If you are in leadership, you are in the people business. Plain and simple. And when you’re in a people business, the key to your success will always be building and maintaining relationships. I recently read a post on Twitter from a new administrator asking for tips on building relationships with students now that he is no longer in the classroom. He stated that he was concerned that he might not be as effective at relationship building as he was in his classroom teacher role. Based on what I see on his profile, he certainly will be just as effective, but the point of his question really got me thinking. Do others that move from the classroom to administration overthink the process of relationship building when their title changes? That led me to writing this post. I want to be honest and open about this: relationship building as an administrator is not really any different from that of a classroom teacher. Sure, you don’t see every kid every day like when you were in a classroom. In the classroom you still have to be intentional about building student relationships from the very beginning of the year. It should be no different as the school leader to make sure you plan for knowing your students and working to build those relationships. Below are my thoughts on relationships building along with a bonus winning play from one of my former counselors.
Be Authentic: your job title may have changed but you are still the same person. Remember the post about the Superman Syndrome. Don’t fall into a trap that has you thinking you need to be someone else or behave differently simply because you have a new title. Let your students know what you care about, what you enjoy, what you are like as a human outside of the school. My students ALL knew I was a huge fan of the Denver Broncos and that, outside of my family, my JEEP was my life. They knew I love 80’s music, especially hair bands, and that I would cheer like a maniac for our teams at every event!
Be Intentional: Intentionality is such a key element in the work of any leader. In this context, being intentional means making a conscious effort to build relationships with students. Actually having a strategy for each week. That might mean actually clearing the calendar (or setting time on the calendar) for relationship building activities. I used to put 10 minutes per week on my calendar to play basketball with our special needs students during the PE time, as an example. For me, it was being at the front door every day (rain, snow, or shine) to greet kids by name, acknowledge the activities I’d seen them in, and even make simple comments about the concert t-shirt or shoes they were wearing. Finding common ground to build relationships is a standard practice and it shouldn’t change because of a move into administration.
Be Available: you’ll hear this a lot from school leaders. They want to be ‘available’ but what does that really mean? If being in the halls or poking your head into classrooms is your definition, I’m going to push back on you. This is actually being visible. Being available means actually sitting down and having conversations with staff and students. Availability doesn’t end there – it also means being invested in a conversation, like honestly listening to hear what your students are saying to you. Turn off the walkie-talkie, put the phone on vibrate or do not disturb, and be available for the person with whom you are speaking.
Have a Space: as a high school principal, I spent a lot of time on our benches in the hallways. Kids knew they could come and sit with me, ask questions, engage in conversation and so forth when I was on a bench. I frequently referred to it as ‘my office’. My secretary, Marilyn, often said that if you couldn’t find me in a classroom I would be on one of the many benches throughout our hallways. Find a space, wherever it might be, and get comfortable with conversations and chances to build relationships.
The Photo Rolodex: a counselor of mine at the high school level actually made index cards for every student on her caseload. That was over 350 students. She had the students fill out the card (name, interests, goals, post-high school ambitions) and then grabbed their pictures from the SIS (student information system, in our case Powerschool). She would have anyone, including me, quiz her on the kids. Her ability to know kids by name and to know something about them was amazing. This is such a cool strategy.
Whatever strategy you choose to use, and this list is not all-inclusive, I recommend to all new school leaders to focus on the relationship building and just be yourself. Remember, they hired YOU to be YOU…not someone else.
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