Alabama ASCD

The Big R: Relationships

We always hear about the 3rs in school: readin’, writin’, & rithmetic. But effective school leaders have long recognized the importance of a 4th R: RELATIONSHIPS.  When teachers invest in their students interpersonally…and when teachers proactively connect and communicate with parents over challenges with their children. We all know that that pays huge dividends.

But do we as school leaders remember that when we’re working with our faculties?  With the pressures of improving test scores and on making an immediate impact on schools, are we sometimes guilty of running our schools and school systems like our worst classrooms, unintentionally devoid of quality personal and individual connections?

It has been my experience in working with various faculty that WHAT you want to do in terms of school leadership does not matter near as much as HOW you do it…and the x-factor at play is relationships.  In fact, Roland Barth defines leadership as “the ability to foster consequential relationships” (2006).  Teachers respond positively or are at least open to potential changes when they perceive that their thoughts and feelings matter.  Here are 5 thoughts to remember when leading faculty in a way that emphasizes the importance of relationships:

  1. Know your peeps:  Know their likes, dislikes, things they think are funny, what’s going in their lives, and where they are professionally in a multitude of ways.  Make sure you speak to teachers on a variety of subjects apart from school issues.  Model effective, caring collegiality….and be sure you reward and protect others in your school who practice this kind of behavior (Barth, 2006).  When administrators provide leadership that is kind and reflects knowledge and understanding of faculty as individuals, then the overall culture of the school is influenced in a positive way.
  2. Define parameters for teachers:  Make sure teachers know the rules and the boundaries for any issue at play.  Where are the rules, procedures, guidelines “tight” or fixed.  And where are they “loose” and flexible?  For example, if teachers have a half-day of collaborative professional learning, an administrator might provide a template and define the outcome that is desired at the conclusion of that day.  But then teachers would be allowed to shape that day and arrive at that outcome in whatever way, style, or path that they wish.  Teachers want to know where there is play in how things are implemented.  
  3. Give teachers opportunities to “own” parts of a change initiative:  As school leaders, we have to think through all eventualities, and we sometimes dictate every step of the way in the name of efficiency.  But look instead to give teachers opportunities to influence various factors and ideas regarding a new initiative.  They MAY very well have a good idea that you have not thought of.  But more importantly, when everyone is allowed ownership in the change process, teachers are not simply being compliant to rules and procedures; they have a stake in the success or failure of the initiative.  For example, if a school is implementing a schedule change, then teachers would need to know that while the time schedule itself might be fixed and set, the school administration is seeking input on the courses and teachers who might wish to be a part of this grade level schedule.   
  4. Feedback…& Listening:  Teachers crave feedback and communication on how they are doing.  School leaders should be intentional about providing that, both formally and informally, in a clear and consistent way.  Teachers respond to clear, consistent feedback just a positively as their students do!  A kind word in the hall, a note in the box, an encouraging email, a sit-down face-to-face.  Sometimes teachers just want to know that someone is listening!  I remember one time, a teacher came to my office and unloaded a complex problem.   The whole time she was talking, I was wondering what in the world I might recommend to her for a solution.  When she finished before I could say a word, she thanked me for listening and said she felt so much better.  She was not even looking for a solution; she just wanted an ear.  Ongoing communication with teachers builds trusts; it puts money in the bank.
  5. Play long-ball: I’m a big time-line guy; I like to map out steps to be implemented in any project.  However, I have learned that it’s important to assess teacher-readiness along the way when implementing something new.  There is always a segment of folks who jump on new ideas and reforms with gusto….and there is always a group who resists anything that’s new!  Our job is to “take the temperature” of our faculties along the way to assess to see if a critical mass has “bought in” and is ready for next steps, NOT to move ahead artificially without folks being with us!  This means that OUR timelines and readiness levels as leaders do not need to be the drivers of the train.  We need to provide responsive leadership along the way and give teachers what they need to move in a forward direction, step by step.

Leadership is not easy…and relationships are sometimes even more challenging!  I try to remind myself often as a school leader that working with and leading adults is not so different than working with and leading students in the classroom.  We need to invest time and energy into the personal and professional lives of our teachers every bit as much as we need to for our students.  We are in the people business!  We are either enriching the lives of people around us or diminishing them.  As Barth reminds us, “the relationships among the educators in a school define all relationships within that school’s culture.”  So let’s remember to focus on “the Big R.”

Patrick Chappell

Homewood City Schools



Barth, Roland (2006). Improving Relationships within the Schoolhouse: Improving Professional Practice. Educational Leadership, ASCD, 63 (6), 8-13.

Author: Alabama ASCD

Alabama affiliate of ASCD and CLAS

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