Washing feet in education: The importance of relationship

After meeting with a group of NBCTs-to-be in Boston last week, I scurried through the rain to my car and flipped on the radio. What I landed on has been in my thoughts for the past week. It’s got me thinking a lot about education, school culture, veteran teachers and new ones. It has me thinking about washing feet.

On this particular week’s Fresh Air, the story was “House Calls to the Homeless,” with James O’Connell, the president of Boston’s Health Care for the Homeless. He was in the middle of telling host Terry Gross about when he first starting working with this population as a young doctor, he had a rude awakening. None of his patients would talk to him. The veteran nurses on staff wouldn’t warm up to him. He was not able to do his job as a doctor.

One of his colleagues, a wise veteran nurse, sat him down to offer these words of wisdom: “You need to spend a month washing feet.” In order to earn and build trust with his patients. In order learn from the veteran nurses who had been on staff for years prior to his arrival, taking care of the same patients day-in and day-out. In order to better understand the culture of the workplace in which he was now making his professional home. He had to wash feet.

After a few weeks, one of his regular patients who refused to talk to him finally spoke up. “I thought you were a doctor…why are you bathing my feet?”

I keep marinating on this line. This story. Its application to life‑to education. This metaphor in a much wider sense.

First is the biblical reference. I am a spiritual person, not necessarily a religious one, but I have a lifetime of Sunday school classes in my past. I think of the act of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. There is something in the washing of feet that signifies a shift in the power dynamic, a humility, a deeply humbling act. An acceptance and trust from one human to the other.

Then the practical side. When Dr. O’Connell was washing feet, it was because this was probably the first thing-the most immediate thing-that the homeless patients needed. After spending days and nights on their feet, this small (but large) action was a first step towards relief, meeting the first need of the patients.

But digging deeper, this was the first action in building relationship. Relationship between a doctor and patient is so crucial: it’s everything. Especially when your patients are hardened by years on the street, mistreatment from passer-goers, and feeling like society has left them high and dry, this act is the first step to building trust.

Looking away from the patients to the workplace, I could imagine what message this sent to the nurses and staff in the building, in what I could imagine might be a pretty hierarchical power dynamic. What statement this made to the veteran nurses and staff, from the young buck of a doctor that they were gifted.

So back to the world of education.

The “washing of feet” translates in education to the action of building relationships.

I have been thinking deeply about the power of relationships in EVERYTHING we do in education. It is the keystone to our work in the classroom with our students, with pedagogy and content all depending on this first step.

It is knowing that we must understand the nuances of a school before we can begin to even think about change. The way a school breathes. How we must build new reforms, movements, and even shifts in teaching practice on a firm foundation of trust and change.

It is how in teacher leadership, we must build relationships with our colleagues if we are going to have true conversations about instructional practice. If we are going to open the doors of our classrooms, there must be a safe space on the other side.

It is when new administration comes sweeping in to save “struggling” schools and districts. They might have a lot of heart, a lot of passion, and a ton of vision and energy, but if they don’t attend to the metaphorical washing of feet of the school or district, they will be just like Dr. O’Connell talking to his regular patient, trying to help, but never getting a response.

I think of my mistakes in regard to overlooking the importance of building a firm relationship before trying to even think about change. 

How I was too hurried with my advocacy and ideas at times, when I should have spent time washing feet before acting and proposing bold change.  This “foot washing” could have possibly changed a “no” in my past work to a “yes.”

When we were advocating for a teacher advisor on our state board of education in Florida. When I was new to a school, and rushed to jump into leadership with new ideas, without paying homage and learning from members of the veteran staff.

When I was a consultant working as an instructional coach for an elementary school, hopping right into trying to create true collaboration with the faculty members without building relationships first(epic fail, by the way).

In order for our work to move forward, we must first wash feet.

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  • Marti


    Your timing on this blog couldn't be better.  Recently our district hired a new superintendent who knows everything about everything and cares nothing about the employees in his care.  His arrogance manifested itself in a community meeting where he told everyone there that "the majority of the people in this room couldn't pass the 5th grade standardized test."  The district is under threat of closure due to low academic performance, and he has stated numerous times that this is not the time to worry about teacher morale.  I believe that those relationships are integral to the success of a district so desperately in need of a turnaround, and his arrogance will never yield the results we all are so desperately seeking.  The idea of humbling oneself demonstrates that you, as a leader, are willing to be in the trenches with the teachers and staff.  That kind of attitude will result in loyalty and success.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    On Washing Feet – Literally & Figuratively

    For me this post provides a wonderful metaphor for the servant leadership that should drive change and action in our classrooms, schools, districts and the edu-verse at large. 

    I couldn’t agree more that at its core our work, the work of teaching, learning and leading, is about relationships. The hustle and bustle of our professional lives too often tempts and lulls us into forgetting this.

    I had the opportunity to literally wash feet — the feet of dozens of widows in rural Kenya, in the summer of 2013. This experience impacted me profoundly and forever changed the way I think about what ties us together (and separates us) as a human race. In fact, I firmly believe if every human had this experience — the opportunity to literally wash another’s feet — we would in this act alone deepen our connection to each other and form lasting relationships. Partnerships that move beyond competition to authentic connection.

    So thank you so much for this — for permission to carry this metaphor with me into the teacher leadership world — to adopt washing feet as part of my leadership mantra and to mentor others to wash alongside. 

  • Linda Winokur

    Language Arts

     I also listened to this story and like you, queried about how this applies to education.  So, what does "foot washing" look like in education?

  • Sami Sutton

    Relationships Drive Education

    I definitely belive that relationship drive education. Whether it is the relationships we make with our student or our colleagues, relationships allow us to do our jobs better. I have seen in my career that sometimes students simply will not do work for teacher that they don't like. Some students need that personal, trusting, relationship with their teachers as motivations to work for them.  Colleagues are the same.  I know that if a close colleague asks me to support them at a meeting or in their class, I will be more willing.  If someoone with whom I do not have a good relationship asks the same of me, I may likely think twice or try to come up with an excuse as to why I could not help. 

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