It’s been an interesting start to the new school year. My self-deprecating line, after a week of collecting school fees and tracking down attendance is, “I’m exhausted . . . I’ve been working like a teacher.”
Despite the irreverence, I must say that what I really miss right now is the opportunity to engage with teachers within the formal, collective constructs that we have established over the years at our school. Gone are the Staff Committee, Department Head Meetings and collegial processes that help us connect, come together and both sustain while concomitantly create a strong sense of supportive co-dependency. You see, these are more than mere meetings and processes: these are opportunities to gather and construct identity. It is this phased out reality which I miss most of all.
In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt, has something interesting to say about how identity is constructed:
Plurality is the law of the earth. My discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation but that I negotiate it through dialogue. My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others.
Who we are and what we do is, in large part, greatly affected by the discussions we have with one another. Arendt reframes relationships as dialogical relations and it is through the power of these relations (these verbal, ‘in the moment’ connections) that we have, in years past, come together and acted upon our school vision – our collective identity. We have done so by discussing in departments and committees the past, present and the future: drawing from the past, anchoring the future in the present and sharpening the focus of our picture of the future with a clear long-term goal.
Dialogical relations are for us, as educators, what Dennis Sparks calls “learning-oriented conversations”. In his article, “Leaders Use Every Opportunity to Promote Learning-Oriented Conversations,” he writes that leading through learning occurs when we “listen to others in a spirit of openness about the topic at hand” and when we “listen to learn.” I would argue that Sparks’ learning-oriented conversations are the equivalent of Arendt’s dialogical relations: each is meant to move us forward in our understanding of those around us (the stakeholders within our learning community) and ultimately, ourselves (as educators and empathic human beings).
I am certain that these learning-oriented conversations are still occurring in our schools between colleagues; however, gone for me are the familiar learning conversations (one to one, at School Growth and Department Meetings) that traditionally marked Septembers past. Absent is the conversation with a teacher who, before I have my first coffee Monday morning, will accost me with kindness and a desire to discuss his struggles with making differentiated instruction ‘work’ in his classroom. Gone is the meeting with the Professional Development Committee where innovative practices are introduced and developed into workshops for staff. Missing is the School Growth Committee Meeting in which school directions are put forward and discussed.
When people ask me what impact job action has had on me, this is what I tell them: the absence of dialogical relations, those learning oriented conversations that aid in constructing my professional and personal identity . . . that’s what I miss most.
They usually look at me askance and try to probe deeper: how can these relations, these conversations be that important?
The answer, really, is quite obvious to anyone who walks these halls for 40% of their waking hours: they are important because through them we foster deep connections by building trusting relationships; through them we co-develop a vision to guide the sustained direction of our learning community; and, through them we create a culture of inquiry mindedness. Above all else, through them we embark upon a path of self-discovery while engaging in the form of meaningful work that will improve the life chances of the students we serve.
This is why they matter.