My hat is off to all educators out there who just survived one of the hardest years, if not THE hardest, in education to date. If we never hear the words “flexibility” and “pivot” again, life would be grand. However, as we look ahead to the 2021-22 school year, there is still a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it. One hurdle we all must face is relationship-building. This is critical for the success of your classroom, school, and district. We all know this, but COVID and the strange year we just survived has convinced even the most skeptical educators that relationship-building is essential to student success and teacher retention. There are a lot of great strategies for building those relationships in the classroom, but right now, let’s focus on what we can do to nurture them with our staff. Here are five things that all administrators can start doing right now to improve the culture in their buildings next year.
#1. Reach Out
I know what some of you may be thinking: What does she mean reach out? We see them daily during the school year. My door is always open, so they know they can come see me if there’s a problem. While that is true, not all teachers will take the time to track down their administrator and let them know if they are struggling with something. In fact, many of us would rather ignore our health to remain at school. The pandemic has changed that for some, but the feeling of pushing ourselves so that we can give our best to students takes its toll. Now, back to the open door.
For some reason, there is always an “I’m in trouble” feeling when being called to or voluntarily going to the principal’s office. To alleviate the stress this might cause, get out and about whenever possible, and visit your people. Ask them how they are doing, see if they have situations in their personal lives that need celebrated or supported, and then offer to do what you can when it is requested or needed. Just a quick daily chat can help build relationships. I once had a principal who sat me down in my room during my prep and told me I was valuable to the school and to him, so I needed to do whatever was necessary to take care of my health. He understood that I did not want to take off a day or leave early, so he made sure I felt valued and then encouraged me to take care of myself. That really helped me.
During the summer, reach out to your staff with a quick text that hopes they are having a great summer break, getting things done, or getting the rest they deserve. If you are on social media (use your professional account if you feel like “friending” staff on social media is wrong), tag teachers in fun things, helpful things, or whatever you come across and want to share. Engage with them here and there so that everyone still feels connected. Time apart can add some awkwardness when the group is back together, so try those little things to stay connected throughout the summer so that the big back-to-school meeting feels more like a family reunion.
#2. Invest Time
Administrators suffer from a lack of time, so fear not, I am not about to add more to your already full plates. I do, however, want you to give the teacher you are talking to, whether it is face-to-face or virtually, your complete and undivided attention. Make the teacher feel as if what they are saying or showing you is important. You already know that it is, and they know you know, usually, but this simple act can really make a difference. I once had an administrator, whom I loved dearly as a principal, start a hallway conversation with me (multiple times) and leave in mid-sentence on his way to do the next thing on his list. If we can’t finish a sentence before we are out of the conversation and on to the next thing, it makes the other person feel less valued and somewhat unimportant. I made it a rule that if the sentence wasn’t completed, I didn’t have to do whatever it was that he was asking me to do. As an English teacher, I felt it was justified to require a full sentence (and we had a good relationship on top of that). While I knew he valued me, other teachers receiving that same mid-sentence approach (or retreat) did not. It affected the relationship between administrator and teacher. Even if you are present for the full conversation, are you fully present? Make sure that you convey with your eye contact and body language that you value what the other person is saying. Handle distractions in a way that does not detract from the conversation. This is easier said than done, I know, but it matters. Pour into your staff during those moments in the hallway, cafeteria, workroom, etc. It matters.
#3. Lean In
There are always going to be those tough situations where emotions are high between staff members or between you and a staff member. One strategy for handling this that fits nicely here is the toddler method or “Lean In.” I heard a mediator for a law firm discuss this on a podcast I was listening to, though now I cannot recall which one it was.
The strategy is simple. Example: If the dad is home with a two-year-old while the mom is at work, and the two-year-old throws a fit wanting mommy, what does the dad do? He does not give in and drive the kid to the mom’s workplace. No, the dad will lean into the emotions of the child by saying something like, “I know you miss Mommy. I miss her too.” This validates those feelings, and that goes a long way toward resolving the conflict. Then the dad might offer an alternative activity to help the child not dwell on the fact that mommy is at work.
The Lean In does not mean give in, it simply validates the feelings and then redirects the child. How might that look in the classroom? A teacher might say, “I know you are tired from last night’s ____ (game, family issue, stayed up too late, etc.), but let’s try to do at least this part of the assignment. Start with it. Let me know if you need a walk up the hall and back to help yourself wake up, or you can stand up to work if that helps you.” An administrator can do the same thing. Let the teacher know that you understand that they are upset about ____. Show them you see their side of the issue (and make sure you see their side of it), and then redirect them. You can negotiate some, but don’t give in if it is something that you must enforce, enact, or have their compliance for at the moment. Lean in, show understanding, then redirect. This goes a long way toward building a great relationship and school culture. Be as patient and kind as you are to a toddler without any condescension or attitude. Care, understand but hold firm on the issue.
This isn’t anything new or unique, and we know it is important, but it is so often not used to its full potential and impact on staff culture. Celebrate. Sometimes you might start a staff meeting by asking if anyone has anything thing they want to share or celebrate, and that’s good. Just keep in mind that not all of the teachers will feel comfortable sharing for a variety of reasons. Also, if the administrator is the one announcing what awesome thing this teacher did or has happened to them, the impact of the whole staff celebration is amplified for that teacher. Celebrate the personal and professional. If you do a newsletter, include a celebration column or corner. Track those you include to celebrate so that you know when you have celebrated something for all of your staff. Don’t leave anyone out! If you share emails about announcements or just information the staff needs for the week, include good things you see happening in specific classrooms. Do it in a positive way that makes others want to know more about that activity or lesson. Find a way to spotlight ALL of your staff in some way. If a teacher isn’t as engaging or successful, there are still things to celebrate. Find them. Leave a sticky note or card on their desk or computer, or in their mailbox. Tell them you are happy for them, proud of them, or something that helps them feel connected to you. Whatever method you choose for celebrating others, make sure to embed a system to track those. It is very important to include those silent voices among your staff.
Like all of the rest of the categories in this article, this one is very important. Inclusion is a popular word right now, so I am using Include so that I don’t detract from the inclusion movement. Newsletters and weekly email updates do help the staff feel included, however, you can do more.
- Do you have a building leadership team? Do they keep notes? Share those after EACH time you meet. Providing access and encouraging teachers to access these notes is key to ensuring your staff doesn’t feel like only a handful of people matter and get to make decisions on those important issues. Invite your staff to attend those meetings as guests so that they can see for themselves what goes on in the meeting room. Invite them each time you meet. The perception will shift from exclusive to inclusive when you do this.
- Don’t send out a bunch of surveys. One or two is fine, but for the rest of the information, visit each staff member, either in the hallways or scheduled appointments in your office, and ask your questions. Let the staff know that their voice matters. Don’t assume a position of being right or defensive while listening to that staff member. Make sure that they know survey results and responses will not be used against them (to fire them). If it is a sensitive issue, then find multiple ways to let staff share their opinions. An online survey, face-to-face conversation, and a box for placing handwritten responses are all good options and can be used independently or offered simultaneously. Encourage all staff to respond.
- Even when a staff member tells you their viewpoint on an issue, and you totally disagree or on the opposite side of the issue, refer back to the Lean In method. I have heard teachers throughout my 25 years of teaching complain that nothing they say ever seems to matter. Their opinions aren’t wanted. This is not a good culture to have in your building. If you can listen to and then act upon even one thing from each staff member throughout the school year, large or small thing, that will go a long way toward reaching that utopian culture.
- Seek out opinions and ideas from staff members that tend to be quiet or more reserved. There are many reasons for a teacher’s reticence, so do what you can to ensure their voice is heard as well. You show them that they are valued simply by asking for their opinion.
- Try holding an Educational Garage Sale when discussing your Building School Improvement Plan. Have the leadership team run the activity, and collect all responses and results from this. Make sure everyone is aware of the ground rules, and build collaboration when having your garage sale. This is a great way to get everyone talking and feeling that their input is valued.
- If you make social media posts via the school social media platforms, be sure to give a shoutout to an individual teacher each week or two throughout the year. Make sure all are spotlighted. Praise from the administrator goes a long way!
I know that this information really isn’t new to most administrators, however, it is important, so consider this your summer refresher course. The next school year will be here before we know it, and it may be as tough as last year, though we are more prepared now if it is. Begin by reaching out over the summer to check on your staff. You could even organize an unofficial back-to-school bash at a neutral location (or your home if you feel comfortable) a week or so before teachers officially have to report back to work. Get-togethers throughout the year are great too. Staff goodie days, where everyone can bring a potluck dish are fun too, so be ready to implement those as the pandemic health regulations allow it. Let your appreciation shine each day, and your teachers will reciprocate that feeling and attitude. Let’s work together to make 2021-2022 a fabulous year despite any obstacles that might be in our respective paths. For now, though, take a deep breath and take care of yourself first so that you are truly ready to lead this fall. You are important. You matter.