The relationship between teachers and administrators is crucial, especially during times of high stress and burnout. A strong connection with an administrator can help a teacher feel supported, find balance and discover growth opportunities. However, administrators often face numerous competing priorities, which can make it challenging to prioritize their relationships with teachers. This is the case at my school, and I’m concerned that teacher-administrator bonds will suffer as a result.
The role of a school administrator is demanding. Administrators are the go-to problem-solvers for students, staff and parents, and they’re responsible for reporting to district leaders. So it’s no surprise that a January 2022 survey by the RAND Corporation showed that 85 percent of principals are experiencing job-related stress. Principals are overwhelmed and burned out.
While the pandemic may have raised public awareness of the plight of education and the stress teachers and administrators face, this has always been a reality. So, too, has the importance of the relationship between teachers and administrators. A report published in Transforming Education in 2019 examined what happens when school leaders establish a culture of trusting relationships. A series of visits to school campuses across the country, in which students, educators and leaders were observed and interviewed, confirmed that positive relationships build and reinforce the conditions in which teachers are able to “hone their practice, which will in turn support students’ academic and social-emotional development.” According to the report, “establishing strong relationships with and among school staff can improve teacher morale and help mitigate those factors that lead to teacher burnout and, ultimately, teacher turnover.”
While I can’t say I’ve experienced this type of strong bond with school leaders during my time in schools, multiple education-adjacent roles I’ve held at education nonprofits confirms these points. At those organizations, I did have strong connections with leaders and it made a big difference. The leaders who trusted me to do my job and made me feel respected motivated me the most. Those are the leaders who have helped me improve my practices and boost outcomes.
Reflecting on the strong leaders I’ve worked with, clear communication was key. They all offered guidance, feedback and support in a timely and constructive manner — which helped me improve my work, address any concerns and feel more confident in my role. They also took a collaborative approach, involving employees in decision-making processes, which led to better problem-solving and helped build more effective and sustainable solutions to challenges.
In schools, the strongest relationships between teachers and leaders involve recognition and appreciation for the hard work and dedication that teachers put into their job. When principals acknowledge the efforts of teachers and celebrate our successes, it can boost morale, leading to a more positive and collaborative school culture. In addition to motivating teachers by building relationships rooted in trust and respect, administrators can provide teachers with the support and resources we need to be effective and successful, including professional development opportunities, mentoring and access to instructional materials and technology.
Though studies have proven that it is worth dedicating time to establish these relationships, it is unfortunately pretty common to learn that even the most well-intended efforts fall short. But I need to feel trusted and respected by my school leaders. I need to feel as though my professional goals matter to them. Without that, it’s hard to find a reason to stay.
Three years ago, when I first started at my school, I recall feeling like my development would be a priority, not only for my school administration but for the network-level leadership as well. There was such enthusiasm at summer and regional professional development sessions about career development pathways, with announcements of roles that existing staff could apply for or roles that were created for mobility.
During my first year, in a mid-year meeting with my principal, she asked me where I saw myself going. I shared that I wanted to hone my skills and grow into a special education leadership role. We discussed what roles were available in my department. We set professional goals and talked vaguely about a plan to get there. There was no leadership role in our special education department at that time, but she mentioned that it was a possibility in the future — and I’ve been holding out hope since that day.
After that conversation, I expected an open, collaborative space with ongoing development to support me in my goals, but it didn’t happen. The pandemic created challenges that took precedence. The next meeting I had was my end-of-year “intent to return” meeting, a sit down in which my principal asked me whether I was coming back. Over the past two years, I feel as though I’ve barely seen my principal, let alone developed a growth path.
After the initial COVID shut-downs eased up, and we had some new, critical hires, I was expecting to officially resume my pathway plan and looked forward to sharing my knowledge gained. But the beginning of the year was interrupted by more quarantines and the lingering impact of Hurricane Ida, and again, competing priorities came into play. Another year ended with little attention to my practice or my career progression.
While my principal has been very receptive to my participation in professional learning opportunities, including conferences and fellowships outside of our school network, it’s not the deep, supportive relationship I need. Our contact has felt minimal, there never seems to be a formalized plan for next steps, priorities are always competing and conversations always shortened. The relationship feels transactional, not transformational. It doesn’t feel like any of the leaders at my school cares to make a long-term investment in me as an educator.
Looking to Models That Work
I have the benefit of knowing many educators who have transitioned into leadership roles over the years. To better understand what leadership looks like at other schools and how leaders prioritize their responsibilities, I spoke to a few of them and the message was the same: strong teacher-administrator relationships are vital.
One of my former mentors, Ebony McClean, who is now an assistant principal in New York, shared that she lives by the motto, “connection before content,” which is the basis of the rationale for why her teachers spend the first seven days of school getting to know their students before jumping into the curriculum. That, she says, is the same approach she takes with her staff. In fact, McClean says that it is a part of her role to develop teachers and just as she is a proponent for the whole child, she is the same for the whole teacher. She has formal beginning, mid-year and end-of-year conversations with her teachers and regular check-ins all year long. Sometimes it’s not all business, she says. Check-ins can be personal too.
A former colleague, Dianne Joyce, also an assistant principal in New York, echoes what studies have continuously found, that administrator-teacher relationships can’t be effective without trust. But Joyce says that it’s usually on administrators to establish that trust. “No teacher wants to feel that their admin wants a ‘gotcha’ moment or feels there is a hierarchy or ivory tower in the school. I felt this with my past admin until I became one,” Joyces says. Joyce shared that in addition to check-ins, she readily seeks teacher feedback on instructional agendas and other school community issues and says it goes a long way.
Both McLean and Joyce have open door policies and center their practice on the whole teacher, based on their belief that for students to have the best learning experience, their teachers need to be the best versions of themselves.
It is a difficult time to be in the teaching profession, whether as a teacher or an administrator. Working together is key. While I do not believe my administration is in charge of my development, I do believe school leaders have a responsibility to show up for and invest in teachers. It’s understandable, given the tumultuous nature of the past three years, that this can’t always be the focus, but it shouldn’t be an afterthought. In my various networks and affinity spaces, it saddens me to hear this common theme as part of the reason teachers leave their schools or the profession entirely. When you do not water a flower, it will die. The best and brightest are at risk of leaving when these relationships do not get off the ground.
Just as strong student-teacher relationships are important to student success, strong teacher-administrator relationships are key to creating a positive and productive school environment. When principals and teachers work together in a respectful, collaborative, and supportive way, they can achieve great things for their students, their community and each other.