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Action Strategies for Fostering Effective Relationships

-by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent 

In my last blog highlighting the first of the seven school leadership competencies, fostering effective relationships, I presented three scenarios which represented real life experiences I have encountered. It is helpful to consider the school leadership competencies in the context of realities which those in formal school leadership roles (principal, assistant/vice principal) may encounter. In this blog, I will present two more scenarios and will offer what I would describe as action strategies for school leaders to foster effective relationships.

Scenario One- At the first staff meeting of the year, the principal articulates a strong belief in open communication and then makes the following comment, "I know they say that I should be more visible and be out and about in the school, but, if I spend all of my time socializing, I will never get any work done. I may be in the office a lot because of all of the paperwork I have to do for the superintendent and Alberta Education, but I want you to know that I have an open-door policy". 

I believe that it is important for a school leader to be out and about and visible in the school, however it cannot be superficial. There is much more to it than simply being visible. The leader' s visibility in the school to be effective, must be accompanied by what I describe as "value-added" interactions. A value-added interaction is characterized by authenticity, sincerity and a sense of mutual benefit. The leader by being visible and available will have opportunities to share an observation, provide praise and positive reinforcement or raise a question to promote professional dialogue. I have frequently heard principals say that they have an open-door policy and they are always accessible. This is not unlike teachers in a classroom setting who invite their students to come to them at their desk if they need assistance rather than taking the opportunity to move about the classroom and through interactions with the students determine if they need assistance and support. Just as a side point in reflecting on this scenario, the principal is a role model in terms of building positive relationships with others. The comment about the superintendent and Alberta Education could be seen as showing a lack of respect or representing a less than ideal relationship with key stakeholders in the educational partnership. In essence, when you make negative comments about others, you are setting yourself up for others to make negative comments about you.

Scenario Two-The school principal receives a phone call from a parent who is very upset with the behaviour of a teacher and is demanding that significant action be taken. Apparently the teacher lost his cool in class, yelled at a student and made inappropriate comments about the student being lazy and unmotivated. The parent explained that her son was having a difficult time dealing with the death of a grandparent and she described him as being depressed. The principal talked to the teacher who explained that he had been inappropriate in his comments, but, he felt that the parent was overreacting and that too much emphasis was being placed on building relationships and trying to understand the student perspective. 

Clearly this is an unfortunate situation and the teacher has acknowledged that he did not deal with it well. The teacher would expect that the principal will support him and find a way to deal with the irate parent. The principal recognizes the importance of being a good listener in dealing with upset individuals and has developed the practice of making notes of the conversation and communicating a desire to get the relevant information and understand the perspective of the individual who is concerned. The wise advice from a colleague to deal with irate individuals by, "listening them to the ground" comes to mind. The principal realizes that he can't support an individual who has done something inappropriate and he needs to find a way to serve as a coach for the teacher and the parent and to find a way to bring them together to resolve the situation. If necessary, he will facilitate the discussion, but ideally he will be able to arrange for the teacher and the parent to meet on their own. He realizes that the reference to having too much emphasis on building positive relationships with all students and parents must be addressed with the teacher since this is a fundamental expectation of everyone in the school.

In addition to the comments relating to the two scenarios, I will share some action strategies for school leaders to foster positive relationships. I am reluctant to trivialize the complex nature of the school leadership role in relationship building and what I have to offer should be viewed as food for thought to continue the dialogue. With those caveats in mind I offer the following action strategies:
  1. Create a culture and provide opportunities for fostering positive relationships by striving to be open, approachable and genuine. The school leader should serve as a model and mentor of relationship building. 
  2. Take time to authentically interact with people; where the people are, be there also. There will always be tasks that need to be done and there exists what I would describe as, "the black hole of administrivia". Certainly school leaders need to find time to deal with the essential management responsibilities, but the priority should be on spending as much time as possible interacting with members of the school community. Authentic interactions go beyond simply being visible; they represent "value-added" encounters in which everyone involved benefits from the interaction. 
  3. Be a good listener; really listen. I believe that each individual is unique and special and everyone has a story to tell. The challenge for school leaders is to develop a better appreciation for people's stories, to be responsive to their needs and to provide appropriate support. 
  4. Show your human side; don't be afraid to share and savour the mistakes you have made. Out of our insecurity, too often we feel that we need to appear to be strong and invincible. If we learn to laugh at ourselves and the mistakes we have made, we will have a lifetime of entertainment and we will make others feel more comfortable interacting with us. 
  5. Look for the best in people and build on their strengths; be a confidence builder. As I have noted earlier, confidence building is what teaching is all about and I believe it is also a primary function of school leadership. The school leader is a confidence builder. 
  6. Promote open communication through informal interactions and formal processes. I have found through the years that a common language associated with certain practices to promote open communication, develops. For example, the one-on-one meetings with members of staff, two or three times during the school year to discuss ideas and concerns and share perceptions, became known as "fireside chats" and when we wanted to invite grass-roots input from students, parents, staff and community members as a key component of the planning process, we would have a series of "think tanks". 
  7. Present a positive and at the same time realistic orientation. I have a definite preference for being around positive people and I myself strive to be positive in my interactions with others. At the same time, I have encountered individuals who are unrealistically positive about everything they experience and have concluded that it is better to be positive and at the same time realistic than to see everything through rose-coloured glasses and to be oblivious to the realities people are encountering. 
  8. Deal with difficult people by striving to connect with them and build on their strengths. The reality of human interactions is that there will always be some individuals who are more difficult to deal with than others. As an extension of the observation that the student who is most difficult to like is the one who needs you the most, school leaders should strive to find ways to connect with what could be described as challenging. Whose behaviour may be shaped by insecurity or a misconception. As I have observed, I believe everyone has a story to tell. Often the behaviour of people who are difficult to deal with, is influenced by insecurities and misconceptions. One approach to dealing with challenging individuals is to develop an appreciation for their strengths and areas of interest and providing them an opportunity to take on a leadership role. 

I must emphasize that fostering effective relationships is foundational in all aspects of teaching and school leadership. I welcome your comments and insights. In my next blog I will address the second dimension for school leaders which relates to embodying visionary leadership.

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