The importance of relationships in school

Written by: Graham Moore | Published:
Image: iStock

Truthfully – what is your school culture like? Do you see it as important? Graham Moore discusses the importance of relationships in schools, the four aspects to school culture, and argues why this is the most important aspect of a successful school

I am a 51-year-old, very happily married man. I have four teenage children, sadly I have lost both parents and six years ago I nearly died myself.

Consequently, almost every day, I wake up and I am eternally grateful for one thing – the relationships that bless my life. It is not the cars, not the house, not the cash, not the possessions, it is the people for which I am grateful.

All my relationships are defined by how I communicate with people – both consciously and subconsciously, verbally and non-verbally.

I win or lose people based on how I treat them. On occasions I sail pretty close to the wind, especially with my long-suffering wife and kids as emotions run high at home.

In the 13 very happy years I spent as a teacher I know, in my early days, many students did not like or care for the way I communicated with them.

I now run many staff training days in schools every year and the most frequent question I am asked is: “What is the most important thing in teaching?”

It is only now as I enter my third decade of working in schools that I have the confidence and conviction in my own experiences to answer simply: “Relationships.”

A school’s culture

In an average sized secondary school of 1,200 students and 150 staff, there are a possible 1,822,000 relationships. How each of those relationships manifests determines the culture of that school.

Comparatively and relatively speaking, little or no time or money is invested in creating and maintaining an environment where this network of relationships can develop and flourish. Indeed scorn and doubt are often cast towards programmes that aim to improve these so-called “soft skills”.

By comparison, in the corporate world, millions of pounds a year are spent on attempting to improve and establish better working environments or “corporate cultures”.

Having been to more than 1,000 schools in many different countries, the culture of each school is omnipresent and tangible within the first couple of minutes of my visit. First impressions count and how I am initially treated as a guest and visitor is generally an accurate indicator of the overall culture of that school.

Four crucial sub-cultures

So, why is culture important and how is it developed? Needs create beliefs, which in turn create a culture, which then determine institutionalised patterns of behaviour. In my experience I have only ever visited two types of school. The first and by far the largest genre is what I describe as “Sub-Conscious/Lose-Lose/Old Cultures”, where relationships are largely defined by reactive behaviour.

The second and less common type of school is what I call “Super-Conscious/Win-Win/New Cultures”, in which there is a considered, measured approach to dealing with inevitable relationship issues.

A splendid example of this is Northumberland Park Community School in Tottenham, north London, where great emphasis is placed upon the way all individuals are treated and an atmosphere of mutual respect pervades almost all interactions.

In the melting pot that is a modern school there are two obvious and dominant cultures, that of the adults and that of the young people. However, there are four clear sub-cultures in operation.

The first and most defining is how the staff treat students. The second is how the students treat each other. Third, how do students treat the staff, and finally how do the staff treat each other?

These four cultures stand alone, existing and operating independently. However, due to the myriad relationships within a school community, inevitably there are clashes within these cultures, which result in chaos and disharmony.

For me, the hallmark of a school and the defining factor that will ultimately determine its success is how these problems are dealt with.

Staff relationships

Clearly young people have no idea about what it is like to be an adult and therefore cannot empathise with the stresses, strains, pressures and problems of modern day teaching. They have no clue, neither do they care about long hours, long commutes, endless emails, aggressive parents, weekend preparation, the pressures of inspection, ever-changing curricula, and the goalposts constantly moving (to name but a few of the pressures facing school staff).

I have worked with almost a quarter of a million young people in my career from all walks of life and all corners of the globe, many of whom simply do not realise that staff were once young people themselves and once went to school themselves.

Young people rarely appreciate that adults have feelings, lives and families, and fail to see just how many plates most adults are managing to successfully spin. Young people are not aware of the staff-on-staff culture, which exists under their noses.

In many schools most staff get on professionally, but as human beings there are obvious personal differences.
There is a pecking order and many support staff feel alienated, undervalued and see their lack of professional qualifications as a barrier in the staffroom.

I hear all manner of complaints from staff about staff, including but not limited to:

  • Staff confronting each other aggressively.
  • Staff bullying.
  • Staff emailing to moan, but never emailing about things that are going well.
  • Staff blatantly ignoring things that they should not; walking by when they should stop.
  • Colleagues not saying hello in the corridor when you walk past.

Many, if not all, of these challenges occur every day in school and without doubt have an impact on how adults react and behave towards each other, but more importantly towards the students. The way students are treated by staff is without doubt the single biggest factor contributing to the culture of a school.

Youth culture

Youth culture is a force of nature and not only influences the way a school operates but strongly influences society.
“Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient and have no self-control.” This is a quote from a 6,000 year old Egyptian tomb.

Socrates, meanwhile, once said: “Children have bad manners, contempt for authority and show disrespect for their elders and tyrannise their teachers.”

As a parent, I forget the errors of my youth and judge and condemn my children and other young people for things I did without thought as an adolescent.

The cliché that young people have so many distractions unavailable to previous generations is the hackneyed explanation for their apathy and disengagement. The internet, their obsession with mobile technology, social media and instant gratification are indeed important considerations. The proliferation of 24/7 information, knowledge, interaction and communication with partners, peers and strangers needs also to be taken into account.

However, in my experience the key drivers of youth culture are the same as they were when I was at school in the late seventies and eighties.

I have listened to thousands of brave and heartfelt statements about what makes life and school difficult for young people. Students of all ages starting as young as year 1 recognise the presence of a “pecking order”, which determines and organises where each young person sits within their year group.

From a very early age, young people understand what is cool and what is not. They recognise what constitutes “social suicide” and what they need to do to fit in and survive the rat race that can be school.

Being able to conjugate French verbs, quote Shakespeare and understand algorithms never has and never will be an acceptable pathway to popularity and social acceptance.

Instead young people identify and subscribe to a culture of conformity and learn quickly to “behave to belong”. Teenagers realise that they are far safer with anonymity and neutrality than swimming in the dangerous waters of individuality and uniqueness.

The “pecking order” is responsible for how a young person interacts in school. Among other things, it determines how readily they engage with teachers, how they participate in lessons and how hard they push themselves.

Teenagers and young adolescents assume alter-egos, take on new looks and create a more socially desirable image in order to navigate this complex social map.

The relentless “banter”, unlike my school days, continues long after the home time bell as young people connect through Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, and the latest version of FIFA.

Filling each other’s bins

So why do they need these additional personalities? In primary school, young people “fill each other’s bins”.

Let me explain: young people learn to identify and exploit the weaknesses of other students, this can be name-calling, isolation, physical abuse or in some cases persecution. As a consequence they learn to “fill other people’s bins” in order to gratify their crumbling self-esteem.

Most worryingly they start to “fill their own bins” as any self-belief and self-worth is lost in layers of fake tan, false nails, eyelashes, hoodies and bling.

I meet so many, too many, teenagers who have lost their own identity, don’t appreciate their own beauty and have little or no hope for their future

So what chance a solution? I doubt we will discover one while schools remain hierarchical communities in which we judge each young person as a level or a grade.

We need to create schools with one super-conscious culture, which puts human relationships at the very heart and epicentre of all focus. School leaders need to establish one common culture in which every human being within its community is valued regardless of age, ability and status.

In super-conscious schools, all staff are valued and celebrated regardless of their status. Staff voice is as important as student voice. Effective school leaders recognise that the engagement and partnerships with parents is both important and crucial in creating a culture of mutual respect. Student and staff voice would be viewed with equal regard and their opinions listened to with integrity and intent.

We are custodians of our future leaders and we should build curricula and schools that help develop a sense of hope, real confidence, intrinsic happiness and the ability to develop and sustain relationships, particularly with themselves.

We need to recognise and share individuality and uniqueness, we need to encourage young people to follow their hearts and passions and to choose a course of study that empowers and excites them.

We need to better understand and counter the forces that control youth culture and we need to ensure our children don’t need to play these games. Should we manage to make these adjustments, just watch the positive impact on attainment.

  • Graham Moore was a teacher for 13 years in a tough comprehensive school in Kirkby, Merseyside. During this time he was a form teacher, year head, director of sport and senior teacher with responsibility for teaching and learning. In 2004 he co-founded humanutopia, where he now creates and runs innovative courses and experiences for students and staff in schools across the UK. Visit www.humanutopia.com


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