“Relationships before discipline” ~ unknown. I do not know who stated this first or at which point throughout history. This does not worry me one little bit. It does, however, strongly resonate with me and my general approach to life. Relationships are the building blocks of culture, in all walks of life; business, sports clubs, classrooms and more. So, how do I create a culture in my classroom? Of course, in circles.
“Why do we always sit in a circle, Mr. Bristow?”
I love classrooms; the displays on the walls, hanging from draw string, from wall to wall. The layout of the tables, chairs and other furniture, the colours in which I see on entry into this bastion warms me up in the morning. The vibrant smells of crayons, mixed with copy paper and those weird odours that seem to only emit from children makes me smile. By far and a way though, the single thing I love most about classrooms is the couple dozen little humans that enter each morning; generating the energy that lights up even the dullest of days.
I’m different, very unique. I know this. I know this because it’s seldom that I come across people even remotely like me. In everyday life, we surround ourselves with like-minded people; to feel safe, comfortable and like we belong. I don’t often get to do that yet I don’t mind really. I don’t see myself as unlucky for this either, it’s not a hindrance moreover a blessing. For I get to spend each day with an uncanny, incomparable and unmatchable group of outstanding future heroes of our society. No, these people are not like minded but at least they are open minded. Each is very, very different. The reason I bring all this up is that, in life, sometimes those who are most different make the biggest of difference.
In my classroom, the room looks slightly different, thanks mainly to my beautiful partner, for she designs and creates, from scratch, displays worthy of Pinterest honour boards. In my classroom, the practice is not all that different, I’m sure there are teachers out there who preach to the same choir as I. But in my classroom, it feels different. There is an air of warmth on the coldest of days, there is a net of safety in the most forsaken of situations and there is trust. A small concoction of love, support and care, brought to school with every child from home and mixed with this trust. Then, something spellbinding occurs. I think most refer to it as learning. Within this classroom, learning of a whole new magnitude occurs, it’s simply awe inspiring. I’m actually not quite sure how but every day each child leaves home and comes to another family, this one is forged not through blood but experience and smiles. Butterflies fill the air with positivity and lions hold the fort from the horrors of normality. We happily share and leave a trail of positivity with each day. And we sit in circles.
Real relationships are built upon connection. An association in where two beings are at one time or place and choose a common goal or end point, then working together, despite facing adversity that often presents itself along the way, eventually reach this end point. The magic of the relationship is in the reflection. When all the dust settles and the magic is seemingly gone, a little more is squeezed from the ensuing experience. You look back, you say, “remember this?” or, “what about that?” You laugh, cry, banter and sigh; ‘what a ride’, you think. Then you smile. When this is done, more goals are set, and experiences and reflection happen, like a merry go round. The only difference being when you return to that same point from before, you’re a little older, wiser and a lot happier. Things look and feel that little bit different. Imagine the beauty of doing this with those you spend each day with; in an office, on a work site or other. It sounds dreamy, right? I spend my days, listening and learning, learning and listening. “But you’re a teacher, don’t you teach?”, you may ask. Of course but living is learning not teaching. Within the environment in which I proudly claim to have established, I even more proudly say I don’t own or rule. The best leaders are those who empower the masses beneath. As a tightly bonded team, we set standards, not records, we aim high and spread each other’s wings. For we know, within this place, we are safe from torment when we fall, free from ridicule when we transgress and most importantly, we learn most from exposing our deficiencies. And when others are rewarded, despite knowingly having bettering achievements of our own, we smile. We celebrate and we do it together. We remember to applaud the progress as a momentous breakthrough and dream about the journey that lies ahead. We eagerly await what is to happen next. And we sit in circles.
I have spent, and still spend a lot of time being envious; devising plans, being as ambitious as my conscience allows me, self-loathing when things don’t work out the way my glorious dreams cast them and doubting my impact is real. It is really difficult to care for yourself as much as you care for others. I work tirelessly to perfect things when I preach progress, dispensing perfection to others as a disease that should be quarantined before they understand the harm in which it brings. I stress my mistakes will bite me rather than better me, without upholding to my pedagogical theories of improving and then I profess to be higher and all mightier than those who cannot find a mentor to show them the way, confusing my abilities with my humilities. I bathe in nostalgia precariously living in experiences of others, hoping I’m making people proud, vicariously watching and reminiscing on what I may have or may not have done. Then, as an adult, I formulate and ask questions. I refer to my desires of leading a community based on care, support and selfless recklessness and reflect. I don’t expect anyone to be perfect and I intend on conveying the best examples of this in my own journey. I wake up each morning and feel there is something more to learn, something more to give and someone else to put on a pedestal. I walk into an environment like no other, its beauty echoes off the ceiling and replenishes hope. The people to change the way in which we think, learn and live, sit before me. I have a job and a choice to do it well. I choose to embrace the challenge to educate for life and not for loot. So together, within some small building with identical walls and ceiling to thousands of others, we strive to be diverse and dare to be different. We ponder what we may become and which of us will first take on the world in the future. Which one of us will shine today? We make choices, not based on ‘me’ but ‘us’, for we’re a team and we have a purpose. We start to feel invigorated to make a change, to make a difference. And we sit in circles.
“Why do we sit in circles, Mr. Bristow?” This question, pardon the pun, circulates teaching banter, parenting gossip and, most commonly, student forum. I live by it. I love it. The kids love it. So much so, the years following our triumphant tenure, they return and plead for circle time. I honestly think it’s the single most important strategy in classroom management. Forget tone of voice, proximity, boundaries, clapping rhythms, counting and, heaven forbid, raising your voice; this basic structure goes well beyond the realms of managing and explodes into the utopia of unconscious conditioning. Like teaching a dog the routine of loving the comfort of their bed, humans unknowingly pine for circles. We have all heard the mystical love a circled ring brings. It’s in the unification of a newly wedded couple at every wedding ceremony ever known to mankind! There’s something so remarkable about a circle that whenever we share something important or celebrate greatness or show off, we do it circles. There’s a science to it. We yearn for them. We cannot hide our demons, our inner fears or uncouth mannerisms here, for we form a circle and merely in the act of forming it, the collective becomes unbreakable.
I use it for the benefit of others, for the security of trust and the pursuit of belonging, yet then I notice something, others fear it. The circle creates a formidable force. This is intimidating. I once had a colleague unwittingly mock my strategy, saying it was a flaw in my practice, a mask that covers the ugliness the reality of school life brings for students. “You cannot sit around when you’re twenty-two in a circle and reflect on why things didn’t work out”, he proclaimed in annoyance at my relentless belief in the circle’s nurturance. “When these kids grow up they can’t sit around and solve the issue in the safety of a circle”. I replied, "Why not?"
The best university classes are in open forum settings, where tables are needless accessories. Scholars are born in these environments, producing innovative and unprecedented theories on everything. And they sit in circles. Some of the greatest companies in the world conduct think tanks on how to change the landscape in their chosen industry, placing the corporation at the top of their centred world. Their culture is undeniably greater than the chasing pack of envious businesses. And their productivity is greater; their workloads are heavier yet their stress levels lower. They work for the value of team and care. And they sit in circles. The (not so) secret weapon polar-opposite landscapes, across differing historical times, have in common is the powerful, all conquering circle. Think about it, intervention meetings, A.A networks and even the Knights Templar instilled this very simple but overwhelmingly effective system. They open up, they look each other in the eyes and reflect. They produce results of progress and envisage a better world in the not too distant future. They make a change, they make a difference, in even the smallest of ways. And they sit in circles.