This summer, for the first time ever, elementary and secondary school principals will have a joint annual meeting: the 2017 National Principals Conference. So, there’s no better time than the present to examine the challenges and opportunities inherent in the primary-secondary relationship.

As elementary and secondary principals, we tend to be focused on the students we serve in the present time—their grade level, academic and sociocultural needs, and the standards and accountability measures for ensuring achievement for all. However, we must remember that—as educators—the past, present, and future are all key to student success. Hence, our challenge: Focus not only on who these kids are today, but also where they came from and where they are going.  

Consider these practical (and fun) suggestions to build and sustain connections among colleagues in both elementary and secondary education: 

Learn together. Start a professional book study group with a K–12 perspective and encourage participation from K–12 principals. Some examples of books that could work for everyone include Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, The Art of Possibility, Causes and Cures in the Classroom, Focus, and How Full Is Your Bucket? Have these book studies occur before or after school (coffee chats or happy hour). In such settings, one principal can act as a facilitator who understands a bit of both worlds (elementary and secondary) and can move the conversation forward.

Connect during administrative meetings based on common interests. Sure, you may have more in common with those who work in the same structural organization as you, but welcome the learning curve that comes with discovering a new subsystem or subculture. Encourage and seek opportunities to connect with colleagues with whom you don’t usually socialize by setting up breakout sessions by zone (district), area of interest (Common Core, technology integration, social justice), or years of experience. In other words, consider sitting at a different table or in a new area of the room.

Find a Buddy 

Set up a principal buddy system. Create a “buddy system” program (pen pal/correspondence match) with weekly check-ins. This could be through text, email, morning coffee, or a phone call. The idea here is simple: Step outside your own box and look through someone else’s lens, with the idea that we are supporting all students in our system, including those who came before and those students who have already left us. The buddy system isn’t to “fix” things, but rather to support each other as colleagues and learn something new at the same time. 

Ask questions and embrace curiosity. We know our business and how things operate. We enjoy feeling confident and having a solution-oriented attitude as principals. However, consider stepping outside your comfort zone in an effort to enhance relationships. For example, questions are an easy and equitable way to create connections across different levels. A secondary principal might ask, “How do you deal with so many little kids in the lunch room at once?” And an elementary principal might ask, “How do you deal with so many giant teenagers in the lunch room?” While questions like this might seem trivial and slightly silly, they allow for us to break the ice and learn a little something about our daily work. 

Think Outside the Box 

Get creative with partnerships. Consider mentoring and role modeling opportunities among K–12 schools, such as how middle school and high school kids can help at the elementary level. Placing secondary students in positions of social responsibility reminds our young adults of the role they must embrace in society. When elementary students observe older students in front of them in any capacity, they are engaged and pay attention. Dance troupes can visit elementary gymnasiums; varsity teams can eat lunch with young fans or visit at recess to chat with younger students. A high school choir can perform at elementary school assemblies. A drama club might consider setting up an “Intro to Theater” event for younger students or provide personal invitations to see high school performances. Orchestra and band classes can provide introductions to music as well. 

Open your door. Have an open-door policy to school visits. Invite another school to assemblies and special events. When elementary students visit secondary campuses, the experience creates a visual for what is to come, and this brings an exciting sense of hope (rather than anxiety and fear). When secondary students visit elementary schools, they may reminisce, remembering some of their fondest, most nurturing times, and feel a sense of pride for how far they have come as scholars.

We have much to gain by learning about each other’s professional words and actions. Personally, when I moved from the high school world as a teacher and specialist into the elementary principal domain, I was a stronger, better-equipped leader for both my staff and my students. I no longer envisioned my role as serving only the students on my campus; I became part of a larger cohort, committed to the moral imperative of preparing all students for postsecondary pursuits. 

Clearly, there is an opportunity to grow vertically as professionals when we reach out to those who serve our students of the past or the future. So, get growing—you will be pleasantly surprised how building bridges with colleagues enhances your daily professional journey. 

Julie Perron, PhD, is a principal at Buena Park Elementary School in Buena Park, CA. She has worked at both the elementary and secondary school levels.