Special Report
School & District Management

4 Things Principals Can Do (and 4 Things They Shouldn’t) to Build Relationships With Teachers

By Madeline Will — October 15, 2019 8 min read

Seemingly every year, principals have a new initiative that they ask (or tell) teachers to get on board with—or at least that’s how it can feel.

Change in schools is hard, and has the potential to sour teachers’ relationships with their principal if new programs and initiatives are not implemented well. And the success of new school programs and initiatives hinges on teachers’ willing participation and buy-in, experts say.

“Administrators don’t have a lot in their tool kit in terms of what they’re able to really do to change teachers’ behaviors,” said Christopher Redding, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Florida. “It’s often relying on their commitment to adopt new practices for teachers to feel like it’s worthwhile. ... [Getting buy-in] is really pivotal for bringing any new practice into schools.”

If teachers are not on board, some might close their doors and stick to business as usual, he said, which could sink a new initiative. Redding has studied teacher participation in school improvement, and found that when teachers are involved in the design process of a new school program, there is more buy-in among the entire staff.

“I think the problem is, that’s not often how reforms are implemented within schools,” he said. “Often it’s administrators in a position where they’re faced with district or state mandates and having to explain, justify, or whatever it might be to their teachers about why this is going to be a new practice that’s going to be adopted in their school this year.”

And that can be a tough sell, educators say.

“I think in many cases, teachers tend to be somewhat suspicious of new initiatives. ... An initiative is sometimes perceived as being critical of what teachers have done and what has worked for them,” said David Bosso, a 23-year social studies teacher at Berlin High School in Berlin, Conn. “Fairly or unfairly, it calls into question what they know and who they are—it gets right into their own perception of professional identity.”

So how can principals foster meaningful buy-in among their school’s staff? Education Week asked Bosso and three other veteran teachers for their advice.

Don’t come to a new school and immediately make changes.

“I think the wrong way to get buy-in is to, early on, just stand up in front of the staff and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ to ignore what already exists, and to just plow forward as if change needs to happen,” said Laura Bradley, a 26-year English teacher at Kenilworth Junior High in Petaluma, Calif.

For example, when Bradley’s first principal started at a new school, the only changes she made in the first year were to the landscaping. The principal spent the whole first year listening to teachers and observing the school’s culture.

After all, principals shouldn’t try to implement something that worked at their old school and expect it to go perfectly, said Jeff Baxter, a 30-year English teacher at Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park, Kan.

“Schools have cultures, both with their students and with their teachers,” he said. “It’s important to have a good sense of that: The same thing doesn’t fit every place.”

Do consider what’s already working well.

“Everything isn’t broken,” said Monica Washington, an instructional coach at BetterLesson, an online lesson-sharing site, who taught for 19 years in Tennessee and Texas. “Administrators have to start with that and find out—what do you like about what you’re already doing?”

Even if the teachers can’t keep doing what they’re already doing, Washington said principals could pull out successful elements of an established program and incorporate them into a new initiative.

That philosophy is also useful when the principal is working under a district or state mandate, Bradley said.

“One of the best things I’ve seen a principal do is to say, ‘This is what we’re being told we need to do, but first, let’s identify what we’re already doing that matches this initiative,’ ” Bradley said. “It’s recognizing that your teachers are probably doing a really good job, and they don’t have to completely start over.”

Don’t ignore the veteran teachers.

Sometimes, veteran teachers are considered cynical and slow to get on board with new programs, said Washington, who was the 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year.

But those are the teachers who principals should tap for advice and to hear their insights, she said.

“It’s easier to get a newer, fresh teacher who just came in the building a year ago on board with something—they don’t have the experience to know how it might affect students or how it might affect them,” Washington said. “Those veteran teachers have a lot of wisdom and discernment and even sometimes have been there longer than the principal. ... They’ve been there for the [school’s] changes, and that’s a level of experience that shouldn’t be pushed aside.”

And teachers say that the longtimers in the building can often get the rest of the staff on board with new programs.

“The worst thing [principals] can do is ignore the fact that [some] teachers have been there from the beginning, and they know how the school works well, and a lot of them have established some pretty powerful programs and good reputations,” Bradley said. “A good principal would seek to understand and honor that.”

Do prioritize building relationships with teachers.

“If teachers are going to be asked to do new things and take risks and be innovative, there has to be a level of trust, and that trust can only be developed in a culture where relationships are nurtured,” said Bosso, who was the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year.

Principals can build strong relationships with their staff by being respectful, supportive, and by trusting teachers as professionals, he said.

Baxter, who was the 2014 Kansas Teacher of the Year, said one of the best principals he had encouraged an open dialogue among teachers and students at the school. Everyone felt valued, and it set a positive tone for the school year, Baxter said.

On the other hand, he once worked for a principal who abruptly began demanding teachers hand in all their lesson plans at the start of every week, which left teachers feeling micromanaged.

“It changed the whole tone of the school,” he said. “Teaching is difficult enough without feeling like you’re not respected.”

Don’t get too cocky.

“There’s a fine line between being a leader and being a boss,” Bosso said.

Teachers tend to respect and get on board with a principal who’s authentic, rather than someone who is “overly ambitious and looking to please the people who are above him or her,” he said.

And the principal shouldn’t issue mandates from his or her office, teachers say. Instead, a principal should be doing the hard work alongside their staff.

“In my opinion, the principal and assistant principal—their time is no more important than say, a teacher’s time,” Bosso said. “They shouldn’t ask the teacher to do something they themselves wouldn’t do.”

For example, Bradley said when her current principal first came to her school as an assistant principal, he noticed that teachers didn’t have a convenient place to store their bags with emergency supplies. He personally installed a hook by the door in every classroom for teachers to hang their bags.

“It seems like a little thing, but teachers can lose their minds over the little things that are not functioning well,” Bradley said. “I can see the bigger picture—that’s a way for him to get into every classroom, to chat with the teachers, to find out what else they need.”

Do get out of your office.

Principals have a lot of demands for their time and attention that aren’t central to teaching and learning—but teachers say the more time they spend outside of their office and interacting with teachers and students, the easier it is to create an atmosphere of trust.

Bradley said the most effective principals she has had were always giving high fives to students and chatting with them during breaks and lunch.

Building relationships with students “is what we’re supposed to be doing,” she said. “If there’s a principal who doesn’t do that, yet knows that teachers should be doing it, it doesn’t feel like we’re honoring the same thing. It makes such a difference for our work in the classroom if we know that administrators know the students, and when we talk to them about a student, for them to say, ‘Yep, I know that kid, I’ve seen him in the yard, and I know the kind of support that he needs.’ ”

And Baxter said principals should be on the ground, working alongside their staff.

“If they are making decisions in the best interest of students as they should, they will be working as a team with their teachers,” he said.

Don’t ignore teachers’ suggestions and input.

"[Principals] need to be open to what the teachers can share,” Baxter said. “They need to be really good listeners.”

Creating a space for an honest, respectful conversation where both sides can voice concerns and share their opinions is key, he said.

And even if principals can’t implement every suggestion, Washington said it’s still important to “give teachers the why” and explain to them the reasons behind certain decisions.

“Once teachers know that’s important to an administrator, that they are listening and are willing to follow up and follow through, even if that new thing is not something that [teachers] would have picked or chosen for themselves, they’re more likely to buy into it because the effort was there,” she said. “You just feel mute when you don’t feel heard.”

Do tap teacher-leaders to pilot a new initiative before rolling it out to the rest of the staff.

Teachers may be skeptical of a company representative touting a new program or initiative that hasn’t been tested in their school. But when a trusted colleague can vouch for the change, it makes it easier to get on board, teachers say.

“When you have someone who’s your peer actually try something, pilot something, and then they can give you feedback on what the hiccups were, how it helped their students, what the time commitment is if you want to fully implement—there’s that trust that’s there ... that may not be with the company that’s trying to bring about the new initiative or program,” Washington said.

Indeed, Douglas Reeves, a researcher and education consultant, said behavior precedes belief—meaning most people must see firsthand that a change initiative is yielding success before they fully buy in.

“Real change is most likely to happen when we have a series of experiments,” he said. “You have internal evidence that it works.”

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as Do This, Not That!

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