Developing Professional Relationships That Work

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.
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Teachers are in the people business. Our efficacy is directly related to our relationships with our students, peers, administrators, and community. Therefore, we must be intentional in how we initiate, activate, and cultivate these relationships if we wish to see increased positive impact on our schools.

My undergraduate teacher preparation program taught me many things, but there was little, if any, discussion about the soft skills required to maintain balance when interacting with colleagues in the teachers' lounge, serving on teams and committees, and working with our supervisors. In my 32-year teaching career, I only had one bad relationship with a supervisor, who wanted to simply tell me what my role was and how to perform it, instead of supporting my work. We had many frank conversations over the course of the school year without finding common ground. This unstable relationship made my professional life so miserable that I almost left the profession. I transferred to a different school the next year.

From that experience, I learned not to depend on serendipity to match compatible humans in a working environment. Instead, I believe in proactively cultivating effective professional relationships.

When I reached out to my professional learning network for ideas, I was surprised to discover how many familiar stories my colleagues shared. Here are the guiding principles my colleagues and I have found useful for cultivating healthy professional climates.

First Impressions and Time

Whether you’re starting at a new school, meeting the recently hired principal on her first day, or serving on a national task force, you only have one chance to make a good first impression. Illinois National Board-certified teacher and teacher-leader Elaine Goldstein told me that "the onset of the relationship, the initial moment, is critical because of the power of the first impression." She elaborated that in her work supporting teachers "a friendly greeting and an invitation into a conversation are critical," and she strives to foster "two-way trust and respect."

Goldstein added that the conversation shouldn’t be rushed or contain excessive information at this stage, because "when we talk too much, there is a loss of respect." Illinois principal Michele Chapman told me that meaningful professional relationships "take time to become high-functioning." There’s no magic formula for quickly generating trust and respect. Instead, you have to allow time for the emerging relations to grow naturally.

Leverage Shared Values and Beliefs

Much of the heavy lifting in my district is done by collaborative teams of administrators and teachers. Recently, my peers from across the district met to discuss a poorly handled standardization of curriculum. Tensions were already high, and they escalated when meeting norms were not set. The quiet people got frustrated when a few "talkers" dominated conversation and took the meeting agenda down numerous rabbit holes. At the end of the day, we had more questions than answers—and no one wanted to repeat that experience.

"I believe in proactively cultivating effective professional relationships."

Team-building literature overwhelmingly suggests beginning the process by establishing a set of values and beliefs shared among participants. Chapman, the Illinois principal, said struggles arise when teams lack this shared system of values and beliefs. My colleagues and I could have avoided these struggles by clearly communicating meeting expectations and adhering to our printed agenda. Our next meeting was facilitated by a high-ranking administrator, who encouraged honest and constructive feedback as she led our discussion. Modeling authenticity, she took great care to acknowledge past errors and to invite team members to problem-solve. Although our team already implicitly shared some values and beliefs, we needed to explicitly state those values and hold each other accountable to them. Fortunately, through this experience, the majority of our team was able to focus on shared common ground instead of our past differences.

Prepare for Rain

There is an old story about two neighboring farmers during a season of drought. They both pleaded to a higher power for rain to come to their fields. One farmer sat on his porch complaining that no rain was coming, while the other farmer worked his fields every day. When the rains finally came, only one was ready. Developing professional relationships requires a similar level of persistence and attentiveness.

To facilitate productive professional relationships among my colleagues before our second meeting, I talked with as many individual stakeholders as I could. I privately expressed my concerns to a high-ranking administrator, consoled and reassured an outspoken teacher who had felt lampooned at the previous meeting, encouraged a quiet teacher to speak her mind because the team needed to hear her voice, and reconnected with a colleague I had not seen in years. During the meeting, I invited participants to improve, refute, or push back at any point during our discussion. Because I had already established an authentic rapport and trust with some of the participants, I was able to negotiate with the administration to organize four teacher-led professional development opportunities for the team on upcoming PD days. To cultivate two-way respect, I ensured that other teachers took turns hosting the meetings at their sites.

Maintain Your Professional True North

We must represent ourselves and what we stand for accurately. At any hint of duplicity, relationships immediately go south. Those of us who are called to teaching have an internal compass that leads us to our core values and beliefs. It is key to remain true to ourselves while also finding mutual understanding with others. The struggle is figuring out how to keep our "true north," while creating an environment where others can do likewise. Even teachers who are staunch Republicans and Democrats can successfully work together if they focus on their shared values instead of becoming divided over their differences.

These guiding principles empowered me to establish a harmonious relationship with my most recent supervisor. Over the course of the conferences and observations, we were able to cultivate a dynamic, learning-focused conversation about improving both my teaching practice and her supervisory skills. Although she has since moved on to another school, we remain in contact as trusted colleagues.

When I asked Principal Chapman what characteristics she would find in her education “dream team,” she responded instantly that they would be "critical friends with a diverse array of skills and experiences." Critical friendships are sustained by authenticity, two-way trust, and mutual respect—all of which need to be intentionally initiated, activated, and cultivated.

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