My professional growth plan is focused on building a positive school staff culture. I am no expert in this area but I have been honoured to learn from many others to help with my growth. It is my belief that one of our main roles as principals is to create the conditions for a positive culture. I will be using my blog to share and reflect on my learning journey.
Through my experience at a number of different schools, and having the honour of being a principal in two of them, I have learned that the 4 Pillars of Positive Organizational Culture in Schools are: strengths-based, collaborative, innovative, and focused. From my experience, these core areas are based on the values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care. This post will share some my learning journey in the area of building trust (with a focus on building trust between staff and a principal).
In order to create positive change in schools, there must be trust – not only between staff members but also between staff and the principal. In my first position as a principal, I moved from being a vice-principal to a principal at the same school so people already knew me and had a better idea of what I stood for as an educator. There was a level of trust already there but this was not the case when I moved to a new school.
When I arrived at my current school 3 years ago, I assumed that trust would be easy to build between the staff and me. I felt I was a decent guy with experience as a principal and there was no reason NOT to trust me… so building trust should happen rather quickly. I had plans to work on trust with me (as well as between staff) but I had no idea it would take as long as it did. I have learned a ton in my 3+ years at James Hill, especially in the area of building trust. It is not something to be rushed and it takes a lot of effort and time to ensure that trusting relationships are solidified.
I am sure there are times when some staff do not have 100% trust in me but I do feel that, overall, there is decent trust built over the past few years. So what have I learned that was successful (and not so successful) in building trust between staff and a principal? Most of the following ideas have been stolen from others but have worked for me:
- Listen… really LISTEN. This was an area that I made a few mistakes. In retrospect, I spent a lot of time trying to prove myself by sharing my ideas and thoughts. I needed to spend less time trying to be interesting and more time trying to be interested. When we shut up and just listen, it shows we care and it shows it is about US rather than about me. When we listen, we give people a chance to share as well as space to think. The best ideas often come from within and these are the easiest to implement; by just listening, we create the conditions for people to think and share great ideas. I have learned to take the notifications off my phone, put the technology away, avoid interrupting and making it about myself, be present… to truly listen.
- Make the Time. Schedule Meet ‘n Greets. I stole this idea from Cale Birk. In my first few months at the school, to get to know the staff and practice my listening skills, I created an online schedule and asked people to sign up for a chance to just sit and chat. My goal was to spend 15-20 minutes listening to learn about staff strengths, interests, curiosities, as well as some information about their families. When I put up the schedule… after about a week, nobody signed up! I was feeling disheartened but there was finally one teacher that took a risk and signed up and met with me. After we met, I realized that people assumed that I was planning to run a bit of an “interview” schedule. Whoops! It was a good lesson for me on making sure communication is clear. Once there was clarity of the purpose of these blocks of time (that actually ended up lasting about 30 mins each), staff all signed up and I was able to spend uninterrupted time listening to the thoughts and qualities of teachers and support staff. Using Cale’s idea of “Meet n Greets” was a great start for me to try to build trust with a new staff.
- Walk the Talk. To build trust we must do what we say we are going to do. This is about effective management. For some reason, management has been given a bad rap and been overshadowed by the importance of leadership. Bruce Beairsto shares that leadership and management are the yin and yang – both are equally important and you cannot be effective in one without being effective in the other. As Beairsto says, “Management builds the house, leadership makes it a home.” A key error for me has been focusing too much on the leadership and not on the management. One of the mistakes I have made is saying “yes” to too much. For fear of being unavailable, I said yes to a lot of requests and, in doing this, was not able to follow through with commitments and promises. By not doing what I said I was going to do, I missed opportunities to build trust. I did learn how less is more so I started to say “not at this time” a bit more often and worked hard to follow through with ideas and commitments to actions for staff, students, and families. By focusing on effective management skills such as follow-through and organization, we can build more trust that has a resulting impact on leadership and culture.
- Be Visible. Moving to a school in January was a very positive experience. The previous principal had worked incredibly hard to leave the school after tying up as many many loose ends as possible. January and February were months that provided the opportunity for me to spend a lot of time in classrooms with staff and students. Being visible in classrooms led to great dialogue and a better understanding of who we were as a school at that time. If I spent this time in the office, I would have lost so many opportune moments to form connections and build trust.(Hat tip to George Couros for a lot of conversations about this).
- Be Transparent. When making decisions, I did my best to share the why. I know decisions were questioned but through this, my goal was to share that, as much as possible, the students were at the centre of these decisions. It was also important to share which decisions we needed to make together as a staff, which decisions were made for us, and which decisions needed to be made by me (another idea I stole from Cale). It has been far from perfect, and sometimes we agree to disagree, but the transparency has helped people understand the why. When we are less transparent, assumptions can be made which will likely hinder the process of building trust.
- Communicate Clearly. As was stated above, unclear communication can cause misunderstandings and assumptions that hinder the building of trust. It is not what is said that is always important… it is what is HEARD that is important. There were some hard lessons of mistakes I made with this so it is important to learn to identify the people within the staff that you can bounce ideas off of and read memos before they are sent out. There are some people that will show trust more quickly than others so tapping into this relationship can be key in getting authentic feedback about communication. As trust builds, also does the number of people available to help you in this area. When what is heard is what is meant, we are not sidetracked by spending time clarifying and backtracking.
- Lead With Care. As Stephen M.R. Covey writes in The Speed of Trust, “the motive that inspires the greatest trust is genuine caring.” Whether it is a decision about students, families, or staff, we must lead with what Nel Noddings would call an “ethic of care”. Our actions model our values so by leading with care, we can create the conditions for a culture of care and build more understanding and trust.
- Be Vulnerable. Putting ourselves out there can be hard but very powerful. I am lucky as I have significant privilege (being middle-class, white, heterosexual, male, etc) so this is easier for me to be vulnerable and share who I am (I shared this video of who I am with staff, students and families when I first arrived). Brene Brown shares that “Being, rather than knowing, requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen. It requires us to dare greatly, to be vulnerable.” There is power in vulnerability… in putting ourselves out there. As much as we can (again, easier for me), we can share our stories… stories of who we are, what we stand for and stories of both success and struggle. We cannot pretend to be experts; we need to be learners – learners that take risks and sometimes fail. When mistakes are made, I have learned from the feedback of others to own it, apologize for it, change, and move forward to work to repair it. When we show vulnerability, we show that we are human and this makes relationships and connections stronger; with these relationships comes trust.
Although I thought trusting relationships would occur much more quickly than they did, I am so thankful and fortunate that I had (and still have) a staff that was patient with me through my mistakes, struggles, and eventual successes. Trust takes time but it is crucial in moving to a positive organizational culture. While we are building trust with our staff, we are modeling effective relationships and also working with each other as colleagues to create an environment of trust and a resulting collaborative culture (a topic that will be reflected upon in a future post).
If you have further ideas that would help me and others continue to build trust and grow, please share in the comments section below.
I really appreciate your honesty and insight Chris. I have started at a new school this past February and am also focused on building trust with staff, students and parents. I will lean on some of your “aha” moments.
Thanks for the comment! Glad that my sharing of ideas that I stole from others may help someone. 🙂 Good luck on the new school!
First, everything you’ve written here is sheer brilliance.
Second, can I come to work for you?!
As a teacher, all that I want from principals is visibility and transparency. You’ve articulated that so well here. When a principal is visible and transparent, I can get behind him/her, no matter what direction we are going.
Love this times a million.
Hope those girls of yours are a constant source of joy! Mine is, that’s for sure.
How awesome would it be to finally work together!?!! I think conversations with people like you have helped me over the years to understand what real instructional leadership is… and the importance of getting into classrooms to better understand what is happening and support teacher leadership in the school. As you once said (I am paraphrasing), if the principal is the “instructional leader” and he/she does not teach much (if any), how can this be good for culture… it is important to create the conditions for staff to lead!
Although we engage less than we did, the many conversations we had still have an impact on the way I work as a principal… years later.
Thanks buddy – our girls are growing up… too fast!
Chris, just came across your blog. Definitely love what you have here as it falls RIGHT in line with the results I found in my research for my dissertation. For my dissertation, I studied how newly transitioned principals (principals at their schools less than 3 years) build relationships with their new followers and how those followers impact the leadership of the leader. Some key takeaways, after interviewing 12 principals, were that:
– Building relationships requires a leader’s active engagement and participation
– Leaders must be visible
– Leaders must listen
– Leaders must be involved and get others involved
– Leaders must know their people personally and professionally
I also found that observations/evaluations hindered the development of relationships. Yet, one of the largest findings centered on this idea of trust and I concluded that trust is the foundation of the leader/follower relationship.
Just wanted to send a quick note to share my excitement when I read your post confirming what I found. Kudos to all the great things you’re doing!
Thanks so much for sharing this, Laymon! Glad your findings echo what I have learned in my journey. Trust is so key!
Love the honesty and candid style of your blog. The listening part is so important. As educators, we are so busy coming up with solutions & sharing “our” ideas, that we fail miserably at real authentic listening. Have you done the
Cognitive Coaching course? The most difficult part for most teachers is to really listen with an open mind. Once you get that, you can learn to paraphrase what others are really saying and then coaching them to figure out their own solutions. It’s a worthwhile learning experience. Good luck on your leadership journey.
Thank you so much for adding to this, Vivianne. I think we all (as a society) need to listen more with our hearts and minds… really listen to understand, not just to respond.
I have not done the Cognitive Coaching course but helping others to come up with solutions that are meaningful to them sounds right up my alley. All the best to you and thank you for adding more for me to consider on my journey.
I loved your post and could make similar connections to your experiences. Thank you
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Purti!
Thank you for your post. I moved from teacher to principal and have very similar experiences. Building the relationships and trust is so crucial to success! I loved that you shared about vulnerability as it really shows that you’re all in and supporting your staff and what they do. Thank you for being open to sharing that.
In addition to your learning journey I believe really gaining skills for observing and providing feedback and support is another strength of a great principal. Having the strong trust built in prior to that support will build your relationships even more.
Thank you for sharing your post.