How to Make a Difference in 2 Minutes a Day - By Nancy Steinhauer


Recently, I had the pleasure of spending time with Jamie Kudlats, a principal who has just completed his PhD from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Jamie’s dissertation was on the importance of the relationship between principal and students — an area that  has not been explored in research very much at all. He studied four excellent principals at the middle and high school panels and found that all four invested time and energy into maintaining strong relationships with their students. The benefits were many. As Jamie and I discussed his research, we talked about the moments of joy in our roles, which often coincided with meaningful student encounters.

At The Mabin School, we talk about the 4 Rs: Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic, and ‘Relationship. In North Carolina, Jamie told me, they talk about 3 Rs: Rigour, Relevance, and Relationship. In our book, Pushing the Limits: How Schools Can Prepare our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and I write about the 3Rs and the 4Cs: Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. Whatever you call it, relationship is the key that unlocks the door to learning.

After talking with Jamie, I hopped a flight to Québec City where Kelly and I had been invited to read at the Imagination Writer’s Festival. That evening I sat in on a session with Esi Edugyan, who has won Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize twice and been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize twice as well. Barack Obama listed Washington Black, her newest novel, as one of the best books of 2018. The moderator asked Edugyan what inspired her to become a writer. Esi reports that she was a poor student, except in languages. A beloved English teacher encouraged her to study writing after high school, which she did. That English teacher still shows up today at her readings whenever she is in her hometown of Calgary. She describes how her teacher “saw” her. Imagine if nobody had? Would Canada still have this brilliant author in our midst? That’s the power of relationship.

At our last staff meeting, I showed Dr. David Tranter’s video on Motivation and I posed a challenge to the teachers. Choose your trickiest student — the one who really pushes your buttons. This student is tricky not because there is anything “wrong” with him or her; rather s/he is tricky because of the reaction s/he evokes in you. For me, it is a student who is always telling me about rules other kids have broken. Maybe this annoys me because I was that kid. I still remember the painful moment, shovelling the snow with my dad, when he warned me off such behaviour. “Your friends won’t like you if you keep telling on them.” I loved enforcing the rules. (Future principal?) It was really hard to stop. So over the past two weeks I have been making a point of seeking out that student and engaging him in conversation every day. This is the challenge: take your trickiest student and spend just a few minutes every day engaging him/her in a positive, relationship-building way. Interestingly, what I have found is that by being more intentional about relating with this student, I have begun to seek out other students with whom my relationship is more tenuous than I would like and making a concerted effort to interact with them more. This strategy has made me notice my own patterns and disrupt them.

I am lucky to work at a school with only 150 students. I see and talk to each student just about every single day. Even so, taking this time to reflect on my relationships has helped me to pay more attention to students who may need me more than I realize. At our next staff meeting we will talk together as a staff about how the challenge went, and what revelations it led us to discover. I can’t wait to learn from them about their stories. This exercise will bring us closer to our students, and closer to each other as well. Let’s hope more of our students feel “seen”the way Esi did. It only takes one adult to make the difference, but the chances are better when many adults are making the effort to be that warm demander.