My View

Taking Time for Relationships
By AMY ILLINGWORTH/School Administrator, November 2017

A NEW SCHOOL YEAR, a new leadership position and every interaction brings us the opportunity to build or strengthen relationships with individual staff members and students in our schools. The time to step away from your office and lead by walking around is now.

During my time as a site leader, I made a point to visit each teacher’s classroom during the opening setup days before students returned to school. While these visits took me out of the office and away from the nonstop stream of e-mails and phone calls, they were a powerful way for me to build new relationships or renew past relationships with each staff member. Not only could I check in with people about their summer and their family, I also was able to check out their room setup, and I could offer my support physically, emotionally or professionally.

These short personal visits told a story about my staff members as individuals and as members of our learning community.

Modeling Behavior
I did the same after each school break, visiting each classroom in my building to greet teachers and students and welcome them back. These visits did not have the same purpose as my instructional visits, which were to provide evidence-based feedback to individual teachers about student learning and instructional practices, or to the staff based on our current learning focus. Post-vacation visits were all about maintaining relationships.

I also made sure to regularly visit our school’s custodians, cafeteria staff, instructional assistants and clerical staff. Leaders really need to build and maintain relationships with all staff members. This trickles down to the staff members building positive relationships with students.

Now working as a central-office leader, I consider it even more important to lead by walking around, to be visible at schools, in classrooms and at events. I visit schools today to coach our leaders. I don’t know many of the teachers because I came to the school district in this role, not having worked at any of our sites.

When the administrative leaders and I go into classrooms to observe student learning and instructional practices, I often meet teachers for the first time. I always follow up my visits with a personal e-mail to the teachers, to thank them for the work they do and to share something I appreciated in their room that was positively affecting student learning.

This is one small way for me to build connections in a large district with thousands of staff members. As I do this, I am also modeling for the site leaders some ways they can maintain relationships with their staff.

Scheduling Time
My advice to school and system leaders boils down to this:

» Make time to build relationships with new staff members (or all staff, if you are the new one).

» Strengthen past or current relationships by checking in. Don’t assume that one positive interaction last year is enough to maintain a good working relationship this year.

» Lead by walking around. Find opportunities to visit classrooms, departments, school sites and other settings where your staff members work. This applies to nonteaching staff as well.

» Schedule time for relationship building by adding it to your calendar, which prioritizes this work.

The time you invest in relationships leads to deeper trust, which can enhance your team, school or system’s culture.
AMY ILLINGWORTH is the director of professional growth in the Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, Calif. E-mail: Twitter: @AmyLIllingworth. This column is adapted from her blog Reflections on Leadership and Learning.