“It’s all about relationships!” I heard myself saying to more than a few teachers last week. As a campus principal at an intermediate school, I truly believe this with all of my being. I firmly believe real learning or growth does not occur without a deep authentic teacher-student relationship. I believe the absence of a strong teacher-student relationship can contribute to student misbehavior, absenteeism, lack of motivation, and disillusionment. I have witnessed the changing of student lives by teachers who recognized the importance of hooking students’ hearts first then their heads. I also recognize just how incredibly challenging establishing an authentic and genuine relationship with each student can be. It’s hard… very hard. Pressures of covering content at a rapid pace, standardized assessment performance, and the tough, hardened exteriors of students are just a few factors making establishing real relationships insurmountable at times.
Here’s the truth… it starts with me. Supporting teachers in connecting with kids at the levels necessary to take huge learning risks daily, starts with me, the campus principal. Too often, the charge placed on teachers of establishing relationships with each student is oversimplified by the administration. If we are not careful, the phrase, “It’s all about relationships”, can become overused and meaningless. It’s our moral imperative as campus leaders to give value, power, and meaning to this phrase.
Teachers will value what they have been given the opportunity to feel. Make it your business as a campus leader to live out this phrase with each and every one of your staff members. If we truly believe the key to unlocking a students’ potential is rooted in a strong teacher-student relationship, then we must also believe the key to supporting a teachers’ continuous growth in an ever-changing industry is relationships with each one of them. Make time to get to know your teachers outside of their content and role on your campus, know their personal children and spouse’s names, their hobbies, and interests outside of the school building. Be clear and passionate about your purpose- to SERVE them, to ensure their success with all students. Celebrate them publicly through “staff spotlights” at meetings, social media, and over announcements. Mail thank you letters to their spouses for all the time they give to the campus. Get out of your office and into their classrooms to honor their hard work with kids and colleagues. Never let a staff member (or students for that matter) walk past you without a greeting ensuring they feel seen, heard, and valued. Never let them doubt that you are in the business of connections.
Students take time at a staff meeting to give “teacher shout outs” to celebrate their teachers who they have deeply connected with this school year!
Students take time to recognize teachers who have changed their lives at our “Let’s Hear It for Our Heroes” Event. This was our welcome for teachers on their first day back to kick off the school year!
2. Make time
Relationships don’t just happen. They take intentional and thoughtful time built into the day. Teachers need permission to take time to connect with kids outside of their content. Build time into their day to allow them to do this work of fostering deeper relationships with all students. Whether it is creating homeroom or advisory classes dedicated to connecting with kids and fostering positive classroom communities through class meetings/morning meetings to being clear with teachers that it’s always okay to take time to connect or re-connect with kids during class when a relationship shows it needs a little more.
3. Provide tools
Simply telling teachers you value relationships is not enough. Even providing time to do so will not truly empower teachers with the tools they need to reach ALL students. Provide teachers with specific strategies, curriculum, and training needed to engage all students in positive relationships that will allow deeper learning to occur. Too often we, as campus leaders, assume all teachers are comfortable and skilled in building relationships and establishing a positive classroom culture. I agree that most of the teachers I know value relationships, but many will tell you they need help in reaching the toughest of students who come to us with stories that break our hearts. Stories that shut them down at the first sign of adversity or challenge and stories that have created defensive barriers so thick it takes a variety of tools implemented over time to unlock their hearts.
Relationships are complex partnerships requiring high levels of mutual trust. Let’s vow as campus leaders to never allow our actions or words to imply ease in this work of establishing authentic teacher-student relationships. May we always remember… it starts with me. After all, the culture of campuses depends on it!
Lauren Ambeau is the Executive Director of Elementary Teaching and Learning for Friendswood ISD. She was a former principal at Brookside Intermediate in Clear Creek ISD, former elementary school principal, a strong advocate for increasing SEL in secondary schools, and passionate about servant leadership. She was the Clear Creek ISD Secondary Principal of the year in 2016-2017 and shares her journey of school transformation in her blog titled Vulnerable Leadership.