Forging relationships with students, staff, and caregivers is critical to the success of any school leader. But what does relationship building really look like in action? How can leaders operationalize their educational missions to foster genuine support and collaboration in their learning environments?
These questions feel especially urgent in the wake of the pandemic, as many schools are encountering challenges related to social and emotional learning (SEL), and nearly 55 percent of teachers are considering leaving the profession. With so much in flux, cultivating a strong school culture is critical to creating dependable, supportive spaces for both learners and teachers.
That’s why I spoke with Carise Echols, currently principal at Theodore Jones Elementary School and recipient of the 2022 NAESP National Outstanding Assistant Principal Award for the state of Arkansas. The award is given to leaders who improve processes at their school and make meaningful contributions to their team, and Echols’s work demonstrates particular expertise in the realms of social and emotional learning, staff development, and community building.
Here’s what Echols had to say about the power of relationships in school leadership and the strategies other leaders can use to take a similar approach.
BRITTANY COLLINS: How would you describe your approach to school leadership?
CARISE ECHOLS: A good principal never forgets what it’s like to be in the classroom. I strive to be a principal who is in the forefront with teachers—it’s about collaboration. I want to take things I’ve learned from people in my life, teachers I’ve had, and expand those lessons beyond the classroom.
COLLINS: Who was an impactful teacher for you?
ECHOLS: Beth Shanks—she was my fourth-grade teacher. She passed away a few months ago. She was the teacher I kept in communication with—the teacher who showed up at my first teaching job with a gift in hand. She came to my wedding.
The number one thing that stands out to me as her legacy would be her kindness. I remember getting a certificate from her for prettiest handwriting—she found something about each student that was unique to them. And that’s something I try to instill in my teachers, and do for my teachers.
COLLINS: How do you use that approach with teachers?
ECHOLS: As a first-year principal, my number one goal is to have everyone get to know me as much as I am getting to know them, to build trust as their leader.
I have a staff shout-out board in our teachers’ lounge where I write quick notes to teachers and set the trend for others to do so, too. It’s full now, from teachers complimenting other teachers, custodians, and staff.
I write cards to stick in their boxes. And each teacher has a QR code on the back of their door that I can scan to give them feedback and encouragement: “I love how you did this today” or “I enjoy having you here as a teacher.”
At faculty meetings, I give shout-outs to showcase things I see teachers doing. Sometimes another teacher says, “Hey, that’s such a cool lesson. I would love for my colleague to showcase that at a faculty meeting.”
COLLINS: Turning now to students, how do social and emotional learning challenges manifest at your school? And what interventions have you tried?
ECHOLS: We’re seeing this phenomenon of “I’m upset, but I don’t really know why I’m upset or how to express it other than crying or maybe throwing something.”
As a district, state, and world, we could do more [to help young people]. Here at school, we use an SEL program given to us by the state, and our counselor visits various classes weekly.
We also have character words of the month—“courage” is a recent example—and we teach lessons in connection with the word.
And we do positive office referrals: So often, in books and movies, the principal’s office is where you go when you’re in trouble. Instead, when students have demonstrated positive behavior, they’re nominated to visit me for a celebration.
We also have a book vending machine where students can earn golden tokens and get a new book for positive behavior or academic excellence.
COLLINS: It sounds like you’re very intentional about supporting students and your staff. How do you keep your own cup full?
ECHOLS: Being a principal can be a lonely job. I’m very blessed to have my husband, a principal, to share ideas with. I also have a good group of principals around the city with whom I collaborate often. Having that support is very important.
COLLINS: What are the greatest challenges you’re facing in your practice?
ECHOLS: Personally, I am eager to get into the classrooms to support teachers. I want to be in there, and when you become a principal, you just never know what the day is going to be like. You can say you’re going to Mrs. Johnson’s room at a certain time, and then you have an email, or a meeting, or a parent comes in. Things pop up, and you’re not able to get there. That’s hard for me.
And it’s been a challenge since Covid. With the social-emotional aspects of learning how to communicate, share, and play with other children, it’s been tough figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. And it’s not just here in Arkansas; it’s everywhere.
COLLINS: What advice do you have for other first-year school leaders—or teachers?
ECHOLS: For teachers: Never be afraid to ask questions. We’ve all had a first year. You’re going to figure it out. Ask questions of your colleagues, your peers, and the principal. Remember that you were hired for a reason. You stood out in the interview process, and we hired you because we knew what you were capable of and saw your heart for children.
That’s the same for a first-year administrator. Educators have a calling, and it’s very evident when people have a passion for kids. We must do everything to benefit students—to make sure our kids are safe, learning, and loved.
We’re all in this together.