Educators know only too well that teaching is a never-ending learning process. It is less acknowledged that improvement in teaching can be enormously facilitated by quality relationships between teachers and administrators.
My own experience bore this phenomenon out. The culture at my first school did not encourage seeking advice or support, let alone idea exchange between colleagues. In fact, I was made to feel like a bother for even asking questions. When I brought a particularly challenging situation to the attention of the principal, I was told to work it out on my own. After three years, I still felt like a new teacher with very little handle on creating effective lessons or dealing with the ever-looming challenge of classroom management.
The following year I changed schools and was pleasantly shocked by a supportive staff and principal. I felt safe to make mistakes, ask for help, and take risks. My role as a teacher was respected and my triumphs and trials validated. As a result, I gained confidence in my ability to teach, and, most importantly, my students were showing greater academic progress than at my previous school.
Looking back, I’ve often wondered what specifically made my experiences at these schools so different. It wasn’t that I disliked the staff at the first school, but I knew there was some dynamic in the second school that helped me to learn (and hence improve) as a teacher.
Researchers call the ability to express oneself without fear of negative consequences “psychological safety.” A recent study found that positive relationships in the workplace can facilitate employee-learning by helping workers feel safe to take the risks that are an inherent part of the learning process.
In other words, the positive and supportive relationships I experienced at the second school made me feel comfortable asking for help and feedback because I knew I wasn’t going to be humiliated for doing so. Instead, the principal and other teachers welcomed my questions and offered support when I needed it, and I reciprocated in kind. As a result, I became a better teacher.
Scientists are quick to point out, though, that positive working relationships go beyond surface-level friendliness and are in fact based on deep trust and respect. Deep trust allows for the healthy expression of emotions and conflict without fear of repercussion. For example, the principal at my second school always validated my experience first, then kindly offered her advice. As a result, I began to trust my own ability to deal with the situations without needing her help.
Respect in the workplace includes a positive regard for each other as individuals and for the work each does. Everyone trusts that others will do their jobs well and support one another in learning how to do their jobs even better. My many moments of self-doubt during my first year of teaching would have been greatly alleviated by being validated in my experiences of overwhelm and uncertainty as extremely normal for a first-year teacher.
So what can administrators do to cultivate positive relationships with teachers that will contribute not only to their improvement, but also to a positive, more effective school environment for everyone?
The research is resoundingly clear on this: model, model, model. It’s the trickle-down effect. Just as teachers are expected to act as role models for students, administrators must model the kinds of behavior that create positive relationships amongst the staff. Here are a few specific tips:
1) Admit your mistakes. This sends a message to teachers that it’s okay for them to make their own once in a while, too. A study of 51 work teams illustrated that those who felt safe and supported were better able to handle and learn from failure.
2) Be open to receiving feedback. Teachers are under constant scrutiny in today’s educational landscape. Teachers and administrators need to work together to create a happy and healthy school culture. Therefore, the feedback loop needs to work both ways. Psychological safety for teachers and schools can be too easily and thoughtlessly destroyed (e.g., the recent grading of teachers in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times).
3) Validate teacher uncertainty. The complexity of teaching often makes teachers uncertain about the choices they make to best serve their students. Administrators who acknowledge their own uncertainty create a school culture where it’s safe for teachers to experiment and learn from each other. Results of a study that involved 55 interviews of leaders showed that leaders who admitted they did not have all answers validated their own followers’ uncertainty which led to a culture of experimentation and open dialogue.
Building positive relationships amongst a school staff does not happen overnight, but the effort it takes is well worth it. In the end, a school culture where everyone feels safe to express themselves and learn from each other can only lead to a better education for the students.
On deck for next week: Helping teachers thrive—a lesson on self-compassion