I have recently commented on the importance of relationships – social networks – in helping teachers to achieve agency in their work. With the current emphasis in Scotland on teachers being agents of change in the development of Curriculum for Excellence, relationships are as important as ever. Our research (the Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change project – see http://www.ioe.stir.ac.uk/events/tacc.php) suggests that the nature of relationships experienced by teachers in their day-to-day work is a vital factor in determining whether they achieve agency. It is a key issue that can mean the difference between ‘floundering in the dark’ – to quote one teacher participating in our recent Highland research – or enacting the new curriculum with confidence. The big question here, then, is ‘what sorts of relationships matter?’.
Our research suggests that there are a number of dimensions of relationships that need careful attention in schools, and that there is a significant role for leaders in shaping the environment where certain types of professional relationships flourish. Leaders have a clear role – to mitigate risk, to protect teachers who are innovating, to articulate a vision, and to establish processes and structures within which relationships (and innovation) can thrive. This is facilitative, rather than authoritarian leadership – leadership where power is put to good use, and where trust and reciprocity are part of the deal.
A key dimension is the orientation of relationships. Vertical relationships – all too common in Scottish schools – have their place. They are vital for disseminating information, for example. However, they rarely provide opportunities for professional dialogue – one teacher on our project described their school meetings as being ‘like school assemblies’. They are a necessary, but insufficient condition for running a good school. Horizontal relationships are more suited to the development of a collegial culture, but there are a number of caveats here.
First, entirely formal relationships of this type (for example working parties) can be limited, in that they frequently have a narrow, problem-solving agenda. Second, horizontal relationships in school can be inward looking, focusing on existing practice. Teacher learning communities and learning rounds thus need outside input – for injecting new ideas, and providing access to external expertise. Otherwise, as one cynic recently suggested to me, learning rounds may be spaces where learning goes round and round! Such external impetus is generally required to create dissonance, and to interrupt habitual practice – the grain of sand in the oyster shell that stimulates the development of the pearl.
Above all, relationships need to be substantive. They need to be about sense-making and the development of shared understandings when complex, new ideas come along in the form of policy. Our research suggests that informal relationships are great for this – providing mutual support and access to new ideas. In turn these contribute to enhanced teacher agency and the development of collegial and collaborative cultures – in short the sorts of conditions in schools where CfE will develop effectively. Of course such relationships do not develop in a vacuum. They need to be fostered, and they need space to grow. And finally they need support, encouragement and resourcing from school leaders.