#268 – Relationships: The Secret Ingredient in the Recipe of Success, with Robin Ilac

Unpacking Education March 6, 2024 41 min

In this episode, we are joined by Robin Ilac, Instructional Coach in the Santa Maria Bonita School District. Robin talks about the importance of relationships in education. She shares personal experiences, strategies, and insights to help us understand why relationships are so important and also aid us in developing and improving relationships in our own educational spaces.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.

Rita Pierson, from her TED Talk, “Every Kid Needs a Champion”

Community Care

A supportive community can help hold us up through the tough times. It can help a struggling student get through the day, and it can aid a teacher with overcoming self-doubt and fatigue. While this type of supportive community is the goal, it does not happen without effort. Our guest, Robin Ilac, points out, “You can’t have community care without having relationships.” And these relationships need to be intentionally cultivated.

With this perspective in mind, our conversation centers around how to effectively develop that type of positive community space. This space might be a classroom, it may also include a schoolwide culture, and it may even be evident in school-to-home connections. All of these interactions and environments are important parts of the quest to develop strong and healthy relationships. Tune in to hear the full conversation. A few highlights are included below:

  • About Our Guest: Robin Ilac has 25 years of experience in education, most of which as a social studies teacher. She is currently in her first year as Instructional Coach in Santa Maria Bonita School District. She says, “I think the roles that are most important to me are wife, mom, daughter, and friend. Those are the roles that give me my strengths when days are hard.”
  • Joy: “I don’t do new year’s resolutions,” says Robin. Instead, she picks a word to focus on for the year. This year’s word is “joy.”
  • An Elementary School Experience: Growing up, Robin had undiagnosed dyslexia, and she struggled to read. Fortunately, she had a third grade teacher who went the extra mile for her, building a trusting relationship and spending time with her during lunch to help her find a way to decode the words. Robin says, “She was able to unlock that magic of reading for me.”
  • A Secondary Teacher’s Impact: Robin was raised by a single parent, her mother. A high school teacher stepped into a father figure role for her. His support meant a lot to her, and Robin says, “It’s the individual interactions that I had with those teachers that mean the most to me.”
  • Teaching: Robin holds the belief, “Teaching is more than just imparting knowledge. It’s the bigger part. It’s building that relationship and that community with each other.”
  • More Than Icebreakers: Robin says that while they are popular, “It’s not all about fancy icebreakers.” She adds, “Real relationship comes from seeing, and hearing, and celebrating our students.”
  • Names: Relationships often begin by learning names. Robin says, “Your name is beautiful. Your parents picked it for a reason, and I want to honor why your parents gave you that name.”
  • Stages of Building Relational Capacity: Just as icebreakers alone don’t build relationships, neither do other single events. Instead, Robin says it’s an ongoing sequence of events that build on each other in stages. First, you must build a safe space where people trust each other. Then, things may get messy as students learn your expectations. From there, the community can begin a learning journey together through “scope and sovereignty.” Finally, a class can achieve group actualization. “That’s where the magic happens,” says Robin. Students become self-directed learners and teachers of each other, solving problems together. “That’s where you’ve unleashed the potential of the community,” she says. While these are stages, it’s important to recognize that they also ebb, flow, and may need to be reset at times.
  • Adult Relationships: Robin doesn’t like the point of view that some positions at a school receive more value than others. She says, “If we’re an adult on a campus, we’re all here supporting our kids.” Every adult is important, and she tries to get to know them all.
  • Mixers: To help her get to know staff at her new school, Robin and her coaching partner have facilitated popcorn and hot chocolate bars, where staff can come, meet them, and ask questions in an inviting space. She also sends out newsletters, celebrates staff successes, and conducts mini-PD sessions at staff meetings. By doing this, she can begin building staff trust that is so important when she joins them in their classrooms as a coach.
  • Home Connection: Educators can reach out to parents in multiple ways. They can use digital tools, like communication tools built into student information systems, emails, and phone calls. She says, “There’s something really positive about phone calls home.” And these phone calls should not be reserved for communicating concerns. They should also be used to celebrate positive behavior and classroom successes.
  • A Positive Connection: Robin recalls a connection she made with Miguel, a quiet student who was struggling academically in her classroom. She took the opportunity to connect one-on-one with him after seeing his eyes light up reading letters and journals from Civil War soldiers. Being from El Salvador and having left his family behind, Miguel connected with the idea of being far from home. Robin created a safe space where Miguel could process his feelings and talk about it. She says, “It’s those little baby steps that I see that are so important because that is building relationships.” Because of this interaction, Miguel’s confidence and participation in class grew.
  • Advice to First-Year Self: If Robin could go back in time and give herself advice as a first-year teacher, she would tell herself, “Breathe. It’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint.” She’d also say, “Prioritize your well-being. . . . Look for the small wins. We’re not the standardized test score.”
  • Show Who You Are: Robin says, “It’s okay to show our true selves.” She adds, “Be courageous and be vulnerable with each other because out of that comes that real sense of community that can lead to that community care.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • In what ways are relationships important to you?
  • Give an example of when a positive relationship helped you through a difficult time.
  • How can you build relationships in your workspace?
  • How might your school setting get to a place of “community care”?
  • What is an action step you can make moving forward to improve the community in your classroom or workspace?