Every day in school, educators strive to build and sustain relationships, recognizing their fundamental role in effective communication, trust, and creating a supportive learning environment. Whether these relationships involve students, colleagues, or administrators, the quality of them profoundly impacts the growth and positivity of school environments.
As a leader of principal supervisors in my school division (Rashard) and as a teacher (Cathleen), we have found that the quality of those relationships can easily be enhanced with a mix of positive psychology and intentionality in a term we like to call heartwork. Heartwork is centered on intentionally creating nurturing, thriving environments for individuals, classrooms, and schools to grow.
The term heartwork also serves as a reminder that our hearts are the motivators of action and play a pivotal role in the relationships formed in our classrooms and schools. We both have found three keys to heartwork that can deepen relationships and help foster more positive school connections: active listening, having an asset-based focus, and promoting a culture of communication and encouragement.
3 Heartwork Keys
Key 1: Listen actively to promote understanding and trust. The first key to nurturing positive relationships through heartwork is authentic active listening. It goes beyond merely hearing words, demanding heightened focus, absence of judgment, and unwavering intentionality.
I (Rashard) once supported a school leader chosen for a new role within our division. Initially, the news was met with resistance, questioning my knowledge of them. Instead of taking it personally, I committed to altering their perception. I embarked on a trust-building journey, visiting the leader’s school twice during the crucial first week.
Active listening is the foundation of trust. Practicing it builds rapport, conveying, “I see you, I hear you, and I genuinely care.” Educators should apply five fundamental steps for active listening to build better relationships:
- Be fully present. Engage with unwavering presence, eliminating distractions.
- Practice reflective listening. Reflect on what's heard to encourage clarification.
- Ask open-ended questions. Promote meaningful dialogues with questions beginning with ”How...,” “What...,” or “Why...”
- Show empathy. Understand and validate emotions beneath spoken words.
- Practice patience without judgment. Building trust takes time; set aside biases.
Genuine listening and understanding create an environment where relationships thrive through everyone’s thoughts and feelings being respected and valued.
Key 2: Maintain an asset-based focus. I (Cathleen) utilize a strengths directory to foster positive relationships within the school community. This directory highlights the strengths and assets of both students and staff, emphasizing that the school’s strength comes from its people.
To create the directory, I use a Google Form with reflective questions that help guide a person to identify their strengths and assets. Once they’re collected, I share the results with the class and colleagues, showcasing everyone’s skills and hobbies.
Schools often lack space for recognizing each person’s value. The strengths directory promotes collegiality, connecting students and staff based on their strengths. For example, a student needing help might find an expert in the directory, or a teacher may discover colleagues with specialized expertise.
Unlike the deficit-focused nature of education, this practice highlights individuals’ strengths. It not only fosters relationships but also extends beyond school, with students connecting over shared strengths like video editing or knitting. The strengths directory allows everyone to be seen and valued, promoting relationships based on seeing the best in every person you come across.
Key 3: Cultivate effective communication and encouragement. Culture and climate, often cited in exit interviews, drive both new and experienced educators away from schools. Nurturing a school’s culture is vital for thriving relationships. Support, communication, encouragement, and effort all contribute to a growth-oriented culture in which relationships can thrive.
- Promote open communication. Establish a welcoming environment for students and staff to express themselves freely. Incorporate informal gatherings like “coffee times,” utilize suggestion jars, and implement Google Forms to gather valuable input. To effectively address challenges, create structured feedback mechanisms such as weekly school improvement suggestions and advice boxes. Encourage active participation by inviting individuals to voice concerns and share innovative solutions, fostering a problem-solving culture and trust within the school community.
- Provide encouragement. Recognize and celebrate individual and collective achievements. Morning shout-outs and a “walk of fame” where students and staff celebrate their accomplishments in and outside of school can boost morale and reinforce positive relationships.
Teachers could have an area for a fridge door in their classroom where students are given a space to share highlights of their lives, work, and accomplishments, as they might on a refrigerator door at home. By giving every kid an area on the wall to share appropriate content, educators value student individuality and give everyone a space to share highlights of their lives, fostering classroom relationship building.
These three keys—active listening, an asset-based focus, and effective communication and encouragement—nurture positive relationships in education. Cultivating active listening and trust forms a collaborative, respectful learning environment. Embracing strengths propels us to value every voice and unlock leadership. Building a culture of support binds these elements. Through heartwork, we embark on a transformative journey, fostering hope, growth, and positivity to build a relationship that supports every person to thrive.