‘Work friends’ can make a difference

Fiona Vaz

In a rather rare article of its kind, The Guardian, recently, carried an article on Tennis, by William Ralston, on the ways in which an umpire and player could not be friends. The article is a rare one, as it states how umpires and referees are prohibited from speaking to journalists explaining their decisions or simply narrating their difficulties in high stakes sporting events. The article reports that as tennis became more professional, different rules were introduced which enabled umpires to make fair decisions that were not influenced by their friendships with the players.

Friendships are some of the most celebrated relationships and are found everywhere human beings exist. You might have a friend in school, in the neighbourhood, at the workplace and in some cases, there are also commuter friends (like the famous train friends in Mumbai’s local trains) or errand friends, friends who join others for errands. Friendships enrich lives and in professional workplaces, it is necessary to consider the role of friendships especially among adults in schools, because schools encourage friendships among students. However, as Joyeeta Mukherjee, head of Mussoorie Public School, Uttarakhand states, “Professional friendships are an oxymoron, because wherever there is a profession, which can be competitive, there cannot be a friendship.” Mukherjee is not the only educator who is cautious about the role of friendships in schools. Sadaf Farhat, head of Rajdhani Public Schools, Delhi, says that while schools and staff flourish on friendships based on empathy, it is possible that empathetic people can be seen as weak. Looks like, Ralston’s coverage of the challenges of professional friendships in tennis are the same in most professional friendships in schools.

Defining professional friendships
A term that is used widely in school settings to describe the kind of gainful professional relationships is collegiality. Collegiality is the kind of professional relationship that exists between colleagues which enables not only the growth of the person as a teacher but also fosters school progress. Collegial relationships in schools might be characterized by sharing of lesson plans and ideas freely, providing feedback in a helpful and supportive way, covering for each other’s missed classes perhaps or even teaming up together for school events. In some cases, it is all about just being a listening ear to someone else. Farhat says, “Professional friendships create an environment where each one is comfortable to share and learn without judgments thus enhancing motivation, happiness and productivity towards shared goals.” Farhat points to the need for these friendships to help achieve collective school goals and not take away from them. Mukherjee shares similarly that professional friendships are those where one is mature and is able to make decisions that keep the best interests of the school and children in mind. Liane Menezes, from The Rosary High School, Bombolim, Goa, shares that, common interests, a similar work ethic and mindsets that enable the sharing of their experiences comfortably with each other are what make a professional friendship. Therefore, to conclude comfort with each other, or in other words, trust, within the school environment is what makes a professional friendship in school.

Friendships as impediments to schools
Although friendships are largely seen as positive, the caution that both the school leaders, in this article operate from is not unnatural. Often friendships can come in the way of effective school functioning. What I had in mind while planning this article was how these cross friendships help each other. In other words, what does it mean to have inter-generational friendships or interdepartmental ones? As Menezes mentions, being part of common departments or activities is a huge benefit in planning for events or addressing student issues.

It is obvious that extended amounts of time that people spend within the same department or staffroom, will lead to some kind of friendships, but are these friendships that ‘go across’ any different?

Kareem Khubchandani, a researcher of ‘auntology’, which is interdisciplinary research of the South Asian Aunty shared in a webinar once, how intergenerational relationships like the ones most of us share with an ‘aunty’, a woman figure who is mostly older than us, can help the younger generations better navigate life. These intergenerational friendships are more like informal mentorships. Do such friendships matter? Can a teacher who is a veteran in the school or educational system, guide the younger ones? It is definitely possible but raises questions then of partiality and fairness. For example, it is always tricky to foster friendships between teachers and coordinators for example or between the school leader and teachers. As Farhat cautions, the empathy in-built in the friendship can be misconstrued. At the same time, it is possible that teachers who have served for long could in some cases pass on disillusionment or dangerous beliefs. However, these challenges do not mean that these ‘cross-designation’ friendships cannot exist. Mukherjee mentions that in such situations, the school leader’s role as a guide and as someone who upholds the vision of the school becomes important. The school leader or anyone else in charge, can remind everyone of the boundaries within which these relationships can function. It is also up to each teacher to hold the other accountable.

As much as friendships in professional settings can support well-being and increase the likelihood that teachers find another reason to come to school, friendships can also severely affect the school culture. Just as optimism and joy can be contagious, so can disgruntlement. Mukherjee says, “When one teacher might start feeling some kind of resentment, they might convince their friend that there is nothing positive to look for. The resentment then spreads and creates a culture that becomes very difficult to navigate. However, in such situations, questions do arise on what is the true meaning of friendship. As bell hooks might say of love, it is a commitment to each other’s growth. Although making someone aware of the difficulties in a setting and rallying to make a change is worthwhile, making one only see the negatives and lead them to despair, is not really friendship.

Friendships in schools are just like friendships in any other professional sphere. Although it can enrich one’s core role of teaching, it can be even more effective if the fundamentals are in order. These fundamentals are a strong school leadership, clear goals and vision of the school and systems that uphold professional conduct. If these are in place, it is possible that friendships can not only exist but be encouraged. In the cases when friendships create an impediment to the school and culture, it might be worthwhile to go back to the definition of what is a friendship.

The author is the Co-founder and Director of InteGRAL, a gender focused research and consulting firm. She can be reached at fiona@integral-asia.org.

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