It’s all about Relationships (and not just with the students)

I think it’s safe to say that the transition to my current principal position is not what would be considered typical. Last year I began the school year as the assistant principal of the intermediate school that I had been working at for 16 years. I was initially hired as a 6th grade teacher, and then transitioned to the assistant principal for the last 7 years. Last October I walked into a training on Culturally Responsive Teaching with Kelly Wickham Hurst. It was an afternoon training and I was running a few minutes late because I’d been dealing with a student behavior situation at my building that morning. As I walked in, one of the secretaries stopped me and let me know that our superintendent was hoping to see me.

As with most of us, hearing that your boss wants to see you might bring us all pause. As the secretary called back to see if Dr. Bourff was still free, I was wondering what he might want to speak to me about. Had I done something wrong? Was there a parent upset with me? Had I handled a student situation poorly? While there was nothing I could think of that had gone wrong, I think we all react to something like that when you are asked to see the “boss.”

When the secretary got off the phone she let me know that he was no longer available, and to head on to my training. When I walked in, I pulled out my computer and got ready to take notes. I sent a quick email to our superintendent’s personal secretary letting her know that I was there and could step out if need be, and tried to focus on what we were learning. The training was very engaging, and soon I was locked in. Then I noticed an email saying that I could come on back to Dr. Bourff’s office.

As I walked into the office, I was still wondering what this could possibly be about. I was asked to sit down in one of the “comfy” chairs at the side of the office, and we began to chat. At the time, I was in a cast because I had broken my hand after falling off my bike a couple weeks earlier (that’s a different story), and Dr. Bourff asked me if I’d looked into training wheels. The feeling in the room was not one of trouble, so I settled in, still wondering what the news would be. Finally, we got down to business.

“Brian, I’m going to reassign you,” were his words. About a million thoughts went through my mind, but my response was “What does that mean?”

Dr. Bourff explained to me that he would be reassigning me to the principal position at Fishers Elementary School. We talked about a few details, but the most important things I needed to do was to talk to our assistant superintendent of teaching and learning and our director of elementary education.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of conversations so that I could be prepared for the transition. As you can imagine, I had lots of questions, and one that I asked of everyone that I met with was “What should my priorities be when I get started?” I’m not sure that I recall exactly what I expected when I asked the question, but I think I expected it to be something relating to curriculum. That wasn’t it at all. Consistently the response I got was to build relationships, get to know my team, and work to set a direction.

So I did some thinking about that. I’ve always been a relationship guy when it comes to working with kids. I was intentional in talking with all my students, checking in regularly, and noticing who was quiet or who was acting different than normal. So I guess I needed to come up with some way to get to know all the staff members of my new building. I know that I never (not as a student, and not as a teacher) enjoyed getting called down to the principal’s office. I didn’t want my first conversation with staff members to be something that might make them feel overly stressed before we even started.

Just down the street from school, there is a local coffee shop. I decided that I’d set up “Coffee Chats” where I could meet with members of my team and just talk. While there were times that our conversations would stray to things about school, that was not necessarily my goal. I wanted to walk away from those conversations feeling like I knew the people I would be working with, and that they knew me. I created a sign-up genius with times both before and after school on different days of the week, then shared my idea with the staff. Over the course of about 5 weeks I met with almost every member of our staff. A few chose to meet with me in my office out of convenience, but the vast majority decided to meet with me at the coffee shop. Some chose to come with their “friends” while others came on their own. And at times when one conversation would go a little long, or someone showed up a little early, we’d expand our circle and have a group conversation.

Here is what I used as the questions/conversation starters to guide our conversations:

  • Tell me your story… Where are you from? What was your childhood like? How did you come to be in education?
  • What do you most like to do when you aren’t at school?
  • What are you passionate about in education or personally?
  • What has been your most significant learning experience?
  • What are your goals (professional or personal)? How can I help you achieve them?

I know that those could sound a bit “interview” like. I let people know at the beginning that it was a conversation and my goal was just to get to know them. In some of the chats, we spent the whole time just on sharing our stories, while at other ones we spent much more time talking about some of the other questions.

I started as the principal of our building at the beginning of December, and by the end of January I really knew the people who worked with me. As I reflect on this process, it’s probably the most impactful thing that I could’ve done as a leader in my building to get started in that role. It has allowed me to know about people, to understand their background, and to understand what they value. The better I know people, the better I am able to serve and support them, and the better we are all able to support our students.

As a first-year, first-time principal, the opportunity to simply take the time to get to know people also teaches you so much about the culture of the building. Before long it was clear to me that I had a staff that was excited for a change. There were some really great ideas that needed to be encouraged, and some staff members who were ready to fly with powerful learning opportunities for students.

Finally, the time invested with people allowed me to build trust with each of the staff members I met with. One of the key tenants of the book The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey is that when there are high levels of trust, you are able to accomplish big things very easily, and when there are low levels of trust, even the smallest of changes takes an incredible amount of effort.

Building these relationships and establishing trust set our course for the next big steps: setting a mission and vision for our school. More on that in the next post!

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