If it wasn’t for my assistant principal when I was teaching in New York City, I probably wouldn’t have made it through many school years. He wasn’t only an instructional support, but he was also a friend, as was the dean in my school.
Since we worked in a small school, it didn’t matter the title, relationships were formed based on our human need to connect and our shared interests in each other’s lives. Although I’m certain this kind of boundary-blurring may be uncomfortable for some, it was important for me to have this connection and ally when I was in the classroom.
Now that the roles are reversed, and I’ve debated with a few of my leadership friends about the boundaries we need to put in place as leaders, I think that it is OK and preferable to have friends, regardless of their roles as trust in education can be hard to come by.
So if I’m working with a teacher who is on my team and I connect with him/her based on their beliefs and/or practices and as human beings, why not be friends?
Of course, this friendship should not impact the way anyone is treated, and as we develop relationships with our staff, we must be cognizant not to have favorites or show favoritism in any way. This can create an uncomfortable environment for the teacher who could potentially be alienated by his or her peers, and it can also create a hostile working environment for the leader.
Leadership is lonely, so if we can genuinely connect with people on our team, why shouldn’t we?
In an effort to get a really thorough view on this topic, I posted the question to my professional learning network on Twitter and Facebook, and many had something to say about it. Many, like me, believe that it is, in fact, OK to have friendships that span hierarchies, but just as many believed that there were potential pitfalls that would need to be avoided.
There were many folks who chimed in on the subject but didn’t want to be named in the article. So thank you to everyone who answered my call and provided some context, whether or not you are explicitly named below.
Here are what some folks in the field of education think:
I think if they are, they have to accept that there will be accusations of favoritism. They also need to be careful discussing work issues outside of work. A teacher who is friends with an admin has more access and chances to persuade the admin of their perspective." - Walton Burns, Senior Editor, Alphabet Publishing "I agree with the "favoritism bit." I have been in jobs where the administrator was elevated to a role and had a tough time keeping the same "friendships" when she became an administrator. Favoritism can definitely seem present." - Jennifer Lenarz, 10th grade English teacher "Absolutely. Quite often the friendships began earlier in their careers and should continue even though coming from different purposes now. If new to each other, friendship can develop through collaboration and trust." - Dr. Michael Curran, Rider University "Wherever I have taught, the most comfortable of these relationships have been with administrators that welcomed connections. Social events among colleagues goes a long way to strengthen those bonds and develop the trust I have in my administor. When I've needed an understanding admin., it is because we see each other in more than just an evaluator/evaluatee capacity." -Colleen Simpson, Library Media Specialist "I will always treat my staff with respect, and care about them, but reserve the deep relationships for those outside my school tribe and those in my admin circle. I would suspect there are many definitions of friends and friendship in people's minds, too. We should treat all people as friends, but as a former administrator, there are some things, many for legal reasons, that we cannot and should not discuss with others. As an evaluator, I also believe that we have to draw a line between our jobs and the depth of our relationships." - Jackie Nieukirk, Retired Principal "As a teacher who has taught in a few different schools, I've always developed friendships with my admin and maintained relationships as I've moved around, professionally and personally. They are mentors to me and important in my life." - Melissa Thompson, Grade 5 Teacher/Teaching and Learning Coordinator at The Ottawa Jewish Community School "Yes. Work is work, and I can separate the two. As an expat, your staff is your family. When I was in the U.S., it was still possible but more difficult." - Jeremy Williams, Head of School, Manor Hall International School Al Ain "I think we need to know what friends means for this. You can be friendly, and that is important, but when one person has evaluative power over another, friendship can be hard to maintain." - Nicholas Provenzano, the Nerdy Teacher "I prefer to work in a school where administrators are friends with faculty and staff. It promotes a feeling of family and everyone working for the same cause and reduces the separation between the office and the classroom." - Nicole Neal, English Teacher, Quaker Valley High School in Leetsdale, Pa. "I think when it works it's great. My kids' elementary school is like a giant family, and I love it. You can feel the good vibes. Teachers, parents, etc., all hang out." - Lori Vaccaro Stark, Parent and fFormer Elementary School Teacher. "I think it is the perfect setup for a healthy school environment. Students benefit from the harmonious relationships, and the professional morale remains high. It goes far beyond mutual respect. #leadership" - Gena Cooley, 5th Grade LAL Teacher "I believe it's a double-edged sword. Yes, obviously they can be friends. They will connect with certain teachers right away. The connection brings a closeness that most likely makes them better administrators to those teachers because they bring them into the discussion." - Jill Holder, 6th Grade Math and Social Studies Teacher "In school where edu philosophy and ideology is constantly being brought to the forefront, it's natural for like-minded people to become close. The position should not affect this relationship, professional or personal. And friendships last longer than tenure in a position #leadership." - Stacey Weinberg, Staff Developer for Technology and Assistive Technology "I personally think you can, and in some cases, I think it's inevitable. If you spend your career working toward being an administrator in one building, you would have formed friendships along the way." - Gina Barr, Special Education Teacher "Context-dependent to a large extent. I've mostly taught in large, suburban comprehensive high schools. If the friendship predates the administrative position, that might require some care to articulate boundaries. I wouldn't try to cultivate a friendship with an administrator. Friendly, of course, but I think both parties have some potential issues if there's a friendship involved in a supervisory/administrative relationship. At some point, decisions will be made where either the influence of the friendship or the quality of the friendship will be called into question, either by those directly involved or others in the school." - David B Cohen, English Teacher "Yes. When you value the individual and care for them on a professional level, yes, I believe it is possible." - Elyse Hahne, Social -Emotional Teacher "I think there is a difference between friendships and relationships. Admin should have strong, positive relationships with all teachers. Whether or not there can be friendship depends on the professionalism and maturity of both people. It's possible, but not easy." - Keri Snowden, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Innovation "I work in a rural high school in a small town. It's common and natural for admin and teachers to be friends in and out of school. In fact, in my school's environment, it's a critical component to the school running properly because of the family atmosphere that is created organically. That atmosphere, in turn, drives student outcomes." - Mike Stein, English Teacher and Department Chair, Coffee County High School in Manchester, Tenn. "You would have to clearly define what "friends" means. It can sometimes cloud or adversely influence decisions. It could also cause morale issues with nonfriend faculty. I would say that clear boundaries must be established. I personally feel you can be friendly but not friends." - Dr. Nixon, Assistant Principal, North Mesquite High School "Building relationships is always key, and sometimes that leads to healthy friendships. But one thing I'm certain to do when in my admin role at work is to be fair, consistent ,and a professional. I'm not there to be liked but rather to be respected. From the respect comes the likes." - Kim Lawe, Ed.D., Director, Eastvale STEM Academy | Adjunct Professor, Azusa Pacific University
Ultimately, I think we have to specify the difference between building positive relationships with all staff and developing deep friendships with some. A mentor of mine said it was important to define what I meant by “friend,” and others have touched on that as well.
Although there is certainly a distinction between being friends and being friendly, I do believe that people in leadership can be friends with their team. Whether teachers grow into leadership roles and stay in the district they worked in for years, or a new leader who still identifies as a teacher moves into a new district and becomes friends with the people he or she works with, it’s OK.
We must acknowledge that there could be challenges and we need to be transparent about them. Boundaries should be clearly delineated, and no one should be given preferential treatment as this will erode the leader’s effectiveness and alienate the teacher involved.
What are your thoughts about friendships between administration and teachers? Do you have a story to share? We’d love to hear it!
Photo created using Pablo
The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.