To me, working in the Reggio Way is all about a sense of community. Students learning in a Reggio-inspired classroom need to feel like they belong there, almost like the environment is a second home for them. They need to feel respected, free to express themselves, and safe to take risks and make mistakes. But students aren’t the only members of a learning community; teachers need to feel a sense of belonging for the place they work, because school is as relevant and essential to their lives as to those of their students.
As Reggio educators, we tend to focus very heavily on relationships to understand the course of learning. Our observations and documentation are often centered on how students interact with their environment, how students interact with each other, and how they interact with their teachers. When we turn inward, we reflect on teacher-student and teacher-environment relationships, and how they can be honed to better facilitate learning in the classroom.
But in my experience, teacher-teacher relationships somehow have a tendency to fall by the wayside. For a while, I just assumed our school never talked about them because they were the last line-item on the in-service agenda and we always ran out of time. I think some teachers just assume that interactions with their coworker automatically improve with the passage of time, so they aren’t worth discussing. The most likely reason is that teachers just forget sometimes that students aren’t the only ones who need to be shown respect and affection.
Over time, it has become apparent to me that teacher-teacher relationships are the start and the end of the cycle of learning. They are the bond upon which students can start to form classroom expectations, and the glue that holds schools and childcare facilities together in difficult times. The relationships teachers have with one another form the foundation upon which the ECE profession can grow and improve, but also the framework by which we can grow to love our profession more with each passing day.
My co-teachers and director contain an incredible wealth of information about teaching practices, educational theory, business expertise, and practical life experience that is at my disposal every day. And while that is useful to me, they have something that is far more important to me in my growth as an educator. They have lived experience, and they have an intimate knowledge of the context in which I am an educator.
When they make a suggestion, whether I agree with them or not, I can be confident that they are making that suggestion with the specific framework and inner workings of our classroom in mind. They know our students, they know our schedule, and they know the expectations established by our community of learners. My teaching partners have an intimate understanding of me as a teacher, including my strengths and weaknesses. In many ways, my coworkers don’t make suggestions to me; they make suggestions for me. This intimacy and implicit understanding of a learning community is the backbone of Reggio-inspired practices like progettazione. It is so complex that in some schools, they have a pedagogista/o whose entire job is to observe and advise teachers to help them and their students continue to grow. Face-to-face discussions with my coworkers are how I metabolize pie-in-the-sky ideas into real, grounded solutions that fit our program and our students. My co-teachers inspire and comfort me, and sometimes crush my enthusiasm when my ideas are impractical or ridiculous. In many ways, they create a constant ebb and flow of innovation, implementation, and reflection that is organic and profoundly personal.
Additionally, my coworkers have the insight to advise me in not just my teaching practice, but also my life as it relates to being a teacher. They can shed light on the difficulties of being a new parent and an educator. They can share their experiences with burnout, and offer up advice for potential next steps in the field for me and my family. My teaching partner has been working in the field for so long, and has operated in such a variety of positions in diverse facilities, that her word is gospel to me when she chooses to voice concerns for the way I do things or reflect on the trajectory of the field of ECE. I can be confident that, when she has an idea or suggests a course of action, she is never shooting from the hip; she is grounding her assessment in immense practical experience and specific, contextualized knowledge of the learning community she is an integral part of.
But beneath the professional boons my coworkers provide to me, there is an social-emotional relevance that cannot be understated. Especially for those working with younger students, it is vitally important for teachers to establish care routines that help students adequately adjust to their learning environments. Co-teachers, sometimes unintentionally, do the same for one another. My teaching partner and I have care routines for each other that are sometime subtle and sometimes not. A mug of coffee in the morning, an offer to change what promises to be the most raucous diaper of the day, or even something as simple as a chipper “Good morning” can be enough to make a coworker feel nurtured. The benefits of happy teachers are multiplied in the classroom as well. Children are observant and many understand adult relationships better than we may realize. Visibly stressful interactions between teachers can have a negative impact on students, but the opposite is also true. When teachers are friendly (sometimes even goofy with one another) it can cultivate a classroom atmosphere that is productive, but also jovial, fun-loving, and familial.
As teachers, we are given a choice. We can explain the importance and impact of positive peer interactions to children until we are blue in the face, or we can channel our energy to providing a powerful example of positive peer interaction: two teachers who are friends. Cooperation, healthy disagreement, and compromise can all be demonstrated on a daily basis when teachers commit to working together in front of the students they teach. In many Reggio-inspired classrooms, there is an underlying understanding among young learners that the greatest asset in their learning journeys is often the person standing next to them, but that understanding is not specific to young learners.
The truth is that teachers are and always will be another teacher’s greatest resource.
Absolutely love this…and reading it has made me reflect on the kind of care and attention I give to my co-teachers. Thank you so much!
Such a lovely posting. I couldn’t agree more! I also feel that for those of us in education that follow a Reggio Emilia Approach as adults and Teachers we all have varying degrees of comfort levels which navigate how much we rely on, open up to and follow advice from peers, co-works, administration, and parents. Respecting who we are as individuals and professionals are vital to successful and meaningful workplace relationships. It is always a good thing to be in search of disequilibrium, but the gap mustn’t be too large or else we are less receptive to suggestions no matter where they originate. Unfortunately, I’ve worked in environments where there were some co-workers who were not kind or supportive and that really sabotages success for not only fellow educators but children and families too. Regaining trust is then a long journey, because of the immense pain and violation of respect and value that was lost. But I agree 100% that teachers must put their professional relationships on the list as equal to other parts of a successful framework for all Early Learning Environments. Thank you for such a wonderful posting.
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What a thoughtful reply, Heidi! I couldn’t agree more.
Teacher relationships are no different from other relationships in that, in order for them to be successful, they require a certain intimate knowledge of the self. So far in my teaching career, the best coworkers I’ve had have been the ones that are able to convey their personal boundaries and expectations with clarity, not the ones who are most similar to me. Even in a context of aligned values and interests, passive aggression, avoidance, and apathy can make a work environment feel forced, which can make being with children feel like drudgery instead of the gift that it is.
Thanks for reading, looking forward to your next post!
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I enjoyed this post so very much. It made me think of the way I interact with my teachers as a director. I live and work in a place that culture has it that people don’t open up to express idea, don t provide constructive feedback and whenever that happenes it is taken directly and personally. It leads to a general sense of I do what I do and you do what you do. This is very hard for me handle.
That does sound difficult. I like to think of teaching relationships as sort of like a bank. We need to both invest and withdraw to have a successful relationship with a coworker. For every idea I bring to the table, I try to actively facilitate a coworker’s idea, that way it feels more reciprocal and egalitarian. That balance of give and take goes a long way with some people.