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August 1, 2020

Appropriate Ways for Principals to Build Relationships with Teachers

According to a recent report from Education Week Research Center, around three quarters of principals believe that (a) they make a positive contribution to their school’s environment and (b) their teachers feel comfortable bringing problems to them. However, when asked the same questions, only 37% and 25% of teachers respectively said the same thing about their principals.

So what’s the disconnect? Why do principals and teachers perceive principals’ impact so differently? There could be many explanations, but one thing that principals and teachers both agree on is that it’s paramount for them to have a positive working relationship. In this article, we’ll focus on some practical steps principals can take to build better relationships with their teachers.

It’s All About Relationships

In their extensive research on relationship building for principals, Sue Rieg and Joseph Marcoline found that teachers and parents often perceive principals’ top priority to be test scores, while relationships are secondary. It’s not hard to see why they might think this, given the amount of pressure principals are under to return higher and higher measurements of progress every year.

However, the researchers go on to say that flipping these priorities will actually lead to the results everyone wants: “It is our contention that if principals spend more time building relationships with students, teachers, parents, and community members, test scores will rise and discipline referrals will diminish.”

Based on several surveys of both principals and teachers, Rieg and Marcoline found that the following gestures go a long way in building good relationships with teachers:

  • Recognize teachers individually and often for a job well done. This might mean a shout-out at a staff meeting, a personal note, a celebration of years of service, or even nominating teachers for local, state, or national awards.
  • Be visible and involved. This one’s simple, if not easy. Do your best not to get stuck in your office and in meetings all day, and instead, make your presence a staple throughout the building.
  • Care about teachers beyond the school building. It’s important teachers know you care about them as a whole person, not just a cog in the machine. This can be as simple as chatting with them about non-school-related topics, calling a teacher who’s been out sick for a while to check on how she’s doing, or even going to the funeral when a staff member loses a loved one.
  • Make accommodations whenever you can. Like you, teachers have obligations and interests outside of school. Are they caring for an elderly parent? Help them find moments during the school day to check in with their parent. Is their child participating in a play or an awards ceremony? Help them find a way to cover their assignment so they can go watch their child.
  • Convey strength and steadiness. Teaching is difficult and stressful. Your teachers will feel steadier when they know where you stand on issues and when you communicate with confidence in the face of their problems.

Help Teachers Build a Relationship With You

With so many expectations and responsibilities already filling your day, your time with your teachers is probably more limited than you’d like. So how can you maximize that time to make sure your teachers feel heard and supported? ThoughtCo provides a list of 24 great ways for teachers to build a strong relationship with their principals. Here are some highlights of how principals can encourage those efforts:

  • Encourage leadership. When teachers are asked why they’re dissatisfied with their jobs, a theme that often comes up is the lack of control or autonomy they feel. Principals can go a long way in building trust and raising morale by giving teachers an opportunity to lead and own issues that matter to them. A note of caution here: According to a group of administrators at Education Dive, principals should be highly intentional about who they choose for leadership opportunities and also be very specific about their expectations when they delegate authority.
  • Be dependable, organized, prepared, and professional. Imagine a teacher’s been anxiously trying to meet with you for days, maybe weeks. The day of the meeting arrives, and you’re exhausted, haven’t had a chance to familiarize yourself with the issue, and can’t help but be impatient during the meeting. Even if your feelings are completely justified, how will that teacher walk away perceiving your relationship? How different would it be if you took a couple of minutes to re-read her e-mails before the meeting and practiced active listening even if your emotions aren’t quite in it at first? These types of practices will help your teachers know you’re in their corner, and those positive feelings will in turn trickle down to how your teachers treat their students and parents.
  • Demonstrate growth and continual improvement. How refreshing is it when one of your teachers shares a bright new idea or shows improvement in an area you’ve talked about? Teachers find these values refreshing in a principal too. You’re likely growing and learning constantly, whether by improving your own abilities or catching up on trends in the education field. Don’t keep it quiet! Show your teachers how you’re growing and evolving, and they’ll not only trust you more, but be encouraged to do the same.
  • Reward positive, solutions-driven people. We’ve all heard the cliché “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It’s easy for your schedule to fill up with “squeaky” teachers who may or may not have productive solutions to the problems they’re relaying. Although it’s important to make all teachers feel heard, you can encourage a culture of positivity and proactiveness when you publicly praise teachers who are going above and beyond to make your school a better place.
  • Have an open-door culture. Teachers are often required to open their doors to you or other coaches for evaluations. Having visitors in the classroom doesn’t have to be a stressful or adversarial event. In fact, the more often you pop your head in to smile and tell everyone they’re doing a good job, the more you’ll become a welcome fixture in your teachers’ classrooms. An open-door policy can be a two-way street as well (within reason). Make sure your teachers know they’re welcome in your office when they have needs or a new idea to share.
  • Respect teachers’ time. Like principals, teachers balance a lot of different responsibilities. They’ll always make time for you as their principal, but make it your goal that they look forward to that time rather than it being an obligation. If you ask for a meeting or send an e-mail, make sure your teachers know you wouldn’t be asking for their time if you didn’t have something helpful, informative, or encouraging to share. This principle also extends to being timely yourself. If you told a teacher you’d have a resource or a decision for them by a certain time, make sure to deliver so they’ll know you’re trustworthy and value their requests.
  • Value students above all. Like you, your teachers got into the profession because they love teaching and want their students to succeed. Even in moments of disagreement or circumstances that are outside of your control, if you keep the emphasis on working for students’ best interests, your teachers will love you for it.

Don’t Forget You’re a Person Too

A good principal focuses on relationships, but that doesn’t mean she never thinks about herself. When you’re in such a demanding and never-ending job, self-care is paramount. And we’re not talking about binging Netflix or having a spa day (though by all means, do those things too). Rather, we mean that principals should build energizing and supportive routines into their daily lives and work. Here are some tips for building such routines from Edutopia:

  • Find supporters. Teachers have peers working right next door, but when you’re the only principal in the building, it’s easy to feel like you’re alone. Resist this feeling! You might have to look a little farther than next door, but there are school leaders across the world who will be happy to help you work through ideas, share research and best practices, or commiserate after a hard day. Find other principals you admire either online or in your district, and make a connection; you won’t regret it.
  • Make time for reading. Your days are so packed with immediate issues you need to resolve that it can be easy to let reading fall by the wayside. However, reading can refresh your perspective, give you ideas, and be a way to connect with your teachers and students. Principal Jessica Cabeen shares what she’s reading in her staff newsletter and by posting a picture or quote outside her office door. This simple gesture has struck up great conversations with her teachers and students.
  • Maintain healthy routines. When we get busy, we get out of routine, or worse, “busy” becomes the routine. When you add up school events, board meetings, and other responsibilities, a principal’s workday can span his or her every waking hour. However, this pace is not sustainable for anyone. So every time you have to add something to your schedule, make sure you have a counterbalance somewhere else. Did you have to skip your morning workout to meet with a teacher before school? Make sure to reschedule instead of letting your health fall by the wayside. Did a last-minute emergency keep you after school? Make sure to call up a friend for dinner so you can unwind.
  • Look for the positive. In addition to carrying a great deal of stress and responsibilities, principals also receive lots of feedback—almost daily and many times negative. It can be a heavy weight to bear. That’s why it’s important to take time to reframe your thinking to focus on the positive. For example, instead of getting down about the number of complaints, remind yourself that people are sharing their thoughts because they care and because they believe you can help (even if that’s not how they phrased it). Jessica Cabeen recommends taking a few minutes at the end of the day to jot down what you’re grateful for and what you’re looking forward to.
  • Practice mindfulness. When you’re wrapped up in working and meeting with people all day, you can become disconnected from what’s going on with your body and your emotions. For example, has a teacher or parent brought a tense issue to your attention? Take a moment to make sure that tension doesn’t infiltrate your thoughts or even your posture. A deep breath and a moment of mindfulness can go a long way in keeping your stress levels down and diffusing hairy situations.

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