Professional Development CTQ Collaboratory

Stop Sending Emails, and Other Tips for Building Positive Relationships in Schools

By Paul Barnwell — January 13, 2015 5 min read
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Sometimes it feels like there’s too much on our plates as teachers to take a few moments to chat with a colleague in the copy room. Shirking email and other administrative duties in order to share lunch with co-workers? I wish! Helping a colleague with class coverage when there is so much to do? If only!

Yet if we don’t deliberately forge personal connections and strengthen relationships within our school buildings, then we are handicapping our efforts to reach, mentor, and educate all students. The level of collaboration demanded by modern teaching is unprecedented—not to mention pretty daunting when it comes to accountability in a data-driven environment.

The bottom line is this: Sustainable, effective collaboration is unlikely to occur without strong personal connections between teachers, staff members, and administrators. Here are some simple ways to improve your approach to building relationships in your school:

1. Give Without Strings Attached

Earlier this year, a colleague of mine was fighting a nasty cold. Over the course of a couple weeks, she asked me twice to cover her fifth period class. Not a problem. I’m not holding this favor as currency, waiting for an opportunity for her to “pay” me back.

In our personal and professional lives, dealing with people who always expect something in return isn’t a way to build sustainable or authentic relationships. That’s not to say that I won’t ever ask for favors in return; it’s just not at the forefront of my approach when helping others out.

2. Talk, Don’t Email

Writing an email instead of making a phone call or seeking a quick interaction in the hallway can seem like an easier form of workplace communication. But remember: The more email you send, the more messages you must check and reply. The more time you spend in front of a screen, the less time you have to say hello, ask questions, and build relationships.

As a general rule of thumb, I try to establish relationships in person, or at least over the phone, before I start sending emails or texts. If I have a question for a coworker, I usually take the time to call or make a visit in person. This significantly increases the chances for positive interactions with those colleagues in the future.

3. Follow Your Colleagues on Social Media

While heavy social media use isn’t my personal preference, following co-workers on social media can spark both light-hearted and work-related conversations. The phenomenon of the Serial podcast comes to mind; my colleagues and I swapped links and commentary relating to the story.

In addition, there’s no reason why your professional learning networks can’t have a heavily local flavor. If you already follow nationally recognized educators, publications, and organizations, why not also create space for those folks you come into contact with the most? I’ve created a Fern Creek High School Twitter list so it’s simple to get a “pulse” of what thoughts, ideas, images, and information my co-workers are sharing.

4. Make Interdisciplinary Connections

I’ll be the first to admit that, as an English teacher, I have a hard time imagining sustained collaboration with an Algebra II teacher. But this doesn’t mean I’m not striving to interact with folks from other departments and subject areas in order to expand student-learning possibilities while building more diverse collegial relationships.

Three years ago, I sought out our functional mental disability teachers to include our school’s special-needs students in my digital media elective course. Not only has this partnership been great for all students, but I’ve created a link to a department—and group of teachers—often isolated in many school buildings. My interactions with the FMD teachers and students have been some of my favorite, most meaningful interactions at Fern Creek.

5. Laugh

I know the feeling of having a furrowed brow and tension building in my neck and shoulders after a particularly trying day. Strolling down the hallways, it’s easy to spot colleagues who are in the same boat. Yes, our work is important and incredibly difficult. But I do appreciate co-workers who manage to keep a smile or crack a joke in order to lighten the mood. Shared joy and laughter can forge bonds and also make our toughest days more manageable.

6. Show Humility

Hopefully you work in an environment where the majority of teachers don’t think they’ve figured everything out. I’m fortunate to be in a place where many educators seek out advice from one another. I’m in the midst of my 11th year teaching, and one current class is the most difficult I’ve ever had in terms of student engagement, promoting positive behavior, and attendance issues.

Despite the fact that I’m generally an effective educator, I still need help. I’ve contacted colleagues regarding best ways to reach certain students. I’ve asked for advice from administrators. For those of us educators who are realistic about the Herculean challenges we face, it’s off-putting to try to form positive relationships with co-workers who think they know it all.

7. Expand Your Circles

I know that sometimes I feel cordoned off in my own teaching world with my colleagues in the English III Professional Learning Community. In lieu of faculty meetings, our school has dedicated PLC time, which is usually a good thing. But it’s easy for all of us in this small group of colleagues to keep that professional circle limited.

Instead, are there other folks in your building who you can learn and interact with? For me, this means frequent contact with our college counselors and mentors, who work with many of my students on transcripts, applications to schools, financial aid, and more. Or how about secretarial staff? Librarians? Classroom aides?

There’s no doubt each of us approaches relationship-building differently. Some of us require closer bonds and adult interaction; others are more content to be selective about whom they interact with. But if an attitude of closed doors and “just let me teach” prevails in a school’s culture, it hurts our ability to connect with other adults in our buildings. We must take advantage of opportunities to connect—instead of pushing them aside in the face of so much to do.

Teaching is more manageable and enjoyable when we are diligent in fostering positive relationships with a diverse group of colleagues. This sets a foundation for the real work of professional collaboration, teaching, and learning. We can’t rely on shaky, weak professional relationships given all we strive to accomplish together.

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