Olaf and I were wrapping up our time together when I asked him a final question, “What makes an excellent teacher?”
“There is not ‘the excellent teacher,’” he said. “There is the teacher who can make a connection with the students. The student has the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ He can be hard, he can be loud, but the student always has to have the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ This is the relationship piece.” He went on to add that the teacher should know their subject and how to make it exciting. They should know ‘how we talk’ at the school, and they should add insight to school discussions. But it was clear that the relationship between students and teachers was the keystone for everything else.
As soon as Elizabeth and I decided to focus this trip on education, we knew that we had to go to Switzerland. According to the last PISA test (talked about here), Swiss teenagers are both the happiest and highest performing students in Europe. We would have been happy to visit any school, but we were lucky enough to be invited to Ruggenacher, which had recently been nominated as one of the best schools in Switzerland.
Olaf, the school principal, picked us up from the train in his Nissan Leaf. During the short drive to the school, we made small talk about our trip and the unusually warm weather. Once in his office, he gave us some materials and started to explain the approach of the school, “We think the most important thing is to have a good relation from teacher to student. If there’s a good relation, and if teachers are in their topics very well, then we have a good school. That’s the bottom of our thinking.”
Switzerland is known for its affluence and this is one of its best schools so, we were somewhat surprised to learn about Ruggenacher’s demographics. The majority of the students are working class and over half are from immigrant families. Olaf spoke as much about the supports offered to students who act out or fall behind, as he did about anything else. On the way back to the train station, he told a story about a representative from PISA who came to visit. He asked the man about how he can tell if a school is good or not. “It’s all in how a school treats the bottom 10%. That is everything,” he said.
Now, I’ve heard lots of schools talk about the importance of relationships, but how this priority actually looks in a school can be a tricky question. I asked Olaf what they do to make sure relationships are a lived priority in the school, not just words in a vision. He was quick with examples.
- Longevity. Instructionally the school is organized into ‘Lelas.’ These are groups of 3-4 teachers who follow students for their 3 years at the school. So, a class of students will have the same three teachers for their entire time at the school. In this way, teachers are able to build strong relationships with each child. The lelas also have a lot of autonomy to plan instruction and come up with support systems for individual students who need it. As Olaf said, “We have no change. It’s very important that we have stability in all of these groups. That’s the point, and why I think we are quite a good school. Because we have good teachers and they work together for a very long time.”
- Student Coaching. Every four weeks each student has a meeting to discuss with their ‘coach/advisor’ about how they are doing and what their next steps are. If a student needs it, these meetings can be more frequent, sometimes 2-3 times a week. The teachers get special PD on how to facilitate these coaching sessions effectively in both the short and long-term.
- Independent time. There are large rooms at Ruggenacher that are filled with 50 student cubicles each. All 50 students are never here at once, so they could share, but Ruggenacher knows that having their ‘own space’ is important to teenagers. Students can personalize their cubicles with photos and their organization chart. Each student spends 7-8 hours a week here and they’re able to manage their own work time. Of course, they’re responsible to complete work, but they have freedom in how they prioritize their tasks. It’s basically a study hall, but taken much more seriously. I think it’s interesting that Olaf mentioned this as part of the relationship strategy. It’s part of a deeper understanding that we saw in Switzerland that, increased responsibility can strengthen a student’s relationship with school. We asked students what they thought of this time and they lit up. It’s clearly one of their favorite parts of the day.
- Earned Privileges. Students who show they are ‘good’ by being respectful and curious can earn extra privileges like the ability to take home a digital device or get a pass to stay inside during recess. In the US we often take privileges away for misbehavior. I think I like the idea of earning privileges with good behavior better. Students may earn one distinction but not another, and very few students have them all.
- Respect. The most important aspect of student-teacher relationships at Ruggenacher is something that Olaf mentioned several times: students and teachers can talk with each other. Their communications aren’t defined by a power dynamic, their defined by a mutual respect. This piece is necessary to make everything else work, “Strong teachers can talk with students eye-to-eye. You don’t have so much ‘Teacher and Student.’ They can discuss as normal people should discuss. So the students, you will see, they are difficult in some situations, but mostly you can talk with them. From the first day they come to us they are partners. You can feel it.”
It’s true, we could feel it. The students at Ruggenacher are no different than students at any other school we’ve visited, but unlike students at schools with similar demographics they feel that school is for them. They feel that school is on their side, and they feel this way because of how they are treated when they’re there. Relationships are a priority and the systems of the school actually reflect that priority. Of course, there are other factors in Ruggenacher’s success and we’ll talk about them in future posts, but positive relationships, Olaf insists, are the foundation of everything.