Building Bridges

By Ardith Shirley Director of Professional Learning ardith.shirley@nbta.ca

Anyone who has spent any time driving on a New Brunswick highway this summer can attest to the amount of taxpayer dollars that have been invested to maintain and improve our transportation infrastructure.

No matter the route you were traveling, one could virtually guarantee that at some point your journey would be delayed due to bridge or road maintenance. As we each hurried to our destinations, some of us couldn't help but become a bit impatient when the signs at yet another construction zone insisted we "proceed with caution", "reduce speed ahead", or even "stop" as the oncoming traffic crossed yet another bridge that had been reduced to one lane!

(Some of us may even have found ourselves so frustrated with the delay in our travels that we were tempted to utter a few expletives under our breath as we fretted on the amount of time being wasted due to the "unnecessary inconvenience".)

As we begin the 2008-2009 school year, I invite you to consider the work of your local D.O.T. 'crew' as a possible underpinning to help guide your work as an educator this September. While your temptation may be to rush to your "destination" (a.k.a. cover ALL those curriculum outcomes), don't forget to MAKE the time for that initial investment of building and maintaining your bridges (relationships) with students, parents and colleagues.

Building Bridges with Students
In his article, "The More Students You Reach, the More Students You Teach", (Education Digest, May 2008), Jon Hall shares several principles that his school community has adopted to foster quality teacherstudent relationships. These principles, such as having the respect of students, requires that you earn it, making the time to really listen to students through routines such as class meetings and school advocate programs, as well as allowing choice, being honest and of genuine help to form strong teacherstudent relationships which Hall argues are the very foundation for increasing student achievement.

Further reinforcement of Hall's ideas are found in the book, The First Days of School, where Harry & Rosemary Wong suggest that the three most important things that must be taught the first weeks of school are discipline, procedures, and routines. (This book is still one of the favourites on my shelf!)

The Wongs strongly recommend that we incorporate various activities that build community in the classroom into our lesson planning. They suggest that while these activities can sometimes feel like a "waste" of precious time in a busy classroom, they go a long way in fostering a positive classroom atmosphere that is safe, secure and conducive to learning and greatly reduce the amount of time and negative energy wasted dealing with needless disciplinary issues at a later date.

Building Bridges with Parents
As teachers, it is also essential to carefully and intentionally construct strong relational bridges with the parents and guardians of our students. I have always strongly recommended that teachers call or write each home a few days before school begins to introduce yourself and then once again within the first two or three weeks. These initial communications foster and develop a strong rapport that will benefit everyone should the going get "tough" in the months ahead. As well, the important information and insights into students' lives outside the school walls that can be garnered through these conversations can be invaluable.

Building Bridges with Colleagues
"Relationships among educators within a school range from vigorously healthy to dangerously competitive. Strengthen those relationships, and you improve professional practice."
This quote taken from one of my favourite articles by Roland Barth entitled, "Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse", makes a strong case that in order to build capacity within a school we must make time to reflect on the types of relationships that educators have and why the nature of those relationships matter. An added bonus of the article are the examples shared of how several educators and school communities have created true cultures of collegiality that have led to incredible student success. (Available online: http://snipurl.com/nz7f)

There is no doubt that fostering strong relationships takes time and does not happen by accident. It requires a significant investment of resources especially time, one of our most precious. I firmly believe that when it comes to the fundamental infrastructures of communication and relationships amongst the members of our school communities, we simply must abide by the axiom: 'take time now in order to save time later'. This initial investment, although a bit time-consuming on the front end, will pay dividends tenfold in paving the way for clarity, purpose, understanding and, in turn, achievement down the road. Let the construction begin for a successful school year!

May I recommend?
In keeping with the "construction" theme, the "Model School" initiative that is evolving in several of our high schools this fall is certainly creating lots of buzz. The May 2008 issue of Educational Leadership is titled "Reshaping High Schools" and provides several examples of how other jurisdictions are embarking on similar explorations and may help provide a more global context of the trend.

Also, "Asking Good Questions" by Kenneth E. Vogler (Educational Leadership, Summer 2008) is an excellent article for teachers of all subjects and grade levels. I LOVE the fact that it includes a classroom observation instrument that guides teachers through the process of working in pairs, observing each other and being observed leading classroom discussions in order to strengthen the quality of our questions AND strengthen teacher collegiality! (An especially excellent tool for BTIP pairs to try!)

Finally, Shirley Hord's article, "Evolution of the Professional Learning Community" (JSD, Summer 2008) is an excellent resource for anyone looking for a refresher on how the PLC movement has evolved and continues to evolve. She cautions that many who claim to work within a PLC are actually misusing the term and identifies five components of research-based learning communities that are essential to true success.

As always, should any of these articles tweak your interest, I would be happy to send you a copy. Also, if you have come across a gem worth sharing with your colleagues, I would LOVE to hear from you!