A circle of care, trust and maitri

Saesha Pillai and Pranali Patil

“There is nothing mushy about caring. It is the strong, resilient backbone of human life,” says Nel Noddings, in her article that defends the urgency of reordering the priorities of our educational aims to place the practice of care above our existing capitalistic, competitive and market-oriented academic pursuits in schools. She calls for nurturing in our young people, the ethical capacity of ‘human caring’ – for other entities, objects, ideas and the world at large, as being most essential in order to help them be ethical, loving, competent members of society. (Noddings, 1995, 366).

One crucial step towards this desirable aim of a ‘practice of care’ in our schools is the need for care to be modeled and practiced by the adults in the ecosystem which includes, teachers, school leaders, non-teaching and support staff, the caregivers and government officials. What we wish to explore through this article is the practice of this care among educational professionals in their relationships with each other.

Through conversations and observations, we collated an understanding of what ‘professional friendships’ mean to the facilitators at Apni Shala Foundation (ASF) and the teachers at the Khoj School (a model school initiative of ASF that integrates social emotional learning in its design and function). A few responses that came up were,
“It is a circle of care, trust, sensitivity, vulnerability, joy and shared experiences of learning between me and my colleagues.”
“It is a zone of comfort with other teachers where I can receive help and reminders around my work; where my suggestions are honored and conflicts can be resolved.”
“A professional friendship with a colleague is when we share values/ideologies or energy wise feel connected to each other as well as when I want to share and discuss things with someone who may have a very diverse opinion to mine.”

Professional friendships can thus create a space for individuals to provide support to each other, share honest feedback, be authentic, celebrate each other’s growth and put forward one’s disagreements with trust and respect for the other’s work thus taking forward the school’s educational aims more robustly and objectively, with ample space for encouragement and creativity.

Learning, unlearning and relearning our ways of being with each other to do our collective work well is a journey. Professional friendships then have a unique capacity to make this journey lighter for all involved.

Impact on school/organizational culture
At ASF, teachers/facilitators refer to one another as ‘friend or dost’. Colleagues, irrespective of role boundaries, find ways to spend time together each day through shared team lunches as well as to relax during chai-time at a favourite local café, post a hectic work day. Asa facilitator put it, “It wasn’t easy for me to open up and make connections before coming to ASF especially when I held differing views, but here it is easy going, everyone is welcoming. It is okay for each to be their own person to be able to do their work well.”

Another facilitator shared how at ASF, people’s agency to decide their degrees of interactions with each other is honoured without judgment. Boundaries are quite clear and intentional and it helps people get work done together.

Speaking of boundaries, the camaraderie between people at ASF is based on the belief that ‘an unconditional professional friendliness’ is possible between people across roles in the organization when navigated mindfully. This is possible when information transparency and confidentiality in a relation between two people across different roles is maintained equitably and they are careful to check their positive biases that could exclude others.

Among those in similar roles, the boundaries help to hold differing ideas, opinions and perspectives in a conversation, to give room for deeper and nuanced conversations that are relevant and thus personal to those involved and yet not personal in nature (i.e., not about the people involved but about the ideas and thoughts presented). For example, for novice and experienced teachers at Khoj to be able to debate freely on creating more inclusion in class or on the nature of fair and logical consequences for students at school or learning to write constructive feedback for each other, is a result of an understanding that is rooted in this relationship of mutual trust and respect.

This then crumbles the common idea of friendship as an intimate collegiality (A`vila de Lima, 2001, 117) among educators at school, where similarities of opinions are sought after or where thinking is constantly convergent and lacking in creating any deep shifts as it gives in to a culture of forced consensus for the sake of peacekeeping or turns superficial and performative in the presence of power.

The emphasis thus, is to also encourage a cognitive conflict (A`vila de Lima, 2001, 117) of views among peers so as to give space for people’s personhood and enables divergent thinking that gives rise to innovative solutions to school issues that furthers a culture of learning and growth in the organization.

Impact on student learning
A practice of care among teachers becomes a strong model for students in their own relationships with peers and other significant people in their lives.

At Khoj school, students are as comfortable with the support staff as they are with their grade teachers, given that people in both roles are actively involved in the class proceedings. The ‘my class vs. our school’ dilemma is put to rest when students see teachers supporting each other’s classes by co-facilitating or stepping in to help a teacher take a moment of calm without hesitation.

An example of the impact of this friendship on student learning was an experience of joy that brought free-flowing laughter for students when two facilitators, high-fived each other in excitement after an activity. Such moments build a sense of community that helps build a strong school culture.

From observations and the sharing by teachers at Khoj, their interpersonal camaraderie is what has resulted in voluntary initiatives like re-designing classroom spaces to suit students’ needs, introducing common culture norms across grades and reviewing its language to suit the school ethos, making TLMs as a school team and sharing teaching learning practices across grades that benefit all students.

When we believe that a school’s curriculum is more than academic jargon on a planning document and is rather situated in us, in the people involved in the teaching-learning process, then who we are and what we do as educators in school, determines culture and student learning in a major way. For example, two male teachers, displaying their celebration through a shared, consensual hug, allows for students to know that it is okay and it is encouraged to express one’s emotions in a healthy way, across genders. Such experiences of learning for students are thus enriched due to professional friendships between teachers.

Impact on teacher’s role and development
This relationship between teachers can be a rocky road to navigate and at the same time can also be deeply rewarding and collaborative.

As a facilitator said, “Mutually setting clear expectations within the office space and outside of it, allows me to make a smooth transition between the personal and the professional. This also applies to friendships that extend to partner teachers at our municipal schools, with some of whom I may be close enough to discuss my marriage plans and yet when in class, our accountability towards the students’ learning comes foremost.”

The person also shared that taking time to develop a professional friendship with a colleague enabled an improved quality and pace of work between them. The transactions became personal and actions towards the other thus more responsible and whole-hearted. “I do it for the X person and not just because I have to, as part of my role.” It became an instance of growth as an individual.

Hence, navigating professional friendships with a strong sense of compassion for the other becomes essential to maintain teacher wellbeing, motivation and a sense of fulfillment at work.

A teacher being moved to act for another and alleviating an unpleasantness for this other while being in a state of intentional calm or receiving an act of compassion when in need, can do wonders for how both people in that relation feel about the growing and deepening impact of their work.

This connects deeply with Nel’s idea that caring in every domain implies competence. (Noddings, 1995, 368) That is to say that caring (in a professional friendship) is accepting responsibility to continually work on one’s competence so that the recipient of one’s care is enhanced (in this case the teacher friend). (Noddings, 1995, 368) The purpose is thus to be better together and not live a farce of a friendship that can promote exclusive excellence or further the ‘I’ over the ‘We’.

When such compassion becomes a daily practice in a school environment, it slowly extends itself to all involved in the teaching-learning process making the uniquely human endeavour of education, one of unconditional friendliness which is the definition of ‘love’ or ‘Maitri’ (Lee & Nichtern, 2019). And isn’t that what our world needs more of? To live and learn with love?

• A`vila de Lima, J. (2001). Forgetting about Friendship: Using Conflict in Teacher Communities as a Catalyst for School Change. Journal of Educational Change, 2(2), 97-122. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1017509325276
• Lee, C., & Nichtern, D. (2019, November 6). How Maitri Opens Your Heart. Lion’s Roar. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.lionsroar.com/open-your-heart-with-maitri/
• Noddings, N. (1995, Jan). A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century. The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 76, No. 5 (Jan., 1995), 365-368. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20405342

Saesha Pillai holds an MA in Education from Azim Premji University, Bangalore and a Diploma in Dance Movement Therapy from Kolkata Sanved and TISS, Mumbai. She currently works as the Curriculum Lead at Khoj School, Apni Shala. She can be reached at saesha.pillai@apnishala.org.
Pranali Patil holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Mumbai University and a diploma in Early Childhood Care Education (ECCEd). She is currently pursuing her Masters in psychology from IGNOU. She works with Apni Shala as an SEL Curriculum Lead. She can be reached at pranali.p@apnishala.org.

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