When I was awarded the honor of being named the Assistant Principal of the Year in the state of Illinois, my local newspaper did a story on me. When they asked my principal about what made me a worthy recipient of this award, he responded, “[Tim] has a great ability to make connections with people, to relate to people.” His words caused me to reflect.  Making connections with others always seemed natural to me, and I never really gave it much thought.  But then the teacher in me kicked in and I started to wonder, can people learn to be better at making connections? How would we teach it?

How You Speak Is Just as Important as What You Say

As I thought about these questions, I remembered a study that once indicated that the vast majority of the “takeaway” of any delivered message is based on physical appearance and vocal characteristics of the speaker. I realized that the messages I delivered at school, particularly in faculty and departmental meetings, were often borne out of my great care for what I was going to say with little attention to howI would say it. Could it be that we school leaders could do better to give equal weight to the whatand how we say what we say?

A Little Praise Goes a Long Way

I also began to think more critically about how praise is—or isn’t—offered within professional relationships. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 64 percent of Americanswho leave their jobs say they do so because they don’t feel appreciated. And, Gallup reports that 70 percentof Americans say they receive no praise or recognition at work.

Thinking back to my time in the classroom, I felt I had usually sufficiently praised my students. But, I began to fear, are the teachers, paraprofessionals, coaches, and custodians under my care living in a praise vacuum? The vast majority, I decided, would say they were.

I began to look more sympathetically at my underpraised colleagues, and I began to be much more intentionally active in my attempts to offer praise and make meaningful connections. Largely influenced by Gary Chapman and Paul White’s The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People, here’s what I took into consideration:

  • Appreciation must be individualized. How many times had I stood before 100 teachers offering bland praise when, in fact, my appreciation should have been targeted to a few? Did those few even know I had noticed their outstanding work or unique contributions?
  • Appreciation must be delivered personally.Say what you will about the powers of technology to connect us, but I tell you this: In this tech-savvy age, the power of a hand-written note of appreciation is worth more than its value in megabytes.
  • Appreciation must be viewed as valuable.I know that my counseling colleague down the hall who enjoys car races probably won’t appreciate a season ticket to the symphony. As a giver, I need to ask myself, “What will resonate with her/him?”

Show Compassion

Going deeper from appreciation to compassion, I rely heavily on Roger Schwarz’s Smart Leader Smarter Teamsand regularly seek to avoid the following myths:

  • People must earn your compassion.Wrong! Compassion ought to enter the conversation before the actual conversation ever begins.
  • People will think I agree with them.Wrong again! There are compassionate ways to say the truth—even the hard truth—while leaving everyone’s dignity intact.
  • People won’t be held accountable.Triple wrong! I have found that the more effective I am in evincing compassion and sharing appreciation, the more accountable to me others become.

Connectors in Chief

As administrators, we are constantly being watched and scrutinized; we set the example. So, this school year, let’s challenge ourselves to become “Connectors in Chief.” Let’s deliver our messages in a way that will make our school community pay attention. Let’s show our school community we appreciate them by intentionally offering them individualized, personal, and valuable praise. And finally, let’s give our school community the compassion that they truly deserve.

What other ways can school leaders improve their ability to connect with others?

Tim Chipman is a National Board-certified educator currently serving as an elementary principal in Jacksonville, IL. Tim credits his alma mater Illinois College for giving him the tools and the desire to approach life both critically and compassionately. He is the 2018 Illinois Assistant Principal of the Year.

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