-by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent
In a recent conversation with a group of realtors about the challenge of selling a home, a common theme which I have heard many times was reinforced – it’s all about location, location, location. If I were to identify one element which is fundamental in all aspects of teaching and leadership I would say that it is all about, relationships, relationships, relationships. In fact, I believe that wherever you see people gathered in work situations, socially and/or their family lives, the ability to establish authentic relationships of mutual respect is the key ingredient. In schools the comment, “you need to reach the child to teach the child” highlights the fundamental importance of relationship building. It is not always easy but you need to find a way to connect with each and every student.
There are two pieces of advice I was given before I began teaching which have impacted me through the years. The first gem of wisdom is to always recognize that “each individual is unique and special and everyone has a story to tell”. This has profoundly impacted how I deal with people and has caused me to celebrate opportunities to build positive relationships with everyone I encounter. I found the second gem of wisdom to be equally significant, especially in dealing with difficult people – “the student who is the most difficult to like is the one who needs you the most”. Teachers can’t give up on any students. Teaching and leading is all about finding ways to connect with people and to have what I describe as, ” value-added” relationships in which they are better off because of our interactions with them.
I share these observations as background for beginning the journey of making meaning of each of the seven dimensions of school leadership. There is no doubt in my mind that the teacher is the key leader in our schools. The true measure of the success of school principals and everyone else in leadership roles in education, right up to the Minister of Education, is the positive impact directly or indirectly on the work of the classroom teacher, which ultimately impacts the quality of learning of the students we serve.
I believe that it is most appropriate that the first leadership competency focuses on the ability to build trust and foster positive working relationships within the school community on the basis of appropriate values and ethical foundations. Relationship building permeates all of the other six competencies. In reflecting on the many aspects and complexities of relationship building, I would suggest that the most important relationship is the relationship that we have with ourselves. I know that we don’t often think about having a relationship with ourselves, but I believe that is reflected in the age-old advice from Socrates, “know thyself”. It is important for leaders to come to terms with their values and fundamental beliefs, or what I would describe as their essence, because I have found that inner leadership precedes outer leadership.
The importance of operating from one’s essence was reinforced through my work as an instructor with future teachers in the Bachelor of Education program at the University of Calgary. In keeping with the focus on making meaning of learning and teaching through a disposition of inquiry, the students were requested to maintain a journal of written reflections. They were encouraged to make meaning of their experiences and describe their essence through a variety of tasks including the completion of a biography of learning document, themes of teaching statement and an electronic journal. Some students found this reflective process to be difficult and they sought out more practical applications, which they could use in their school field classroom experiences. Certainly there is a place for the development of skills and a toolkit of practical strategies however; the thrust of the University of Calgary program was on developing reflective practitioners as opposed to teacher technicians. As the students were preparing to enter the teaching profession, and to deal with the challenges of the interview process, they were encouraged to reflect on their values and beliefs as teaching professionals and what can be described as their essence and to offer rich exemplars from their student teaching experience which demonstrate their essence rather than attempting to practice canned responses to anticipated questions. Similarly, there is not a simple, packaged approach for school leadership. The seven school leadership competencies do not represent a seven-step approach for successful leadership. Individuals in school leadership roles must be introspective and reflective in terms of their key values and beliefs relating to learning and leading. I like the use of the term inquiry-based leadership, which involves operating from one’s essence, asking and exploring significant questions and making meaning of lived experiences.
Relationship building for school leaders goes beyond understanding one’s essence. I believe the key to success is having a positive relationship with oneself and having self-confidence in order to be a confidence builder. When I reflect on my experiences in a variety of teaching roles, I have developed the belief that the fundamental process in education is confidence building. I was impacted by comments from a grade one teacher many years ago who describes her role as finding ways to connect with each student, providing them success experiences as learners and building confidence in each and every one of her students. She observed that if she is not able to develop a level of confidence in a student that enables risk-taking behaviour as a learner, even at the grade one level that student has become a potential school dropout. Clearly teaching is all about building confidence. I believe that successful leaders are successful teachers and they are first and foremost confidence builders. Exemplary leaders are effective in providing value-added experiences with those with whom they interact and they build confidence, which enables individuals to become more successful in achieving their goals.
One cannot become involved in a discussion about relationship building without addressing the issue of finding ways to connect with the “difficult” student, colleague or parent, because unfortunately it is a reality that we too frequently encounter. The teacher laments, “if only these three students who are so difficult to deal with were not in my class, it would be perfect”. Teachers deal with “helicopter parents” who are so caught up in protecting their child that they lose sight of the realities of the classroom. In turn, teachers put pressure on school administrators to deal with unreasonable, demanding parents and to give them the freedom to do their work as professionals. As well, school administrators must deal with conflict among staff members and negative forces, which create a toxic culture. These are only a few examples of the challenges and the realities encountered by school leaders. In order to develop a deeper understanding of the seven school leader competencies in terms of the realities encountered by school leaders I will share some scenarios, which represent situations I have encountered through the years, and for each scenario I will offer some insights to generate further reflection and discussion.
Scenario One – In preparing for a new school year a principal has an opportunity to seek out advice relating to relationship building and dealing with difficult situations from three experienced school administrators. The first colleague, in offering advice on how to deal with difficult situations, describes how he has a group of trusted staff members to go to for advice. He describes how quite often the consultation takes place informally outside of the school setting over coffee or during a golf game. The second colleague describes how she sets the tone for the school year by sharing the observation with teachers that, “you may not have a good relationship with every student and that is the same for me in working with you. I don’t expect that we will all get along well together and I think we need to recognize that we may have to agree to disagree sometimes. I want you to respect me as your principal, just as I expect students should respect you as their teacher”. The third colleague presents a different perspective with her observation that, “each student is unique and special and that as a school staff the paramount goal should be to strive to build positive, respectful relationships with each and every student”. The colleague describes how she makes a commitment to the staff members to have a positive relationship with everyone with the hope that they will strive to do the same with their students and colleagues.
There are number of observations relating to relationship building generated through this scenario which I will share. It is good to seek out advice from others; in fact, I believe that there is merit in having your own personal Board of Directors; people you respect and trust to offer advice. However, these individuals should not be directly connected to your workplace. When a leader has a group of “trusted staff members” to share information with and seek out advice, it could easily have the impact of dividing the staff with the so-called “in crowd” and all of the others. It is important to treat people fairly and equally. There is a significant question raised in this scenario in regard to commanding respect from others. Is it possible to be respected by individuals when you do not have a positive relationship with them? I believe it is appropriate to expect that leaders will strive to have a positive, respectful relationship with each and every staff member, just as it is critically important that teachers strive to “connect” with each and every student. In education, we are in the people business and there is no place for writing-off a relationship. The leader’s role is to serve as a model and mentor in fostering effective relationships.
Scenario Two – The principal is approached by several staff members who are concerned with the disruptive behaviour of a student. On several occasions the student has been sent to the office and the teachers, while acknowledging that there has been some improvement, feel that the student should be suspended or advised to attend another school. The principal wants to be supportive of the staff and to provide leadership in dealing with students who can be disruptive and at the same time recognizes the importance of caring for all students and doing everything possible to help them. The principal makes reference to the troubled past of the student and while describing the significant improvements which have been observed comments, “we all need to be advocates for our students and not to be too quick to give up on them. I know this may upset you but I believe we can be doing more to help this student”. The principal was correct; the teachers were upset because they felt the principal was more concerned about supporting students than supporting them. One staff member commented, “there is a limit to what can be done to meet individual needs; we have to consider the common good and you should be doing what is best for our staff members and the other students”.
This scenario raises some significant questions related to the role of the principal – ” is it to serve staff or to serve students?”. Clearly, the answer is to serve both students and staff. In keeping with the intent of competency one, the principal should strive to create a positive, healthy, caring culture of mutual respect within the school. There are times, as we see in this scenario, where the principal in serving as a model and mentor may have to take a stand which is upsetting to some staff members. Teachers expect that the principal will be spending enough time in classrooms to understand the realities of their world and challenges they are experiencing in dealing with various student situations. Teachers want to feel that they are being supported. The leadership challenge then is one of being an advocate for students and at the same time demonstrating support for teachers, or stated in another way, the leadership challenge is to address individual needs while being sensitive to the common good. The key ingredient to addressing these expectations is for the principal to have established trust and positive relationships of mutual respect with students, staff, parents and members of the school community.
Scenario Three – In preparing to assume the role of principal in a new school the incumbent is informed by the outgoing principal that there are some conflicts among the staff members and in fact there are two staff members who refuse to talk to each other. As well, he observes “there are two or three individuals who tend to be negative and confrontational and it does wear people down”. In reflecting on these situations the principal notes, “I don’t care if staff members don’t all get along well with each other as long as they are doing a good job in the classroom”. The incumbent expresses a concern that if conflict on a staff is not addressed it can lead to what is described as a toxic culture in the school.
This scenario presents two different approaches to dealing with conflict among staff members. Learning to deal with negative and confrontational individuals is a common challenge, which unfortunately most everyone experiences at some time or other. You can try to ignore conflict, but it can become like a cancer negatively impacting the culture of the school. One way to deal with the negative influences is to build on the positive contributions and influences of others and making this the predominant force impacting the school culture. However, the principal must find some way to positively impact those who are negative forces. The situation is not unlike the observation for teachers that the student who is the most difficult to like is the one who needs you the most. Just as effective teachers deal with conflict situations through open, direct communication, exemplary school leadership involves taking a similar approach as well as finding ways to connect with challenging individuals by, wherever possible, giving them responsibilities which build on their strengths.
School leadership competency one, which involves fostering effective relationships on the basis of trust and appropriate values and ethical foundations, is in my view the foundation for all of the other school leadership competencies. If the school leader is not able to develop a comfort level of self-confidence (good relationship with self) then the ability to serve as a confidence builder in others and to develop positive, trusting relationships with students, staff parents and others who have an interest in the school will be severely limited. Since relationship building is so important, I will continue the dialogue on school leadership competency one in my next blog. In the meantime I offer the following questions to ponder:
• Is it realistic for a school leader to strive to have a positive relationship with everyone?
• Should the focus of school leadership be on supporting the students or supporting the staff?
• How concerned should a school leader be about eliminating conflict among members of the school community?