The Social Side of Educational Change: The Importance of Relationships and Connectivity

Alan J. Daly, Professor and Director of Educational Leadership Doctoral Programs at the University of California, San Diego shares a bit about his background in public schools and higher education and what he believes is the importance of relationships in thinking about educational leadership and school reform.

I am a first generation public school attendee and the first in my family to attend college. For 16 years, I worked within the public school system as a teacher, a psychologist, and finally as a site administrator. For the past 13 years, I have been at UC San Diego working in research around educational leadership and reform. Having experience in PK-20, I feel that my experiences uniquely position me to understand the world of practice in the wider educational system. I believe that bridging practice and research is really important in moving the next generation of work forward.

Just to be clear, when I now use the term “educational leader,” I conceptualize it in a very broad way. I believe that educational leaders are not only those that have formal titles and roles but, leadership can occur from any seat and any place.  This opens up the space of “educational leader” to include students, parents, community members, teachers, and principals, and central office leaders. We are in a challenging new time where traditional approaches may not get the results we want; conceptualizing “educational leadership” to be a more inclusive terms provides us with opportunities to draw upon the wisdom of all leaders, whether in formal or informal roles, and to design innovations and approaches which maybe not yet be envisioned.

Throughout my entire career, my work has been driven by the idea of the importance of relationships and our ability to connect to one another in deep, meaningful, authentic, and genuine ways. Much of my work focuses on these relationships, or social ties between and among educational leaders. I am not referring to the kind of ties only associated with going out for a beer or wine, coffee with friends, but rather the broad range of connections we have with one another (e.g. sharing expertise, practices, collaboration, etc.). I think about relationships in two ways: the quantity of ties you have with others—meaning the numbers of ties; and the quality of these relationships, having to do with trust and being vulnerable. When we consider relationships, if we only focus the number of relationships we have we miss out on the importance of the affective element which includes the strength and depth of the connections we have with one another. Consider that you may have an advice with relationship with someone you are not close to—advice still flows, but not at the depth one would have if you highly trusted that person. Let’s look at a few examples of the idea of the role of relationships in reform.

While much of my work focuses on supporting specific schools and districts with educational reform by understanding the quantity and quality of relationships. I also think we have to broaden our understanding of the “where” educational leadership takes place. In my work I am concerned about both the face to face and virtual relationships that leaders have to support their work and practice. Let’s look at an example of these virtual relationships that take place on Twitter for example:

The big takeaway message I want educational leaders to walk away with is that any reform effort, change strategy, or innovative programming is always layered on top of an existing base state of relationships, and in fact it is these relationships that influence the depth, speed, and uptake of any undertaking. A growing growing research base has shown just how instrumental leading with relationships is. For an example of what this work looks like in action see the video below:

Dr. Daly’s perspective challenges us to think through the key role that relationships play both in on-the-ground (face to face) and online (virtual) in supporting or limiting change. We welcome this insight into viewing educational reform differently and hope that it helps inform your current or future work in the field!