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Relationships, collaboration and participation in diverse teaching teams

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

Diversity is recognised as having potential for enriching both practices and programmes in early childhood education, but this depends on an ability to work across and with diversity in open and collaborative ways. In our webinar on effective relationships, collaboration and participation in diverse teaching teams, researcher Dr. Sonja Arndt, ECE leader Shahla Damoory, and ECE teacher Kerry Petera unpack some of the barriers to and enablers of effective collaboration and participation that result from the diversity in teachers’ backgrounds, cultures, and languages, as well as lifestyles, and pedagogical and personal beliefs.

Trust as underpinning participation and collaboration

Trust is a necessary component of relationships, which enables people with diverse views, values and beliefs to reflect together. Building trust takes time and effort, requiring the creation of spaces that allow each person to contribute fully. Developing a climate of trust requires people to open themselves up to other people’s views, seeking opinions instead of stating opinions, and generally being open to learning. It is also important not to be policing people, but rather to create a culture that people can relate to and respect.

The danger of assumptions

Assumptions can hinder our capacity for effective collaboration and understanding in diverse teaching teams. We often assume that other people think the same as we do, when actually what is common sense for one group of people is not necessarily common sense for others. Different people often will draw different understandings from a staff discussion, communication or training. Another common assumption relates to a belief that silence and a lack of speaking up means people are in agreement, when instead, silence may reflect philosophical differences in beliefs or someone not knowing how to voice a different perspective.

We might also hold assumptions regarding the best way to be inclusive. The celebration of culture is often promoted as a strategy towards cross-cultural understandings. However, despite the best intentions to recognise and support people from diverse cultural backgrounds, sometimes people are not ready to be celebrated. It is important to give people opportunities to articulate for themselves how relationships and activities would work best for them.

The need for communication and dialogue

Talking about the ideas we hold is a stepping stone to genuine collaboration and participation. If there’s trust, then open-minded discussion is more likely to occur. However, it is important to find out how different people initiate and do dialogue and what things are appropriate to say. In meetings, activities such as brainstorming can help everyone to participate, offering team members the opportunity to compare their perspectives and examine differences.

Questioning can be useful, but it is important to find the right question to ask. Some questions can seem judgemental, confrontational or may make the other person feel hurt. Sometimes rather than questioning, you might just give the person time, and find out more facts as you wait.

Positive inquiry as a useful approach

Finding the positive in each person is a key part of a positive inquiry approach. Everyone is unique and brings something positive to the centre. Equally nobody is perfect, including ourselves, and everyone is learning and growing together. Allow everyone to be themselves and to utilise and be appreciated for their strengths. Here we offer a whakatauki: Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi (with my basket and your basket we can care for the people). When we recognise and celebrate the uniqueness of each person, we can naturally build the trust required for collaboration. This is also about how we are valuing each other, so it is felt as genuine and meaningful, rather than another form of ‘othering’ or way of marking out difference.

The importance of starting with yourself

We should encourage each other and ourselves to believe in ourselves, and share our individual values, focussing particularly on who we are as individuals. We need to be passionate in our own little space and work on our own attitudes, beliefs and engagements.

Rather than expect to be able to know other members of our team, and therefore know how to work with them, it may be helpful (and a relief!) to take the attitude that this is impossible. We can never even know everything about ourselves, and are continually learning about ourselves, so we can never expect to fully know the people we are working with in our teams. This means it might be better to question ourselves before moving out to talk with others.

The capacity to ‘sit with’ uncertainty

Developing trusting, collaborative relationships that enable everyone’s genuine participation requires us to find ways to sit with uncertainty, and to let go of the idea, belief or desire that we will achieve certainty, or develop a definitive way to plan going forward. Uncertainty opens up spaces for diverse actions and perspectives to come through, and prevents us from working on assumption. Making space for uncertainty and discomfort also means taking very small, uncertain steps.

The concept of “mini-revolts” can help us to think about creating a space around ourselves that disrupts what we’ve been believing and doing, which helps us to move forward with ourselves and with our own practice. This can then engage other people around us in similar activity.

How to navigate difficulties and conflicts

It can be tricky when cultural differences lead to conflict and difficult behaviours. Here it is important to catch our assumptions and in particular the ways in which we are interpreting and framing behaviours, and the judgements we are making. This is remaining open and leaving room for uncertainty is critically important. Attitudes such as blame are unlikely to support solution-finding, instead seek to use situations to learn about each other and ourselves. Mindfulness can be a useful practice for coming to know ourselves, valuing ourselves and generally looking after our own well-being.

Questions for exploring these ideas in more detail

In what contexts do you feel comfortable and confident to participate and collaborate with others? What are the features of those contexts that lead you to feel like that?

How can you use situations that disrupt your own assumptions to help you come to understand both yourself and the teachers in your team better?

In what ways can we seek to disrupt our own beliefs and practices? How might the diversity present in our teams support us with that?

What does the concept of ‘sitting with uncertainty’ mean to you?

How do you like to be valued? How do you show that you value your fellow team members?

How can you use the ideas discussed in this article as an opportunity to strengthen relationships within your teaching team?

How might the ideas discussed in this insight article and webinar apply to your interactions and relationships with diverse families and whānau?