The Importance of Relationships in an Intentional Community

As I’ve settled into Friends Select and Philadelphia this summer, and have had the pleasure of learning about our community, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned in more than a quarter century as an educator. Summer is usually a reflective time for me, as it is for many who work in schools. When you add to the summer the stimuli of a new school and a new city, then my reflectivity is sharpened. It’s been interesting for me to note that many of the important lessons I have learned, I learned early (though often I didn’t recognize how key they would become to my practice as an educator), and that the years have deepened and enriched those lessons without changing their fundamentals. It’s a bit like revisiting a favorite poem and finding that the changes in our life have changed our understanding, as the passage of water in a river changes the shape and depth of the river. I also note with satisfaction that these fundamentals apply to everyone --- students, teachers and parents --- who are part of a school community. Here is the one I have come to view as being the most important:

Make Strong Relationships Your Main Priority

Mrs. Mary Kendrick, a forty-year veteran of Atlanta Public Schools and my mentor teacher when I student taught at Benjamin Mays High School, taught me this on the first day I worked in her classroom. She was a short, wiry, no-nonsense sort who had taught at every grade level from first up, and was finishing out her career that year as the English department chair at Mays. When I asked for feedback after my first lesson, Mrs. Kendrick told me that my lesson was fine but that it was irrelevant because I didn’t know my students, they didn’t know me, and until mutual knowledge (and trust) were achieved, nothing meaningful would happen in the classroom. Mrs. Kendrick told me to go home and come back the next day to begin to work on relationships rather than American Literature. 

This was not something than I had learned in the education courses I was taking, and I was nonplussed by Mrs. Kendrick’s feedback, but the commitment I had made to becoming a teacher was important to me, so I went home and thought about what I would do differently the next day. I didn’t have an easy night.

Over the years I have put much thought into the dynamics and structures of relationships, particularly as they operate in schools. Caring relationships are founded in trust, respect and shared purpose. When there is a power differential (and there is in almost every human interaction), then the person (or the institution) with the relatively greater power must take the first steps, and, surprisingly, the most important of these is a willingness to show vulnerability.

The next day when I walked into Mrs. Kendrick’s classroom to meet the first class of the day, I began by telling them that they were doing me a huge service by allowing me to be their student teacher, and that my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t do as good a job as they deserved. I went on to tell them that I needed to know when something we were doing worked for them, and when it didn’t, and that they should give me that feedback in the spirit of service to their classmates, themselves and me. Some looks were guarded. Many were skeptical. By lunchtime I was unbelievably tired and felt like a fool, but by 5th period Mrs. Kendrick was smiling and humming a bit of gospel under her breath.

The next several weeks were the most rewarding of all the time I’d spent becoming a teacher. I went home exhausted every day, but woke every morning refreshed and eager to make the drive to Mays and my students. When my students gave me positive feedback, I thanked them and we moved quickly on. When the feedback was tougher, I’d thank them and ask for perspective and suggestions. Mrs. Kendrick spent less time in the room as the weeks went on, sometimes meeting me only at lunch to ask and answer questions.

My last day at Mays was a blur of leave-taking. Each period had planned something different as a way for us to say goodbye. I found out that day that I didn’t mind crying in front of people to whom I was not related by blood or marriage. At the end of the day, I thanked Mary for her care of me while I’d student taught, and for the closure of that last day. She refused to take credit, however, for the closure, and she told me that in each period I’d taught, a different student had taken ownership of the process of saying goodbye, and that usually it was not a student whom she would have predicted doing such. She told me to put the cards and notes the students had written for me in my “rainy day drawer.”

I still have all of those notes. When I am having a rainy day, a day when I’m not sure why I do what I do, those are the first notes I read. I may hear a forgotten voice asking me a question or confiding an insight, or might remember a face, which I know must be greatly changed by now, looking puzzled or pleased. Then I remember my first experience in becoming part of an intentional community, of nurturing the relationships that make them possible, and in that remembering, remember my purpose.