Guest post by Amber Rudolph
It’s that time of year again when parents count down the days until school begins, while their children sleep until noon, fight with their siblings, and abuse their screen time. Kids might not tell you, but they too are ready for the school year to begin. They miss their friends and school life.
As I sit on the lake porch, I too can relate. While I love wearing jeans to work, leaving at a reasonable hour, and fielding minimal parent calls, in the middle of the summer I start thinking about the exciting possibilities for the upcoming school year. It’s a reinvigorating time—one of the rare occasions I actually feel on top of things—and I start dreaming big with a plethora of ideas I want to implement. And every year, a consistent theme resurfaces: relationships.
Relationships matter. Whether it’s with students, staff, or parents, school leaders must invest in relationships in order to build a positive climate and an environment of trust, respect, and belonging. Every educational leader knows this, but strong relationships don’t happen by chance and require effort. Cultivating them, however, does not have to be a monumental task. Here are 10 ways administrators can start the year off right and build strong relationships with students, staff, and parents:
- Be present. Make it a priority to spend as much time as possible interacting with students. Greet students at the door when they arrive to school. Make the hallway rounds, visit classrooms, and eat lunch in the cafeteria. Goof off with them at an after-school event. Talk with students about their summer and their excitement for the new school year. These are great opportunities to establish relationships with new students and renew them with returning students.
- Get feedback about their school experience. Ask students what works for them and what doesn’t. What are they excited to do? What changes do they want to see? What do they want from you as a school leader? Giving them a chance to share ideas helps to open the lines of communication between students and school leaders. Later in the year, they won’t hesitate to talk to you because they know you care and will listen to them.
- Invite students to your office. Why should students only see your office when they are in trouble? Let their first visit to your office be a friendly one. Show them your personal photos and share a story about when you were a student. Help students see your office as a place where they can come to you for support and advice instead of just a courtroom for sentencing.
- Show your school pride. Students will get excited about their school and the new year when they see your excitement. Fridays are perfect days to sport your school colors. You can even live on the edge and consider some temporary hair dye during homecoming week! You might even get a smile or two if you bust out the pompoms during school lunch and get the student body to sing the school song!
- Spend time talking with each member of your staff individually. Make it a point to speak to each staff member during the first couple weeks of school. Ask them about the upcoming year and what they hope to accomplish both personally and professionally. What is going on in their lives? What lessons or projects are they excited to teach to students? What challenges do they have? What support would they like from you?
- Lend a helping hand. Assist teachers as they set up their classrooms. Work together to put up a display. Wheel a cart of books back to the media center. Not only will your teachers appreciate your help, it’s a great way to talk with them about their plans for the school year and show them you’re there to support them.
- Don’t forget about new staff. Your new teachers and staff need support in developing relationships with colleagues. Even if your district has a formal orientation process, find a way to connect with each new employee. Welcome them to the school with a personal phone call or face-to-face meeting. Take them on a tour of the building and talk with them about school traditions and culture. Invite them to an after-school event. These are great ways to learn more about your newest hires and establish strong relationships with them.
- Deliver a positive first message. A simple call or handwritten note home praising a child goes a long way. I make it a priority to send as many positive notes home for students as I can at the beginning of the school year. Although it takes only a few minutes, I have received more positive feedback (and ultimately support) from parents on this than any other single act as an educator.
- Meet parents before the first day. Although this can be challenging with a large student body, simply advertising to parents that you have an open-door policy and are more than willing to meet with them sends a powerful message. It shows you care and want to have a collaborative relationship with parents in order to ensure student success.
- Value their input. During the school year, students spend more waking hours with their school family than with their own. Parents, though, still know their kids best. Whether you are struggling with tardiness, language, or apathy, try to involve parents in your decision making. If they are able to assist in intervention, it will be far more effective than carrying it out single-handedly.
Building strong relationships won’t happen overnight. By focusing on relationships at the beginning of the school year, though, you are investing in your most valuable asset: people.
What are your tips for building relationships at the start of the school year?
Amber Rudolph is an assistant principal at Cheney Middle School in West Fargo, ND, which serves roughly 1,200 students in grades 6–8. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2017 North Dakota Assistant Principal of the Year.