I was recently writing to a dear friend about strength, encouraging them during a difficult time of recovery. It was that letter that has inspired this posting.
My grandmother, Grace Hall Pugh, was an amazing woman worthy of inclusion in a Vermont Edition of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A farm girl from Ferrisburgh with no name except “the baby” for the first two years of her life, she decided to get an education at the University of Vermont and get her teaching license. But life has a way of making twists and turns and while she had just begun her teaching career, she ended up getting her pilot’s license. She was Vermont’s first woman to receive a pilot’s license on March 13, 1938. She went on to co-found with my grandfather, Harold Pugh, the FlyRite School of Aviation and trained many pilots during the time prior to WWII. She and Harold managed the Burlington Airport for a number of years, and as was the way during that time, when they were ready for a family Grace turned to a more genteel profession and returned to teaching.
Grace loved teaching and always recognized her first and second grade students many years past as they themselves grew up, and grew old. She said she always could recognize them for their eyes. “The eyes never change, the rest grows, but the eyes never change,” she’d tell me. It was clear that she formed deep and lasting relationships with each one of them who also remembered her years later. She kept a keen mind throughout her life, but her body kept having troubles with health. When we’d talk about how she was doing, she’d be optimistic and positive – but I do remember one thing that used to bother her a great deal. She’d say that her well-meaning friends would tell her they’d pray for a quick recovery, or wish her good health… but she said while those things would be nice, they are temporary. What she really wanted was for them to pray for her to have strength. As she saw it, strength was what she needed most and without it, nothing else could be possible.
Strength certainly comes from within, but we all know that friends, family, fellows all help bolster and build on that strength. This is the strength born of relationship.
The life we live is filled with all types of relationship, and each and every interaction we have with one another builds it slowly, and over time. I tell my children that, like cloth being weaved of many tiny threads, these relationships build. Every interaction they have with one another is another thread in the cloth of their relationship, every thread they offer someone else, builds into their cloth. In order for us to have strong cloth, we must have strong threads, strong interactions. Over, under, over, under.
A strong cloth can be used for many things: to warm you, to give you shelter, to catch you if you fall, to be used as a sail…
The importance of building relationship with our students is instilled in us from our early teacher preparatory courses and basic things like “ask what your students did over the weekend” or “start your day with a morning meeting” are relatively easy entries into the messy world of relationship-building. While any teacher, as early on in a career as student teaching, knows – relationship-building comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Looking over previous blog posts from the last year, I see evidence of deeper relationship building: Alden Bird (RF2018) posted on 5/1/18 about the power of individual conferencing, Peter Langella (RF2017) posted on 10/16/18 referencing a student and the network of relationships that helped make graduation possible for them, Luis Bango (RF2017) posted on 12/29/18 sharing the story of a student in his school’s C3 program developing an Aeroponic Agriculture project. All three teachers speak to the threads that pulled together to make a difference in students’ experiences, in their lives. The threads weave to make a cloth. Under, over, under, over.
As my role of teacher has shifted to that of educator-leader through my work with the Rowland Foundation at my school, I have discovered the importance of relationship at a new level with my colleagues. While I have always maintained a strong partnership with colleagues within my department, my interconnected web of threads was spread thin across our faculty of over a hundred. My fifteen years teaching at the school provided me with a foundation of recognition, at least. My short stint as building representative for our educator’s association, my current role as “sunshine gal,” and my various attempts at previous school change efforts helped to also bolster my reputation. But relationship? A smile in the hall goes a long way, but not far enough. Trust? You have to go deeper than recognition, a smile, or a “what did you do this summer” to gain that. You need both trust and respect in a strong relationship in order to enact transformative change. It requires a long-haul approach, one interaction at a time – over time, over, under, over, under.
This trust building is easiest when there is a positive climate and an establishment of trust at the school – a strong cloth to build from. When there is a history of weak threads, or a period of mis-trust and poor relationships, or if your faculty is spread thin, you must understand that darning (as in to mend, or reinforce) must also be present in anything you do. This process is slower, more arduous, and in many ways more rewarding when it comes back together. I’ve fumbled my way through this process with our faculty over the last year and a half, with some successes but with less finesse than I’d wish. I was moved when I read the post from Jen Kravitz (RF 2012) dated 12/3/18 leading her faculty in building resiliency and balance, an excellent example of darning and building as you go. I was encouraged by the post from Mike McRaith (RF2013) entitled “Empathy is a Skill” from 3/30/18 where it was clear that the strength in the community cloth could hold the challenge of difficult conversation and deep growth. These two examples show the weaving of relationship from the perspective of educator-leaders and the growing strength of the school’s community cloth. Under, over, under, over.
Colleagueship and leadership go beyond the walls of our respective schools, and our relationships extend far beyond the borders of our state through the work of the Rowland Foundation. Barry and Wendy Rowland’s support of teachers and educational innovation, Chuck Scranton’s masterful weaving of each Rowland Cohort folded into a larger network, and the strength of our interactions therein, is nothing short of inspirational. After all, as educators we are making a difference in the lives of our students every day. We are shaping the strength of the future.
Strength was what we need most in facing our challenges and without it, nothing else will be possible. As we move forward with intention in 2019, let us do so with the understanding that each strong thread builds a stronger cloth, together.
Over, under, over, under.
Abbie Bowker, a 2017 Rowland Fellow, teaches students Visual Art at Champlain Valley Union High School where she has been teaching since 2004.