George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

How School Administrators Can Prioritize Connecting With Students

Building relationships with students is good for school culture—and a leader’s mental health.

October 24, 2023
SDI Productions / iStock

School leaders play many roles throughout the day. Morning greeter, instructional leader, transportation coordinator, food service support, substitute teacher… you name it, a principal has probably done it. As a principal who has led at the elementary, middle, and now high school levels, I’ve found one thing that is consistent across them: Administrators are pulled in many different directions, no matter what age group they lead.

With all of the responsibilities and tasks assigned to us every day, it can be challenging to prioritize meaningful and proactive student engagement—and then continue to prioritize these connections throughout the school year. Here are a few ideas to help you make regular and intentional connections with your students. 

Be intentional with your time

If you don’t set your schedule, your schedule will set you. Many times I hear from other leaders that they get stuck in their office instead of finding time in the day to be in the same space as their students. Prioritizing connection time means putting it on your calendar and holding yourself accountable. 

Finding the time to batch the work of connecting with students in creative ways has taken a few years and a few strategies. One I use regularly is identifying my “Ideal Week.” In my planner, I map out times during the week for greeting students, checking emails, having meetings, and batching social media. By planning ahead and blocking time, I am more confident that I can get these things done during the day, and not always at night or on the weekends. 

In my role as principal at Woodson Kindergarten Center, this meant scheduling bus arrival and dismissal times on my calendar every week. I tried to hold myself accountable to be outside at least three days a week. Cold, snow, sun, rain, wind, or a combo of all of the above (I do live in Minnesota), I was outside greeting students.

Fast-forward to my new role as a leader in a high school. Every Friday, I grab my jammy pack, a combo of Bluetooth speaker and a functional fanny pack, and step outside to dance and give teens high fives. It is hilarious to hear their reactions: “Cabeen, you still dance like when we were in kindergarten!” Cringy or drippy, taking the time to connect in a nonacademic way has ripple effects that can be felt for years. 

Setting up your office in the halls during class periods is also a way to get some work done while catching up with kids on their way to class. When I was a middle school leader, I borrowed a standing desk on wheels and stationed myself in different areas to connect with students, assist them with getting to class, and catch up with staff during hall duty. During passing time, I was 100 percent kid-focused, and then when they went into class, I opened up my laptop and got some of the nuts-and-bolts work done. 

As a principal who also supports online learners now, finding ways to connect with students you never see in the halls has been a new opportunity for me. Besides TikToks, Instagram posts, and emails, I have started using as a way to record questions to send to students and have them respond directly to me. I am learning what students like about being an online learner, as well as things they are most proud of and things they are working on. Scheduling weekly time to create and review these submissions has been a highlight of my week and a new way to connect with students on an individual basis. 

Be creative with connections 

A few years ago, the kindergarten center partnered with the Search Institute to create a video called How to Show Kids You Care, showcasing how many different ways you can connect with students. From attending events at school and in the community to playing volleyball in the gym to reading in the classroom, finding ways to connect with kids isn’t going to be hard when you incorporate your own interests or passions. 

As a former music therapist and a forever drummer, I showed up to “audition” to play with the middle school pep band, marching band, or concert band. Students were always surprised to see that their principal had not only secret talents but a little rhythm as well. And as someone who still loves to get behind a drum set, having time during the day to engage in a personal passion was an unexpected bonus. 

How can you make this work? If you have an administrative assistant, give them full access to your schedule. I have my incredible admin schedule me to attend one event for each activity our school participates in, like Math League, musical concerts, sporting events, and plays. By having access to the personal and professional sides of my life, my administrative assistant can easily navigate which events I can attend and make sure to schedule time to breathe in between.

This is a great opportunity for you, as a storyteller for your school, to get photos and videos of your students excelling in and outside of school and to share that story with your school board, parent newsletters, and social media. 

Be sincere with your gratitude

When scheduling my ideal week, I always make sure to block an hour for gratitude. That might involve making positive phone calls home, writing happy notes to families, or sharing newspaper clippings of former and current students who were recognized in our local paper. 

Batching time for regular practices of gratitude gives you space to refocus on your “why,” to build positive community, and to make meaningful connections with your students. I know this work is tough. As a school leader, you are working hard to support your students and staff while staying connected with district policies, programs, and practices. At times it can feel like it is all too much, and these student connections may feel like just one more thing. 

However, acts of gratitude go a long way for you and for your students. Implementing a regular practice of gratitude can provide you with increased feelings of optimism, joy, and hopefulness. So the next time you greet a student, recognize their accomplishment in extracurricular events, or celebrate an academic success, remember that while you are creating a positive culture, you are also supporting your own mental health in the process. 

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