Cultivating connections: Building relationships starts with intentional leadership

“What can we do now during the summer to get ready for the fall and build connections with our staff? How can those staff connections actually recalibrate our entire team, inspire them through the fall and also help us retain teachers and make it a happier place for teaching and learning to take place?”

These are the million-dollar questions Jennifer Womble, conference chair for the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC), asked ahead of FETC’s second webinar titled, “Cultivating a Culture of Connection.” And according to these two nationally recognized leaders in education, building strong relationships with your staff comes down to one simple solution: intentional leadership.

It’s important that schools start off on the right foot, so the earlier you can begin solidifying relationships with your staff, the better, says Joe Sanfelippo, former superintendent at the Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin.

It’s also up to leaders to create experiences that make students and staff want to be there. According to Jimmy Casas, a nationally recognized educator and principal with more than 30 years of experience, it’s a responsibility.

Jimmy Casas on the importance of cultivating relationships with your staff.

How can leaders create such an environment?

Getting your staff excited for the school year starts now, says Sanfelippo. But you have to “break the script,” so to speak. As a leader, you have to go the extra mile to not only engage your current teachers but those coming in as well.

“How can we create these experiences that break the script that allow our staff to feel excited about the work, but also continue the excitement to when kids get here?” he asks.

One way leaders can do this is by reconnecting with their new hires now, ahead of the school year, because most districts have already hired their new teachers back in the spring, says Casas.

“Go back and reconnect with those new hires,” he says. “Check in with them. Remind them how excited you are that they’re going to be joining your school, your team, here this fall.”

It will create that “wow” moment for your new hires, he adds, because “most people don’t do that.”

But there has to be balance. Your current teachers are just as important as your new hires, says Sanfelippo.

“If we spend so much time concentrating on the new people, what happens to the people who have been here for a while?” he asks. “Those who have invested years and years in the school district and all of a sudden we’re spending all of our time with the new group. They may feel like they’re not part of the ‘new regime.'”

Another crucial aspect that sets the tone of your school’s culture for the rest of the year is how you welcome back your staff. But in order for you to ensure your teachers’ voices are heard, Casas says you must first understand the four most important words in leadership: “I need your help.”

Jimmy Casas on the importance of using feedback to prepare your “welcome back” for staff.

Maintaining excitement throughout the school year

So you’ve wrapped up your summer preparations and now you’re already one month into the school year. Now what? This is the perfect time to, you guessed it, check in again with all of your staff. By this point, they’re tired, Casas explained. So ask them, “Are they just as excited about the school year as they were on day one?”

“We need to create environments where school looks like the first week of school all year long,” says Casas. “I know that might sound a little pollyannaish, but it’s the mindset.”

And you should also be meeting with your teachers collectively, he adds. Too often, teachers tend to isolate themselves within their departments. Instead, invite them in as a group to blend your staff so that your entire school is operating as a solid, diverse unit.

Furthermore, you should invite your veteran staff to also invest in the new hires. Find ways to help them encourage your new staff because it will ultimately set the tone and the expectation for every employee for the rest of the year and beyond.

Ultimately, intentional leadership is the key to unlocking a culture of connectivity in your schools. Not only will it lead to excitement and engagement among your teachers and students, but it will put your institution on the map.

“Do you know what your best recruiters are?” Casas asks. “It’s not your website. It’s not an ad. It’s not HR going to a university campus. The best recruitment tool is those staff members who are having great experiences.”

“I already know that if you hire a new staff member, the first time they’re out somewhere and they run into family, friends or other people who are in the profession, what do you think is the first question they ask them? ‘How is the new job going?’ And you know what I want them to say? ‘Best job ever.'”