Effective leadership: Building staff relationships

Written by: Anonymous | Published:
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As a headteacher, a key part of your role – and crucial to your school’s success – is building strong relationships with your staff. That means getting out and about…

Sitting across the table from me is Dennis. His wife has mental health problems and there are days when she does not remember who he is. She can be violent in the mornings and swears repeatedly as he tries to leave the house for work.

On his left is Jenny who has just gone through a messy divorce. By her own admission she is very much better off where she is now but there are moments when she wonders what will happen next.

Over to the right is Pat. She is currently very happy indeed as the news has come through of the impending adoption of her second son.

Finally, sitting next to me is Ian. He leads a ridiculously normal life – married happily for 20 years with three kids, loves his job and makes the most of his time at home.

I am the only one in the science faculty meeting who knows all these things about all these people.

And what I know is fundamental in getting them all to perform to the best of their abilities and to give what they can to the education of the children in the school.

Getting here has taken a lot of hard work but it has been worth it. I believe that to understand your school you need to understand your pupils and your community – but do not underestimate how much you must know about your staff. It can make a crucial difference if things start to go wrong and is generally beneficial in ensuring staff are as happy as they can be in their work.

So, if you are a new leader in a school, be prepared for some hard work in building relationships. Here are some tips on what to do – be assured it will all be worth it in the long run.

Buy a comfortable pair of shoes

To get to know your staff you are going to do a lot of walking. Normally, by mid-afternoon my app tells me I have reached my 10,000-step target for the day. On more than one occasion I have reached almost double that between 8:40am and 3:40pm.

Staff need to know you are a presence in and around the school and in their classrooms. I spent the first couple of months in my current job mostly walking and talking and, based on previous evidence, people warm to you much more quickly when you show an interest in them.

In my first senior leadership role as an acting deputy I did the same – I never wanted to be somebody who was never known to leave their office. The senior leadership team corridor was out on its own in a limb of the school with little staff thoroughfare and I noticed that my colleagues stayed mainly behind their closed doors.

On my first day, I wandered down to the maths department and walked into a teacher’s classroom. “Who are you?” they asked. I said I was the new deputy, only to hear the reply: “Oh, we don’t normally see senior management around here.”

By the time I left for a permanent job a year later there was more respect for the other deputies in the school (who had followed by lead) and, staff-wise, the school was a happier place. It was not due to any secret formula – just a desire to chat and get to know people.

So on starting as a headteacher I did exactly the same. I walked around the school, stopped in classrooms devoid of pupils to talk to teachers, walked and talked to people in corridors and sought out all staff – visiting the parts of the school where nobody usually went (home economics corridors, gyms, sports halls, active schools co-ordinator offices, social work and school canteens).

Sometimes I would talk to people for a matter of a few minutes but, more often than not, it would be for longer. I got to know who was unmarried, partnered, married, divorced, how many children staff had, what their names were (which always proves a little bit more difficult to remember), where they had come from, what university they had gone to, football teams, music they listened to, and what books they read – as well as what they liked and disliked about their job and where they wanted to go with their careers.

Try to remember everything...

...or at least write it down. There is, of course, no point in asking all this stuff if you then forget it instantly. If you show only superficial interest it will lead you to asking the same questions over and over again and you can guarantee that this will lead to a fairly rapid loss of credibility.

Being possessed of a less than perfect memory I found this quite difficult but perseverance paid off. I went to the same people again and again to make sure I could remember the general details even if particulars were sometimes missing – you can get away with this if people can see you are trying.

You can, of course, always write things down but I would not recommend doing this in front of people! If you can make lists and family trees then all well and good and it will prove beneficial later on.

Don’t just keep talking to the same people

Unfortunately it is a fact that you may not actually like everyone you work with. Although you are all teachers it could be that this is the only thing you have in common. There may be those who want to argue the toss about every aspect of how you are running the school, those whose religious, political, social views may be opposed to your own, those who are intensely private and do not want to give any of themselves away and those who are just really boring. However, you can have no favourites – at least in public – and you need to talk to them all.

However difficult I find it, I make a point of seeking everyone out on a regular basis. There are those who I know are going to take up an inordinate amount of time, even when I pose the simplest question – “how are things?” – those I know are going to blame me for things way out of my control, and those with whom conversation will be like drawing blood out of a stone. But, while these may not be the staff I visit most often, I shall see them on a regular basis to ensure they know they are as needed and respected as anyone else.

Conclusion

Maintaining relationships is not easy – it can be extremely time-consuming – but it may well be the most important thing you do on a day-to-day basis.

It engenders respect, shows you to be an authentic leader and, somewhat obviously, lets you really get to know your staff. This can be crucial if, at a later stage, there are difficult conversations to be had around disciplinary issues, matters of confidence or attendance.

If you know staff well, and staff feel they know you, the amount of trust on both sides will enable positive outcomes to come from messy situations and wicked problems. Take the time to talk and reap the rewards further down the line.

  • The author of this article is a secondary school headteacher.


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