Successful relationships with the school community aren’t developed overnight. It takes time and conscious strategic efforts to build trust and establish credibility.
Over time I’ve come to learn that effective engagement strategies with one group—whether it be students, staff, or families—can and should play upon and weave into the others, much like the tapestry of a beautiful quilt. As we get to know our students better, it’s important to prioritize authentic connections with not just them, but their support systems. Students should know that their teachers at school and their guardians at home are working together on their behalf. Similarly, building a strong foundation with your staff translates to better outcomes for students and their families.
We’re all on the same team. Schools thrive when all members of the community are involved and actively contribute toward shared values and goals. Here are some core principles and actions to keep in mind as you meaningfully engage with your school communities at all levels:
PAY CLOSE ATTENTION
If we want to increase levels of involvement at our schools, we have to actively listen to our community—what is both said and unsaid. Leaders are signal senders and receivers, meaning we should be actively attuned to the wants and needs of those we serve through things like surveys, listening sessions, check-ins, and community meetings.
Students: Acknowledging birthdays and successes as well as simple things like calling out their new glasses or shoes can go a long way. When a student writes a thoughtful essay or scores well on their math test, stop by to celebrate them for their growth and achievement. On occasion, I write letters to my students, and their honest responses often provide me with clarity regarding their thoughts on anything from the school lunch menu to recess activities—all information I can use to anchor talking points for our interactions.
Families: Everyone likes to feel seen and appreciated. Show families you notice their contributions by thanking the parents who brought snacks to the soccer game. Follow up by sending some books and resources home with a family who expressed interest in a specific topic. Families also benefit when we approach them with empathy and understanding. Call the new family who just recently transferred to your school to see how their transition is going and how you can help.
Staff: After students, teachers and staff provide perhaps the most valuable pulse in the school building. Biannual feedback surveys provide information about how staff feel and what they perceive to be working well or not in the school—all valuable insights. Try asking questions like “How effective are the professional learning experiences?” or “What curricular modifications and/or resources would be helpful?”
Beyond surveys, nothing can ever replace one-on-one or small group conversations with members of the team. Remember to leverage these more intimate or informal moments to offer appreciation and support.
BE VISIBLE and ACCESSIBLE
Engaging with members of our communities should occur anywhere and everywhere. We have to be in the arena of our school happenings. We can’t watch from the sidelines.
Students: Spending time with students during lunch and recess pays huge dividends. I ensure that I have the availability to join recess duty a few times during the week to interact with the kids, in addition to hosting lunch groups in my office. Based on teacher recommendations or my own observations, I invite students who look as though they could benefit from some additional adult support and connection. We eat lunch together, talk, laugh, and play board games. To help my students practice their Spanish, I also conduct one of my “lunch bunches” in the target language.
Families: Morning arrival and dismissal are pivotal times of the school day during which I like to make myself available for impromptu conversations with families and caregivers. I also try to engage with the school community off-campus when possible. For example, our school hosts information and enrollment events at a local community center where families can see me in person. Many meetings and collaborations can be facilitated virtually—such as our parent-teacher association (PTA) meetings—so even when families cannot be physically present, they can still see the school leader.
Staff: Just because you work in the same building doesn’t mean that staff “see” you. Yes, walk the halls often and offer to cover class for a few minutes so teachers can take that bathroom break. But also consider deeper engagement with your staff and how it can help humanize your position.
At the end of my first year as a school principal, members of our staff told me they felt that they didn’t know me well. And, they were right. I was reserved and guarded. Now I talk about taking long walks on the weekend, the latest movie I’ve seen, or books I’ve read. Not only does this give our team more information about my interests, but also I hope to model a healthy work-life balance. As I let people in, this is often reciprocated with more openness, mutual understanding, and even accountability when necessary as we collectively pursue our goals.
As you co-design with your school community, tap into the experiences and expertise of those around you to help solve problems or enhance existing school initiatives.
Students: Our learners can not only offer ideas but also provide help to facilitate creative solutions. At our school, students have selected new book titles for our school library and launched interest groups, like a hair club. Elected student council representatives also poll their classes to identify problems and propose student-generated ideas. Although we can’t install a swimming pool and water slide (at least not yet), it was clear that our students enjoyed sharing their ideas to help make the school better.
Families: Be transparent with families and the school community when both setting and measuring school goals. Provide families with concrete strategies to implement at home that align with the school’s priorities. For example, we are working to improve our youngest students’ reading proficiencies, so we encourage our families to have their children read or read to their children for at least 20 minutes a day. Viewing families as active partners in this work not only leads to stronger relationships but helps the students to benefit as well.
Staff: Welcome and encourage your staff’s expertise where you can. Our teachers and staff designed a student marketplace, which they use to teach about artisanal and entrepreneurial skills that promote financial literacy. Additionally, we know that educators can and do learn a lot from their colleagues, so it’s important to leverage their skills. At my school, we are continuing to develop more vertical planning opportunities so that teachers across grade levels can more deeply understand the intersection of what students should know now and be able to do in the future.