The overlooked importance of teacher to teacher relationships | Peter Ulrich
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The overlooked importance of teacher to teacher relationships | Peter Ulrich

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon
over the years. If you want to hear about a bad doctor, you can’t ask another doctor. And if you want to hear
about a bad lawyer, you can’t ask another lawyer. But if you want to hear about a bad
teacher, all you have to do is ask another teacher. We, educators, did that. Issues regarding teacher retention in the
United States is a national crisis, with some parts of the country listing
attrition over 25%. Of all the relationships we focus on in
education, the one that tends to get the least amount
of focus is teacher to teacher relationships. There’s a large gap in the opportunity
to train colleagues on how to support each other
in those roles. A recent study by the Economic
Policy Institute lists “school climate related to
accountability measures” as one of the key determinants
for teacher attrition, with over 60% of the respondents citing that they never really felt
supported as a teacher by other teachers. In most schools, how accountability
is defined, those measures of success are what set the tone for those
peer to peer relationships. Those measures are student achievement,
classroom climate, and sometimes, teacher efficacy of how we compare
the success of one teacher to another. Schools have often become cultures
of documentation when someone isn’t being successful. In fact there’s a lot of pervasive thought
about accountability being punitive. But the basic notion of accountability
is completely different. Accountability is simply a
measure of responsibility. I’ve been a school leader
for eighteen years. And the issues that always come back
from students, teachers, policy makers, and administrators,
is all related to accountability. And in eighteen years of leadership, I have one startling discovery: Every way that we have measured
accountability in schools is all wrong. We can re-imagine accountability in school by focusing on the teacher
to teacher relationship. Instead of focusing on documentation
when someone isn’t being successful, we can instead provide opportunities
to build relationships among the adults. School leaders should be creating
cultures that empower and embolden trust and
transparency. In other words, it’s about love. I know, it sounds mushy right?
“All you need is love.” To love others is challenging, especially because love here is defined as
consistently mutually high expectations for the people you’re surrounded by with an accountability, a responsibility,
to each other. Haven’t you ever loved someone? Don’t you remember how much you didn’t
want to let them down? What if instead of just defining
accountability as the typical measures that
lead to incremental outcomes, we instead defined it as our mutual responsibility to,
and love for, each other? The hypercritical focus on data has led to a dismal employability
forecast for educators. Every industry concerns itself
with a talent war. We all want the most talented colleague or
employee. You want the most talented designer,
creative, engineer, educator… But here’s the problem: the talent war is over, and talent won. Talent will always decide how
and where to be. And as long as the education industry continues to treat its educator-talent
as less than, we all suffer. We ache and underperform
in this absence of love. I know. People see love as intangible. Many people say love is impractical. People often say that leadership takes
courage, and it does. But love? Let me tell you:
love takes courage. And starting today, love should be your immediate filter
for everything you’re accountable for. We– teachers, students, and
especially administrators– we are driving away talented educators. We’re perpetuating a faulty sense
of accountability and we’re abandoning generations
of children. We deprive ourselves of authentic
connection when we do not talk in terms
of loving each other. In 2013, I was presented with a gift
that every leader would envy. I was given an empty box
(a building, really) to implement my vision for STEM education
within my community as a new middle school. In order to accomplish
this with the right team I knew that every vacancy was important. So I created an interview process with a
scorable rubric that attempted to measure more about the
human than the hubris. And as soon as I selected a colleague,
I would train them on that process. I wanted them to see how and
why they were selected, but to also fill in those gaps of wonder that they couldn’t caulk together
with their own confidence. I also wanted them to know that if I
trusted them enough to hire them, then I trusted them more than
enough to pick out our colleagues. In other words, I wanted them to see that
I already loved them just for saying yes to being on this team. And I wanted to build their capacity for
those teacher to teacher relationships. Creating an environment that cultivates a relationship-based
notion of accountability, rather than the typical accountability
measures, takes work. And for me, that work begins with the
interview process. By participating in the selection process, my colleagues got to see that they would
always be able to be there for each other. There have been over 600 interviews in
the last six years for 48 positions. With a retention rate of over 85%, imagine the stability and camaraderie
you can build with a team like that. Here’s just one of the questions from
our interview that always gets nervous laughter: Tell us about the last time a
co-worker got mad at you. Simple, right? But that question gets immediately
to their ability to love. We have a lot of candidates that tell
us, “Well, no one ever gets mad at me.” That’s concerning. Either they’re obtuse, dispassionate,
or lying. We have other candidates that tell us, “Well, someone got mad at me,
but they got over it.” Again, not a really great quality to have
in a colleague. Listen, if you care at all, if you love
what you do, you’re going to make someone mad. Do you see that? Do you know that seeking forgiveness
is critically important? Even if the co-worker didn’t grant
forgiveness, do you know that’s what real
accountability is? I know what a gift it is to start from
scratch, to be able to pick everyone. And I’m sure you’re sitting there saying, “I can build the #1 STEM middle
school in the United States too if I could pick everyone.” And that’s the point. You can. Even if you don’t start
with a blank slate, every vacancy you have, unless it’s you,
is an opportunity to build that culture and redefine accountability in
this framework of love. I implore you: connect and support
teachers, and show them this real interplay
of accountability. Show them how we change our world. Love empowers in cultures of
struggle and support. Love empowers in communities
where teachers and students are treated with mutual respect
and kindness. And love empowers for holding us
to those higher expectations. So, where does this love begin? It begins with you. There has to be consensus among the
adults in schools that love begins with us. By modeling this framework of
accountability and responsibility through love,
we can change our world, and see that love echoed back
to us from our students. We can’t wait for love,
and neither can they. Thank you.

About James Carlton

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