It’s All About Relationships

There are many things I didn’t learn in grad school. Like many positions, so much of what I know about being a Principal was learned on the job. In particular, I remember how little I knew about dealing with personnel. How tough should the “boss” be? How much personal separation should the Principal have with his staff? To what extent should the leader know and care about the out of school, personal aspects of each staff member’s life? When should the rules be bent or should the rules ever be bent?

The answers to these questions cannot be answered easily but the secret to success in any leadership position exists in the relationships we form with our staff. More specifically:

  • See your staff as your “classroom”. Years ago in my first Principalship, a master teacher made this comparison for me for the first time. Truly, a faculty has all of the differentiated needs that a typical public school classroom might. There are those teachers who can “go with the flow” and improvise (I call them “jazz players”) and those who prefer a script and don’t deal with change as easily (I name them “classical players”). This jazz vs. classical spectrum is not a bad thing to have for a school. Diversity helps everyone grow just like a classroom of kids.
  • Care for your teachers. It’s important to show genuine regard for each of your staff members and to do your best to “show the love” evenly. Remember birthdays, try to recall family details, and yet respect the privacy of teachers who want to reveal very little.
  • Be ready and willing to ask for forgiveness. Be honest with your staff when you make mistakes. It’s endearing to colleagues when they see a leader who doesn’t assume moral superiority over everyone else.
  • Don’t take things personally. You will not receive daily kudos for your hard work, but it’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets credit.

Our job requires a diverse skill set. We have to be organized, solid at reading and writing, strong at manipulating data, and skilled in using technology. But if there is one key to success, it’s in forming the trusting relationships with our adult classroom.

13 comments for “It’s All About Relationships

  1. October 27, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    I wonder what you think about adding another bullet:

    • Don’t be afraid to go to the hard places.

    How does this fit?

    In talking about relationships we seldom talk about those times when we have to be critical or offer challenging feedback. As a Vice Principal I learned this from my Principal… He always said to me, “If you aren’t willing to go to the hard places, then you aren’t helping your staff or your school.”

    I think sometimes there is a perception that ‘for the sake of a relationship, I’ll let this slide’… with ‘this‘ being anything that is less than satisfactory or maybe ‘meeting expectations’ but not going beyond that (when we know it could). If we truly see our staff as our “classroom” then we need to make sure that we start with having high expectations for all of our “students”, and we do no one a favour if we lower our expectations because we are concerned that our feedback is critical and may thus hurt our relationship.

    On the contrary, I think our relationships can be strengthened… if we show that we are coming from a place of caring, then critical feedback can be very powerful and beneficial to everyone. Being critical doesn’t mean being unkind, or being negative, it means being decisive and/or focussed on producing results.

    I think there are times that we need to realize the difference between being a leader and being a cheerleader… we don’t help our team if we cheer for them, when we should be coaching them. Our coaching style can still foster a good relationship, but if we aren’t critical about our staff improving, and willing to ‘go to the hard places’ to make sure they do improve in areas where we see them struggle, then all the cheerleading in the world won’t make our team better. Good relationships have to include knowing how to cope well with difficult tasks, honestly and sincerely, rather than avoiding them.

    • October 27, 2010 at 9:32 pm

      Hi David:

      I couldn’t agree more! When tough news has to be communicated we can still do it with kindness and respect. In fact, we are not caring or considerate to our students or staff if we avoid the tough decisions. I have had to transfer teachers to another school (against their own choice), put teachers on “plans”, and let staff go. My goal is that we leave those contentious meetings with the staff member still feeling that decisions were made with care and (even if they thought I was dead wrong) that thought went into those decisions.

      You are completely right: Avoidance is not respectful.

      Bill

      • October 27, 2010 at 9:49 pm

        Hi again Bill,
        You make a very poignant point: “even if they thought I was dead wrong”.
        I’ve just had to go there in the past couple days. It isn’t fun, (and probably why I went in the direction I did in commenting on your post). Based on your reply, I don’t think I have as much experience in going to these challenging places as it seems you have, and for me this has been an opportunity to think out loud about my approach. Thank you. Your response is comforting and reassuring. Avoidance is not respectful… absolutely. I think the driving force for me is the simple questions, “What’s best for our students?” That helps make the easy decision, then the hard decision is how to implement that in a thoughtful and caring way.

        Thanks again! I actually ended up making my comment into a blog post, I appreciate the inspiration!
        ~Dave.

  2. October 28, 2010 at 2:09 am

    I believe the top point is to care about your staff! Birthdays are key–by giving them a card and small token of appreciation….and remembering what their weekend plans were and how they went are important on Monday mornings. Last year I made the point of taking a photo of each teacher interacting with students. I mailed it to their parents or children and the responses I received were amazing! Some heartfelt notes of thanks from a few that said they were amazed a principal would take the time and effort to recognize that their child had made a difference!

    • November 1, 2010 at 12:57 am

      I had my wonderful Admin Asst. get together all of the staff birthdays and put them in my iCal. I try to send an email to everyone on the b-day. Love the photo idea. Thank you!

      Bill

  3. October 28, 2010 at 3:36 am

    I have always been a very focused/driven person, not wanting to waste time. It took me a couple of years to really learn how important it is to find time to have “small talk” with teachers that I previously saw as a time waster. It is the times that you ask a staff member if their child is feeling better or how they’re coming along with training for their 5K that they feel like they have a relationship with you.

    I have also learned that you will never get a call from a staff member or parent when they are happy and want to copliment you!! . I do not need actual recognition for all of the great things going on, I actually enjoying praising others and giving them all the credit. It has become my personal mantra that if I am not getting any complaints, then that is my recognition

    • November 1, 2010 at 12:55 am

      Yes! A Principal cannot seek positive recognition as it doesn’t often come. I remember speaking to a Principal who applied for an admin job is a nearby town and later accepted it. She was shocked at the genuine outpouring of positive feelings once she decided to leave. She never realized how much her staff appreciated her until she was gone. I also believe that it is amazing what you can accomplish when you let others take credit.

  4. Ian
    October 28, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Bill,

    I enjoyed your post. I particularly relate to seeing my faculty as a classroom full of learners. Seeing the school as my classroom keeps me in the role of teacher. This is an important perspective to keep as I work to support my teachers.

    What are the behaviors and dispositions that separate good teachers from great teachers? In my experience (and therefore my opinion) great teachers, first and foremost, establish strong personal relationships with their students. They get to know them as people and as learners. By doing so, they let the student know that a.) they care about them and b.) they, on some fundamental level, understand them. The end result of this is a relationship between teacher and learner that is founded on respect and trust. This bedrock provides an important base for having the difficult conversations that Dave referred to.

    Keeping the perspective of the teacher allows me to clearly see the parallels between great teaching and great leadership. As you stated, this was not a lesson I learned in grad school. I picked it up through my experience and work with teachers. I wonder if there are leadership programs out there that actually address this dimension of the principalship. It would be s valuable lesson for new administrators to take to their roles.

    Thanks again for sharing,

    Ian

    • November 1, 2010 at 12:53 am

      Hi Ian,

      What great thoughts. Your final thought about PD surrounding the art of relationships is so vital. I certainly had very little formal training on HR or personnel in grad school and I don’t see much in either course work or workshops. Perhaps this PD is thought of as being too “soft”. It’s a challenge for us to help out the newbies somehow.

      Bill

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