Monday, May 9, 2011

The 5:1 ratio and school relationships

Public speakers The longer I work in education, the more I am convinced that successful educational experiences are, to a great extent, the results of building positive relationships.  These relationships can be student:teacher, teacher:teacher, student:parent, parent:teacher, etc.  I am also of the mind that at the core of every strong relationship is effective communication.

This begs the question, “What defines effective communication?”  For schools, I would be as general as saying that effective communication is the interactions of school members that advances the mission of the school.  More specifically, this may take many forms, including:

  • Specific and accurate feedback on student work
  • Follow up on school events
  • Discussion of pedagogy and curriculum
  • Forums to share thoughts and ideas about how to help individual students

This list can be endless, but each example involves building, nurturing, and employing a team or partnership approach to the school’s operations.

While the idea of establishing strong relationships is not a new concept for schools, it is often one that is elusive and taxes energies.  These relationships take time.  An atmosphere of mutual trust and respect are key ingredients, but are not easy given or earned.  Strong relationships also stand the test of time and are not easily swayed by the crisis of the moment.  Much like a strong marriage, relationships at the heart of educational success recognize that each side will not always live up to expectations, but over the long run, their should be no doubt that decisions were made and actions were taken for positive and noble reasons.  Our means and methods may be debated and discussed, by our intent should not.

If we at least somewhat agree to this past analogy, can we also agree that strategies that help foster strong marriages may also help establish strong educational relationships?  If so, I think an important piece for schools to remember is the work of John Gottman.  Gottman’s research with married couples suggests that those who engage in a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions have a much better statistical chance at establishing a happy and stable relationship than those who do not.  In other words, for every negative interactions, 5 positive ones are needed to maintain a reservoir of good feelings.

What does this say about establishing strong relationships in school?  I think it demands that we reflect on our communications with the ratio in mind.  When you get a message from school or a parent of a student, what is your initial reaction?  When you send messages, what is the tone?  Do you see a pattern forming?  Are efforts to be more positive (or at least proactively positive) necessary?  If so, can you begin establishing that habit now? 

A quick list of areas that may be affected by the 5:1 ratio include:

  • school website
  • emails
  • newsletters
  • phone conversations
  • parent/teacher conferences
  • “bus stop” and “drop off/pick up line” conversation
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