George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

6 Simple Ways to Build Trusting Relationships With Staff

Being vulnerable and taking the time to build a strong foundation helps nurture the change you want to see in your school.

December 20, 2021
Two colleagues talking
FangXiaNuo / iStock

This year has been a challenge, and just getting through it is something to celebrate. As leaders, we’ve really had to think about who we are, who we want to be, how we want to lead, and how we want to work with our staff.

In times of calm and normalcy, relationships are important, but in times of uncertainty and difficulty, relationships are vital. Those relationships allow for impactful actions to be taken that benefit students and staff. Building relationships is a daily practice.

Key Ways to Build Relationships

1. Be authentic: Relationships are difficult when you aren’t living in your truth. When you only share parts of yourself, leading will be difficult. Once you know who you are and what you value, you can share that authentically with your staff. Taking time to share your interests, hobbies, and passions will allow you to relate to staff because it humanizes you.

Additionally, sharing your goals (in and out of school), your flaws, and even about your family life will help to open conversations with educators as individuals. Lastly, laugh. Being able to joke, smile, and bring joy into a space is a valuable tool for a leader to use frequently.

2. Be there: Being present for staff can take many forms. On a regular basis, it’s important to make intentional decisions to be there for our staff. This isn’t to be taken lightly. In conversations, focus on what staff members are sharing with you. This starts from the simplest actions, like physically leaning in when talking, making eye contact, nodding, and even smiling (you can see a smile through a mask).

Visibility is a key part of being there. Roaming the halls gives you a chance to be there for staff at the moment they need it. As you roam, you will likely hear, “Oh yeah, I was going to ask…” or “Glad I bumped into you...” or “Do you have a couple of minutes?” Consider sitting in the teachers’ lounge (or wherever your staff hangs out) periodically. Find balance there so as not to disrupt their safe spaces. Casual moments with your community are equally as important as scheduled time.

Being there also includes your ability to respond to concerns. This means checking your email throughout the day. If staff contact you via messaging, apps (like WhatsApp or Slack), or other methods, be sure to check there as well. Finding ways to acknowledge and then act on those requests will help build trust with your team.

3. Listen: This sounds simple, but due to the reality of how the day of an administrator goes, listening and finding the time to do it can feel overwhelming. Furthermore, listening isn’t passive—follow it with actions that impact the work of educators. Begin with asking questions. Avoid telling educators what to do, and learn about their needs. The answers that teachers give will help build relationships but also direct next steps.

As you listen, affirm the work that staff are doing. When you affirm, you celebrate teachers’ work. You can also affirm them by working to give them time to continue to make a difference in students’ lives. This may include removing items from the teachers’ responsibility, being an advocate for them, or standing in the gap when needed.

Because there’s a lot to take in, jotting notes will help ensure accurate follow-up, which is also part of listening. When you act on what teachers need, it shows that you not only heard their concerns but also value them. Let your notes help you successfully move forward with change.

Remember that simply listening isn’t enough. Show that you’ve listened by taking action.

4. Know them: School leaders often talk about the wonderful skills of their teachers. They can suggest professional development that educators can lead. They might even be able to connect teachers to create a support system. Although each of these is important, knowing your staff as people is crucial. Knowing that Ms. Brown’s oldest son plays soccer, that Mr. James’s partner is in a play, or that Mx. Turner is in a band is important. These small nuggets are gateways into building a relationship. Teachers are people. Knowing someone’s passion, interest, and even fears can be the key to offering better support.

There are many ways to get to know your teachers. Consider using a beginning-of-the-year survey. Similar to what a teacher might send home to parents, survey your staff. Ask them questions like “What brings you joy after 3:30 p.m.?” or “If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be?” or “What are you most proud of?” Their answers will help you get to know them as individuals. Follow up with one-on-one meetings, or answers could be shared in a staff meeting.

5. Share the decision-making process: So many decisions are made in school every day. Some are large, while others are small. No matter the size, find ways to involve staff in finding solutions. Whether that means allowing them to have input on the schedule, lesson plan template, spirit week days, or an emergency plan, their voice matters. Giving space to teachers and staff to be part of the solution is empowering.

You could also do this when teachers present you with a problem. Simply ask, “How can I help you get to a resolution?” or “If you had a magic wand, how would you solve the problem?” If their requests or suggestions are reasonable, use them. If they won’t work, share some of the roadblocks in their suggested solution. Giving space to make decisions, find answers, and move forward shows that you trust your staff. Trusting is the basis of a thriving relationship and allows impactful change to be possible.

6. Apologize for your mistakes: We’re human and we make mistakes. We fail. A failure or mistake isn’t the issue; an inability to admit that we were wrong is. Take the time to admit when you dropped the ball, misspoke, or simply forgot. Teachers will forgive you when this happens. Education isn’t perfect. Just as we want our students to understand, education happens through mistakes. Allow your fumbles to be spaces where the school moves forward instead of backward. Saying “I apologize” and then correcting the mistake is likely all you need to help forge a relationship built on trust.

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