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The Relevance Triad © - A Prerequisite

This week's post represents the beginning of a series of articles describing and outlining the Relevance Triad ©, and its crucial role in the education of today's students. The Triad is not an instructional strategy or specific pedagogical approach. Rather, it represents a philosophical context that allows learning, true deep learning and understanding, to occur.

There is a prerequisite to building this context. The Relevance Triad cannot appear just anywhere without regard for some essential elements that will allow it to operate and flourish. It can only happen in schools that are deliberate in defining a culture of, and for, learning and that strive to be communities.

Thomas Sergiovanni, in Building Community in Schools (1994) wrote: "Though most principals, superintendents and teachers have a desire to do better and are working as hard as they can to provide quality education to every student they serve, the road is rough and the going is slow. The lead villain in this frustrating drama is the loss of community in our schools and in society itself. If we want to rewrite the script to enable good schools to flourish, we need to rebuild community. Community building must become the heart of any school improvement effort." (It should not escape the attention of anyone that this remains absolutely true twenty-five years following Sergionanni's publication of this sentiment.)

For thirteen proud years, I served as the principal of a remarkable school. We entertained visitors frequently and they would predictably observe, and then ask, "There is a palpable feeling in this place, a vibrance coupled with a sense of peaceful purpose. How do you make that happen?" It's a challenging question to answer, especially when one is caught up in the administrivia of running a school and simultaneously paying attention the the agendas of off-site decision makers. But, I knew (or believed I knew) the answer to this line of inquiry. Since my retirement from that incredible place, free of the distractions pulling me in multiple directions, I am able to confirm the belief of my response. We, the big collective "we", played close and ongoing attention to developing and nurturing a sense of community.

Our school, our community, was (and is) a public arts magnet academy serving students from grades 6 through 12 in a large suburban school district. We paid focused attention on all disciplines of study, seeking opportunities to integrate them where ever possible. We especially placed collective value in the arts. By "we" I mean teachers, students, administration, support staff and parents. The arts bound us. The arts were our common vocabulary. The artistic endeavors of our students were met with respect and encouragement. The assumption of creative risk was encouraged and any concern about the embarrassment that comes with failure was minimized. Our students experienced the physical, emotional, intellectual and creative safety to thrive, both while attending our magical place and also in their lives beyond our walls. They experienced a community, a democratic community, that celebrated diversity, encouraged innovation, cultivated divergent thinking, promoted artistic experimentation - all rooted in a culture of relationships and respect. The educational gift they realized, their experience, was not accidental or coincidental. It was intentional that we collectively understood our school's culture, our community, to be the deciding characteristic that allowed excellence to be pursued and found. It was work, hard and challenging work. Consistently, it was deserving of our constant attention and occasional sacrifice (the topic of a future article). Our culture, our fragile community, defined us.

It must also define any school that hopes to incorporate the Relevance Triad.

I can hear some skeptics. Their rebuttal sounds something this. "It's easy to create a sense of community in a school that has a built-in common value; in your case, the arts."

While we enjoyed a common value of the creative process and artistic expression, the care and feeding of our culture of community was far from easy. We had to tackle issues of jealousy between departments. Due to the public nature of the performing arts, the studio arts students sometimes felt like second string players. When you are charged with herding a community of artists, you quickly realize that the first inclination of creatives isn't necessarily collaboration. We had to make certain that the arts were on a firm footing as legitimate disciplines of study that are on par with the sciences, humanities and mathematics, rather than the "they're nice if we can afford it" notion too common in public school systems. Regardless of the setting, creating and protecting a culture of community is work. No shortcuts. Just plain work. I can also cite from my experience the other school where I was principal, a school at the opposite end of a supposed spectrum of school types. There, my staff and I created a culture of "best effort," respect and "awesome behaviors" within an urban middle school setting where 85%+ of the students qualified for the subsidized meal program. There can be no exit ramps or excuses for the work associated with building a culture of community. There is no formula. A "one-size-fits-all" template does not exist. However, some sage advise does.

Twenty years ago, as an aspiring school administrator, I had the privilege of meeting a very prominent leader in my field and enjoyed the opportunity of engaging him in a brief, but significant, conversation. My interest was about effective leadership. My question to him, paraphrasing now because, well, it was 20 years ago. I asked something like: “how do you approach important questions and decisions, and how do you know you’re on the right track?”, or something similar to that. While my exact question to him is fuzzy in my memory, his response back to me remains crystal clear and concise; a bit of advise that I never forgot, and advise that served me well as a school principal for 18 years. His crisp response contained three points:

1) Make sure your mission statement, your statement of purpose, is accurate and up to date.

2) Measure every decision, every question, against that solid mission statement. If there isn’t a clear and defensible match, either the mission statement is off, or the direction you’re heading is wrong.

3) When in doubt, ask

Not only is this an excellent guiding structure for decision making, it is the compass for defining and establishing community. Begin with the questitons: What are we about? What do we value? What do we stand for? Who should we ask? Against the clarity of this backdrop are the decisions that need to be made: What are the actions we need to take to assure a culture of community? Referring again to Sergiovanni, "the road is rough." But, it's passable. It can be navigated, and the exercise is definitely worth the effort and the occasional aggravation.

The figure below uses a triangle to symbolize our triad, the sides of which will be described in subsequent posts. What is key to this, as a starting point, is that it resides within, is surrounded by, the blue circle which signifies the culture, the community, that the triad is designed to serve. The triad cannot exist outside of the community. If we were to move the triangle out of the circle, it would disappear onto the page. Like the Relevance Triad that we will explore, the triangle illustrated here can only happen within the deliberate structures, confines and unique characteristics of the community and its culture.

We invest in what we value. An investment in the establishment and renewed interest in a culture of community will pay huge dividends as we imbed, within this culture, the Relevancy Triad. I wouldn't suggest it if it wasn't important. Kids sitting in our classrooms deserve to participate in a healthy community, one based on trust, respect and the pursuit of excellence. Further, they deserve to experience an education that is relevant. The Relevancy Triad is a key to such an experience. But, first we must secure the prerequisite - a culture of community.

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