Proximity Matters.

This past week was our first full week of school. My favorite parts of the week were the moments I spent in classrooms with teachers and students. Everywhere I went there were teachers building relationships with students and students who were building connection with each other. I saw teachers asking students what kinds of things they wished their teachers would say to them. I heard teachers building their students’ confidence with words of affirmation and specific praise. I heard teachers playing music, students dancing, and lots of laughter and smiling. Play and joy are not just the work of elementary. Play and joy matter deeply in our work at the middle school and high school levels too. Play and joy are also important for adult learning. Play and joy matter at all levels.

There is only one way that I know how to do this work and that’s through close proximity. For those of us in district office roles and even for those of us serving in building leadership roles, it’s tempting to stay in our offices. There is no shortage of clerical work to do. No shortage of meetings to attend. However, the work that makes me feel most alive and makes me feel closest to my purpose, happens in classrooms. There is a certain kind of heartbeat that you can feel when you work alongside others in a school. It’s just not the same in the office.

I’ve heard it said that people have to hear something seven times before they internalize it and believe it. This makes me wonder how often people need proximity in order to trust each other too. We often wonder why teachers don’t feel comfortable sharing in professional meetings and learning spaces and yet, I wonder what we’ve done to strategically cultivate collegial collision in the moments that surround these types of events. The more we “run into” each other and stop and chat…the more we create space and time to have good conversations about teaching and learning that are not dictated by box checking, the more connected we feel, and the more likely we can see the good in each other. Trust tends to go up when proximity goes up.

There are many educators in big schools who do not know the names of all the people with whom they work. Just as students are just one caring adult away from success, we as adults need to be seen and known by the other professionals in our building. No one wants to feel like they are invisible or like their work doesn’t matter. When we don’t know each other’s names, when we don’t know a bit about each other as human beings, when we don’t have moments of levity and laughter together, how can we truly get to doing the hard work of making our schools a better place for students to learn and grow? Change requires vulnerability and vulnerability is nurtured by close proximity.

We simply cannot do this work well without proximity. People with positional power become even more intimidating when we don’t see them very often. No wonder so many of us tense up when principals come into our classroom for a walk-through or evaluation. If evaluative moments are the only moments we get together, that doesn’t feel safe. That doesn’t make me want to let my guard down and be a bit more human. It makes me want to perform and show my “shiny self.”

The same is true for our students. If the majority of our interactions with students are evaluative or compliance-related, they can’t learn more deeply. Students will be too focused on looking like they are doing school or their assignments right to have any room for curiosity and wonder. I write about this more deeply in the draft of my book because I think we mean well but sometimes lose our way in the hustle of school.

Proximity helps us stay on track. Being in the hallway between bells helps us build relationships and spread a positive interest in our students. Being in classrooms as administrators and leaving positive notes shows teachers how much we appreciate all of those small moves they make on a daily basis that make a big impact for students. Many of those small moves don’t get celebrated in big, rubric-driven evaluation moments and yet these moves are critical to student success.

Being around and lending a helping hand can do a lot for a school and school district. Proximity builds trust. So, we must make space for proximity and make space for staff to be around each other too – in a relaxed way. Don’t be filling that time with to-do lists and boxes to fill out all the time. Sure, sometimes we have to do what we have to do, but we tend to overdo it. Make space for meaningful connection and discourse. What we water grows.

Water connection. Start with proximity.

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