“Chance made us colleagues. But the fun and laughter made us friends.” – Anonymous
A school, as a workplace, is no different from most other workplaces. The motivation to bond, to bicker together, to support each other and to celebrate milestones is the same. When I entered school (actually re-entered as staff), I expected everyone to be lost in their particular subject and students. I was pleasantly surprised to see otherwise.
Like in any group of people, there are bound to be constructive relationships and non-constructive ones. Yes, there was rivalry and petty conflicts and throwing colleagues under the bus (not the school bus), but there were also instances of beautiful bonds which I am sure the students watched and found warmth in. While at school, I constantly looked at everything through the singular lens of “How might this help the student?” On mature reflection, I realize that when we all help each other and bring out the essence of being good human beings, it automatically helps the student.
I have observed five kinds of friendships that exist between adults at school. I will not be shedding light on the romantic associations that often occur. I will also skip instances which were groups of (often) similar aged teachers who enjoyed each other’s company over the weekends to go on drives or cut trips to the mall, etc. Then there were teachers who were neighbours or relatives and hence, were naturally familiar and friendly with each other. I shan’t be discussing these either.
The five that I wish to focus upon are relationships that were consciously forged. Each of these five perhaps didn’t start out being an example of the particular category I place them in, but blossomed over time. Some of these are very particular and peculiar to the academic fraternity. Most of them exist between peers. Power equations tend to disallow a healthy friendship to exist between a senior or head of department and a junior. I have tried to disprove this only to nearly lose a very dear friend of mine who, perhaps, felt that I might not act as the strict Dean in her case. Yet, with few others, I have managed to maintain a level of friendship which might not have been considered common between senior and junior.
Collaborator Teacher: This is usually a peer relationship where two teachers, either out of their love for each other’s subjects or pure friendship decide to work together to give their students a slight semblance of continuity and connectedness. This takes the form of discussing their weekly or daily plans before going into their classes and referring to what the other teacher might have said in their subject. This gives the students a feeling of simple orchestration (which it is) and of how subjects weave into each other. They also share notes on students allowing each of them to be supportive and aware of the mental states of their students. The “subjects” might not all be cognitive – an English teacher’s friendship with a sports teacher also plays out well. The students quickly summarize them as pals and know that their secrets shared with one would most likely reach the other. I have loved watching such a relationship play out in the class and how students with complementary strengths feel inclined to team up in accomplishing projects or tasks.
Teacher-Staff: The reason I chose to say “between adults at school” earlier was because not everyone in a school is a teacher. While most teachers would ignore or just pay nod to the school helper staff, some teachers do take the time out to connect with the janitor or the “aayah” or bus conductor in simple humane ways. Rarely does the staff allow for the breakdown of hierarchy but the teacher’s kindness and friendliness helps build an atmosphere of fewer barriers and separations.
Sneak-peek: This might be particular to people in positions like mine. I have had the “unfortunate” privilege of being a Dean. This automatically places me in a position considered inaccessible. Perhaps, my demeanour added to it. Most teachers kept me at an arm’s distance and were on their most pleasant behaviour in my presence. This made my access to the ground-realities very difficult. I was always very suspicious of my own solutions to problems. I truly wanted to know if they were indeed solutions that the teachers were happy to receive. I even moved my desk to the staff room so that I could hear about their pain (relating to poor policies and practices) at the earliest – in contrast, the rest of school management was seated in a separate chamber on a different floor and building. I introduced surveys amongst teachers and one-on-one’s but was never certain whether I was receiving the truth or what they thought I wanted to hear. As a relief to this predicament, some deep connections emerged with a few teachers who would give me a feel of the staffroom. Maintaining great discretion, they would let me know about the mood in the staffroom or how a particular decision was received. It allowed me to quickly address things to the satisfaction of many (never all). These teachers were also aware that I was not encouraging their opinion of other teachers or about their personal list of issues. Hence, our relationship was earnestly seeking ways to effect change in school. I remain grateful to these few.
Teacher’s Teacher: These relationships typically formed between a senior and a junior teacher where the latter learned from the former about managing their work and (less commonly) career. They also counselled on matters which were affecting the junior teacher’s confidence or anxiety/fears. However, not always was it between a senior and a junior. I had a young teacher (both in years on earth and in the profession) shine a wise light on my impatience or my frustration with not seeing change happening. I have learnt a lot from her, especially to breathe.
A kind shoulder: Last, but statistically the most common, were pairs of teachers who organically grew close to each other and were there for each other through tough times and cheering the loudest when their friend won an award or recognition. When one of them was newly-wed and dealing with a lot at their new home as well as in school, the other helped. When one of them faced the loss of a dear one, the other was their pillar of support. When one was an introvert, the other boldly represented the cause of the shy one. Convincing one to join in was sufficient! Their friendship was palpable and students enjoyed watching them together.
In an environment where such a range of relationships manifested themselves, it was by osmosis that the students learnt the value of deep and honest relationships. Not only did they help the student learn about healthy relationships, they also helped the adults through their growth in the school. Often, we focus exclusively on cognitive professional development and neglect the social and emotional facet that is key to holistic learning that cannot be delivered in the confines of a classroom. School leaders would do well to create spaces to let such bonds flourish.
The author is a computer scientist reborn as an educationist. After many years in the research and consultation industry, he quit it all to teach in under-resourced schools in India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.