“Danny” was the perfect example of the power of relationships in a classroom. When, as a young teacher, I arrived at my new school enthusiastically ready to take on my role as a first grade teacher, the kindergarten teacher asked to see my class list. She saw Danny’s name and proceeded to tell me that I was going to have my hands full. She explained to me that when he came to her classroom on the first day the previous year, he came with a sign around his neck that read, “I am a bad boy.” She went on to tell me what struggles she had with him all year. I have to say I was nervous but determined. On the first day of school, I stood at my classroom door greeting the children with a hello and a reassuring smile. Danny approached the door with a tough look on his face, dressed in a cowboy hat and boots; he reminded me of a cowboy entering a saloon in an old western movie. Danny settled into causing some problems, but I pressed on trying to get to know him and to understand his perspective on the world. We then hit a turning point – one of those moments that changed everything. We were in the middle of a math lesson, and I glanced over and noticed Danny had a binder full of baseball cards on his desk. He caught my eye and slowly slid the binder into his desk thinking he was in trouble. I finished my instruction, set the other kids to complete a page in their workbooks, and went over to Danny’s desk and sat down next to him. I asked him to show me the baseball cards, and I immediately got a defensive reply in a not-so-nice tone denying that he had any such cards. I took a moment to reassure Danny that he wasn’t in trouble, but rather I didn’t know much about baseball. I noticed his interest and expertise in the sport and wondered if he could share some things with me I might not know. After a few moments, he reluctantly pulled the binder from his desk and looked at me. I again asked him to share, and he started to open up. We sat for maybe 4-5 minutes talking about baseball, and I asked him to save the rest for another time and get out his Math workbook. He did, and things were different from that point forward. Danny and I built a good relationship. We trusted each other. We respected each other, and he never caused another problem in the classroom. Outside the four walls of the classroom, that was not the case – there were problems in special area classes, on the bus, and in the cafeteria, and I did my best to improve those, with ups and downs. Danny wanted to please me as I believe our relationship was important to him. Relationships. Company.
As a teacher, I knew full well that the impact I had on children lasted for six hours per day, but the impact parents had was the result of many more hours over many years. Therefore, I worked hard to develop relationships with parents having them into school as much as possible. In addition to having parents come at the usual times and volunteer when they could, I always incorporated invitations to events that involved families – for example a classroom Thanksgiving feast complete with a turkey. Book and Breakfast Day where we all had breakfast, a read aloud, parents reading to kids, and a silent reading time (parents reading too) was my favorite! Not only did this model what I was hoping parents would do to help their children academically outside of school, but it let the parents know that I valued my relationship with them and wanted them to be a part of our classroom family. Relationships. Company.
Fast forward several years and my career path led me to the principalship. I spent my last 21 years before retirement as an elementary school principal. In this role, I most certainly had relationships with students and most certainly some more than others, but I found discipline so much more challenging in this role. I am not so sure it had anything to do with the students. My belief is that as a principal the relationships with students are not as close as they are with their teachers. Certainly the time in a student’s day that I was with each student was minimal compared with the hours spent with the teacher. So when a student was sent to me, I had to work hard at developing a relationship. As you can imagine, there were students I spent substantial time with, and in these instances I felt that as the relationship developed and the behavior improved, but I never felt it was with the same level of success I had when I had closer relationships, like I did as a teacher.
In my role as a principal, however, I took time to develop positive relationships with my staff – teachers, office staff, teaching assistants, cafeteria servers, and custodians alike. Everyone plays a key role, and my relationships with all of them were very important to me. Even though I am retired now, I still keep in touch with so many of my colleagues from my days as their leader and these relationships remain a cherished part of my life.
When I think back about how I created those relationships, I can name a number of things I did that likely helped establish the relationships. First, I kept my door open whenever I could – literally. I had two doors to my office, and one was a back door that the staff had to pass by to get to their mailboxes and the copier. If I wasn’t with someone, I kept that door open and hoped that people would pop in. Many times they did (an intentional bowl of candy on my table helped). If they didn’t, it still gave me a chance to give them a smile, a wave, a hello.
I also placed a great deal of importance on realizing that when you do things for others, they will be there for you when you most need them. I can’t think of a time in 21 years of supervising staff that I said no to a request to leave early, come in late, or get some coverage. I realized that balancing work and home is tricky and trusted that they wouldn’t be asking if they didn’t need the support. People are generally proud and want to do their best, so when they ask for help, they likely really need it and they should get it. Along the same lines, flowers after surgery, bagels in the staff room, small gifts at Christmas, or a Payday chocolate bar in mailboxes with the first paycheck of the year, all go a long way to support people and let them know that you are there for them in the relationship. Most of all, a confidential ear and the willingness to listen says a lot to staff. In the long run, when you need help with an initiative, people are much more willinging to help you when you have helped them. Support goes both ways. Relationships. Company.
Celebrations with staff also are important in establishing relationships. I believe that acknowledging others is essential. There is no way that one leader working with 65 staff members can have an impact without relying on the contributions, ideas, and insights of others. I had plenty of ideas and things I wanted to see happen, but my goal was to plant seeds, develop leaders, and by the time something was implemented the idea was no longer mine, but the staff owned it. Giving credit to others is key to building relationships. Nobody enjoys working with someone who is focused on themselves, but rather someone who allows them to see their own contribution, therefore contributing to the relationship. Additional strategies I used along these lines included weekly staff acknowledgements in my newsletter and many handwritten notes left in mailboxes or on desks. I know that these notes were important to relationship building as in the last few months, a few people have taken pictures of notes I wrote and sent them to me with a heartfelt story about how much it helped them at the time and how they had saved the note all these years. One such note was from someone who student-taught at my school who now has 15 years of experience. I read a quote just yesterday that said, “You should always tell people how important they are to you. Always.” I couldn’t agree more!
The end of the school year always ended with an activity I did with the staff followed by cookies, breakfast or a pizza lunch – my treat. It took the form of the game “I Have, Who Has?.” I had each staff member write on an index card something he or she had accomplished during the school year that they could be proud of and bring it to the meeting. I then had people stand and mingle trading cards for a few minutes with everyone they passed. When signaled, they sat in a circle with the card they had, and they read it starting with who… For example, “Who helped a student improve his reading level by two years?” The person whose card it was had to stand and say “That’s me!” with enthusiasm. They then read their card and so on until everyone was acknowledged. While on the surface it may seem like just a fun game to end the year, it was an intentional way to let each person know they mattered, I cared about them, and valued their contributions. Relationships. Company.
My career has now come full circle. After retirement from public school teaching and administration, I found the perfect job for me. I now work part time as the Training Manager for The Positivity Project (P2). What is P2, you wonder? It is a Character Education/SEL (Social- Emotional Learning) program that has the mission of empowering America’s youth to build positive – you guessed it – relationships! P2 has many components, but our feature component is a 32-week curriculum (15 minutes of instruction per day) that includes a complete slide deck for each grade level preK-12 focusing on a character strength or element of the Other People Mindset each week. In addition to slides, resources include an online family component called P2 for Families, character cards, a curated booklist, PBL units, a curriculum for a middle and high school Positive Psychology elective course, a two-week relationship curriculum for secondary students, and more! My last two years as a principal, we implemented P2 in my school and had tremendous success seeing the power of consistent language. Application of these strengths and students’ ability to self reflect and recognize strengths in others was powerful.
The Positivity Project is rooted in the research on Positive Psychology. One of the studies drawn from for this work is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study followed the life of 724 men across their lives and is now in its 81st year – the longest running study of its kind. Through brain scans, blood draws, and interviews with the family of these men, the most significant finding is that what makes people happy and healthy in life is the quality of their relationships. Though I had no idea this study was taking place while I was working with my students all those years ago or when I was leading staff as a principal the last 21 years, the outcome of this study does not surprise me as my relationships have most certainly added tremendous health and happiness to my life. It all comes into focus when taking time to reflect on the work you choose and the reasons you made the choices you make and wake up to do what you do everyday. Relationships. Company. Powerful words from the Tiny Dragon.
Mackesy, Charlie. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. Harper One, 2019.
Waldinger, R. (2015, November). What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness
For more information about The Positivity Project, visit https://posproject.org