Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's All About Relationships

In my line of work, I often hear:  It's all about the relationships you build with families.  In this field, it's all about relationships.

My babysitter, who was a former colleague, and a mentor of sorts to me, used to say it all the time.  It makes me a little prickly, or itchy, when I hear it.  Not because I disagree, but because I'm not, first and foremost, a relationship person.  I'm a strategist, an analyst of data, a planner, a big picture thinker, a pragmatist, but not so much of a relationship builder.

I taught myself how to do small talk in college, when I realized it would be necessary for my teaching career.  I'm best at small talk when it revolves around discussing young children.  I genuinely like young children, observe them closely, and usually have lots to say about how about wonderful and interesting they are.  Parents like to hear about how wonderful and interesting their kids are.  This works for me.


I teach a yoga class at a middle school in the city where I live.  When I took my maternity leave almost two years ago, we missed the start date to begin classes that fall.  When I was ready to return, the paperwork had been misplaced, and our use of the building had not been approved.  My boss was inclined to forget the whole thing.  The class wasn't a huge money maker, and the hassle of tracking down the paperwork and obtaining permission to use the building seemed like too much work.

The six to eight people enrolled in the class called my boss.  Repeatedly.  Day and night.  They tracked down an alternate location for the class.  Then they tracked down the principal at the middle school, who finally approved the use of the room.  They let my boss know that the space was available, and asked when I would be returning to teach the class.

How many people are in that class?  she asked me.  When I told her, she said:  It seemed like at least twenty!


This afternoon I woke my son from his nap, and we joined my sister and her grad school class in Ecological Engineering, visiting an after-school program in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.  We worked with children who recently arrived in America from Somalia, to build a series of raised garden beds that will trap and reuse rain water.

I carried my toddler on my shoulders, and we watched as the students dug holes in the soil to plant pear trees.  I mingled with graduate students from all over the world, young girls in hijabs flying plastic kites, boys battling on a basketball court and others cooperating to plant onions in straight rows, and a volunteer who promised to expand the center after he was drafted by the NBA.  My boy shared his goldfish crackers, and tried with little luck to get a kite off the ground. 


I went back to teaching fitness classes at six weeks postpartum, despite my c-section, and my three month leave from teaching.  I taught a fitness class every weekday evening.  My son was breastfeeding, and I hated pumping, so I breastfed immediately before leaving, dashed out to teach a one hour class, and rushed home to breastfeed again.  He wasn't hungry, but he cried every night for his mama nonetheless.  I persevered, believing it was important for my son to get used to being cared for, and comforted, by his father.  Important for my husband to discover, and prove, his competence, without my breasts always edging in between his efforts and his son's cries.

I came home, for weeks, to a sobbing baby and a despondent husband.  I was close to giving up.  One evening I called my sister while driving home, and poured out the story of the sobbing baby, and the miserable husband.  I'm going to have to give them up, all my classes.  I thought it would get better, but it's not.  I come home to crying every night, and it's just awful.  I'm going to have to quit all my classes.

That night, for the first time, I opened the door to smiles.  My guys had finally figured it out.


Part of my job now is to recruit families to participate in our program, and this is done through building connections in the community with other programs serving families in poverty.  So today, at the after school gardening program, I introduced myself to the director of the program.  I met her son, and she met mine.  We talked parenting classes, and clashing cultural values, and the role of education in escaping poverty and obtaining independence.  I offered to visit and speak with parents in her program who might be interested in ours.  She invited our families to visit her center anytime.  We exchanged e-mail addresses, showed children where to put displaced worms, and learned new facts about marigolds and basil from the gardening experts.


He's almost two, and I'm down to two classes a week.  He's just started crying again, every time I leave in the evening.  Last time he cried for 25 minutes.  My poor husband.  The truth is, I'm not so personally dedicated to my fitness classes as I used to be.  I don't usually want to go.  I'm tired in the evenings, and two classes a week is more like treading water than going anywhere.  Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it to stick with them.  My baby boy bawling feels like the final straw.

But then I remember how my class members fought for me.  How they rose together in a mighty flurry of phone calls, and took action where my own boss wasn't able, or willing to do so.  I square my shoulders against my son's sad, sobbing face, and remind myself of the importance of competent fathers.  I close my eyes, inhale, and remember the loyalty of my longtime students, of how grateful I am for their faith in my teaching.  I put my foot on the gas peddle, and drive into the evening air, away from the family with whom I spend most evenings, and toward this group of women with whom I have spent the last five years of Monday evenings.


Tomorrow, I will e-mail the director of the after-school program, and follow up on our conversation.  It's easier to sit in my office, and do my job alone.  But it's far less effective.

After all, in my field, it's all about relationships.

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