Viewpoint: February 2022
In my time as a professional educator, I have learned a lot about relationships. As an assistant principal, I led many professional development sessions on the importance of building relationships with students who were at-risk or had behavior challenges. I always emphasized that the key to achieving buy-in for the completion of academic assignments or the adherence to classroom procedures is based on a student’s belief that their teacher cares about them.
As a principal, I have learned that the same holds true for motivating staff. Teachers’ feelings of connectivity contribute greatly to the health of the school climate and culture. When teachers feel disconnected, morale suffers. When morale is low, teachers are less likely to step up to help solve the school’s problems. Without this shared leadership for problem-solving, student needs go unmet, and, ultimately, students’ school experiences suffer. So, how can we foster and maintain relationships with our staff during a global crisis and beyond? We start by leading with our hearts in mind.
Strong Relationships Require Communication
Anyone who has spent some time in the main office of a school knows that information comes in fast and furious. From phone calls to emails to impromptu meetings, a principal can spend the entire day communicating and still be charged with leaving people out of the loop. As an assistant principal, I struggled to keep up with who needed to know what and by when. No matter how I tried to touch base with people, I always managed to miss someone. Necessity being the mother of invention, the Mt. Ararat Middle School or “MAMS” Minute was born.
Each day for the past four years, I have sent an email to all staff. Started as a way to bolster communication and to keep people informed about the happenings in the office, this daily email took a dramatic turn during the spring of 2020. With virtual learning, I no longer had to report detentions or behavioral concerns, so I found myself altering the content. The section on “Planned Absences” became virtual field trips. Where I once noted “Athletic Events,” I now linked workouts you could do from home. My “Of Note” section now detailed activities to do with your children, movies being released direct-to-streaming, and recipes submitted by staff members. I added a section on technology tips. I solicited staff for book reviews. Most importantly, our staff has stayed connected. MAMS Minute began as a form of one-way, typically passive dissemination of information that has become a dialogue and a lifeline. We keep connected with a simple “Reply All.”
When I feel morale dipping, I use this daily communication to assure, inspire, cheerlead, and empathize. Writing this daily email—scouring the internet for new content and replying individually to each response I receive—takes a good deal of time. Yet, this commitment to communication provides a much-needed way to tether the staff to one another.
Strong Relationships Require Community-Building
Siloed into groups by team, grade level, or content area, teachers can go days, if not weeks, without seeing many of their colleagues. Building strong relationships among teachers begins with providing opportunities for staff members to come together. In a practice started by my predecessor, we open each staff meeting with “kudos, good news, and thank yous” before getting down to business. With these opportunities to validate the work of colleagues, share personal updates, and celebrate successes, staff members have a chance to know each other as individuals, thereby strengthening our school community.
As an administrator, I am always looking for ways to show my staff how much I care about them and appreciate their vital work. Recognition can be as simple as personalized thank-you notes on school stationery to staff or as elaborate as monthly staff coffee carts with treats delivered to the classroom. Last spring, when teachers were tired and spirits were fading, we turned Teacher Appreciation Day into a teacher spirit week with themed dress-up days and pandemic-appropriate prizes; think school spirit masks and vaccination cardholders! We ended the year with a socially distanced picnic lunch which included singing, celebration, laughter, and tears.
Making the time to connect and putting in the effort to show that you care builds immeasurable goodwill. School becomes more than a job. Colleagues become more than coworkers. In truth, the staff in a connected community is more than a simple sum of its individual parts. It’s a cohesive group working toward a common vision where individuals feel accountable not only to themselves but also to each other.
Strong Relationships Require Constant Vigilance
It’s easy to ask for feedback when everything is going great. It’s essential to ask for feedback when things could be going better. At the end of each school year, our school administration team asks the staff to fill out anonymous feedback surveys for each administrator and for our building’s leadership team. Each year, it is rewarding to receive recognition for successful initiatives and programs. And each year, it is difficult to read constructive feedback around what could be improved. I take my work very personally, and it can be hard not to feel defensive. Yet, I know that some of my best work has resulted from attending to the challenges identified within that survey. While not all feedback is helpful, and sometimes suggestions for improvement are impractical or impossible, often the data provides a barometer for the school climate, and an opportunity to course-correct before little issues become big problems.
One of my proudest accomplishments as a leader has been the improved culture of my building. Unsurprisingly, school climate took a hit last year. While there were valid reasons to take a break from our end-of-year surveys, I found it more important than ever to allow staff to give me an honest look into the climate of our school and into my performance as a leader. Did it confirm my suspicions? Yes. But within the comments, some valuable insights emerged.
First, 87% of respondents stated that they wanted the leadership team to focus future goals on our positive culture and climate. Second, a strong feeling of hope arose from the qualitative comments. In other words, there was a true account of the culture and climate along with a belief that we could get back to that good place again. Using the surveys to confirm what I thought to be true gave me the honest direction that I needed to plan for future improvement. It also gave me the idea to make time to survey staff mid-year. I didn’t see a reason to wait until the end of the year to make changes if smaller adjustments throughout the year could yield results.
School leadership teams often invest a good deal of time setting goals around academic improvement. Like any principal new to a school, I have so many ideas and plans to increase and enhance our curricular offerings. Yet, a sole focus on academics fails to acknowledge the foundation needed to optimize learning. When viewed through Maslow’s motivation model, positive relationships contribute to students’ and teachers’ feelings of safety and belonging, creating space for addressing cognitive needs. In other words, improving systems for communication, building teachers’ sense of community, and providing opportunities for meaningful feedback are essential elements in developing the kind of culture where teachers and their students can thrive. Relationships are the heart and allow us the confidence to open our minds.
Megan Hayes Teague is the principal of Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, ME, and NASSP’s 2021 Maine Assistant Principal of the Year.