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Recently, I was unsuccessful in attaining a leadership position and the reason put forth to me was about “relationships”.   This started some thinking on my part about relationships and leaders – and what it meant. What kinds of relationships are effective? What does it mean to “build relationships” and how are they meaningful when it comes to leadership skills and the leader’s ability to elicit changes in a staff or a department?

In education, we have long been inundated with literature, examples and the creation of professional learning communities. This generally means that people talk with each other about hard issues, develop the skill to go beyond rhetorical stances and dive more deeply into the nuances of the art and science of teaching.  This is the hopes…but in reality this may not be as easy as stating what it is.

Another description of building relationships in the workplace is having “people skills” – often hearing about the lack of or the abundance of these skills – especially in a leader. What are good people skills? Generally, good people skills are defined as the ability to listen, to communicate and to relate to others on a personal and professional level. I think that excellent people skills must also mean that they can problem-solve, have empathy for others and also wanting to work with others towards a common goal.

But having professional learning communities, or leaders with good “people skills” – is that enough to elicit a change in your school or whatever group of educators you are working with?  I would have to say no. My experiences have told me that it is also about challenging beliefs, practices and content.   How can you motivate and inspire people to fulfill their potential without true reflection on their own current practices and beliefs?

In my work, I have raised those taboo questions, pointed out contradictions, asked them to take risks and generally have made some teachers uncomfortable. But we can’t bring about changes if you are only interested in results – and not in digging deeper into the culture or the vital behaviours.   After all, what matters in improving student learning is changing vital behaviours – such as conversations in the learning communities. Questions that need to be asked are beyond just getting along or having social interactions in the hallways, offices or parking lots – often reminding me of those “icebreaker” activities.

What is collaboration – and how willing are teachers to collaborate – and how much? What do they do when they are collaborating – are they examining their practice to see what teaching and learning is all about? Are they using student evidence to determine what is working and what isn’t?   Do they really question each other’s practice, receive feedback from each other using a critical stance or are they just praising each other and sharing ideas without questioning each other from a place of inquiry? What I have seen is a lot more attention to structures put in place to carry out a collaborative inquiry and a lot more of the polite norms that we are conditioned to accept and less attention to questioning. I’m not saying that we have to set up competitive and antagonistic environments amongst our staff – but we do have to think about what collaboration means and what it leads to.

Some teachers still work in isolation and want to just stick with what they know while others have moved into the cooperation stage – being nice to each other and agreeing happily on something together. But will this be enough to change anything? Collaboration is different in my eyes – it is a deeper process – not about compromising or just going along with the what is being discussed or shared – but seeking evidence, asking questions, reasoning and having extended conversations over time. That’s learning together and not just being comfortable together.

I have come to realize that people tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions. So what happens when one of our beliefs conflicts with another previously held belief? The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviours, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.

I believe that cognitive dissonance helps teachers make their implicit conceptions about teaching and learning explicit and support their reconstruction of these notions. Experiencing and reflecting on this dissonance will help them change their conceptions and practice (along with careful examination of student evidence).

Come to think of it – it’s cognitive dissonance that led me to write this piece in the first place……

What do you think it means to build and sustain relationships to be an effective leader and to move educators forward?