Getting Past “Do Better Now”

There was a time when you’d walk into my office and see the fixings of, well, an office: a white board with a “to-do” list for staff, a desk organizer, calendar, and… a big box of Kleenex, positioned directly across from my seat. Were the tissues in response to the high concentration of allergens in the area? Or the plethora of common colds plaguing elementary schools?

No, and no. They were there because of my tendency to make teachers cry.

In my previous position as an assistant principal, I believed the urgency of closing the achievement gap and transforming the lives of our students meant there was no time for pleasantries. My leadership style was abrasive. Feedback conversations began with “you were missing X” and ended with “I expect to see this in your classroom by Y.” There was little to no consideration of the teacher or his or her feelings. We had a job to do and my way was the only way.

When I joined PhillyPLUS, my leadership coach pushed me to realize my old approach may not have been the best. During my performance review in the middle of our summer training institute, she gave me what I thought was the strangest assignment ever: Write a thank-you note to each of your colleagues before the end of each day of training. Not fully understanding how this would change my methodology, but believing in my coach’s wisdom, I gave it a try.

My first note was to a colleague who always encouraged others. In my note, I told her I appreciated her optimism, and how she made the PhillyPLUS practice feedback sessions feel like a safe place to make mistakes. Afterward, we had a great conversation about how we could work together to improve our feedback sessions. It was the start of a friendship that helped both of us grow faster. As we became closer, we cared more about each other’s successes and engaged in critical dialogue on how we could improve our practice as school leaders.

I continued writing notes of gratitude throughout the summer training. Doing so, I found that relationship building helped me develop professionally. I see it like having mustard on your face. A trusted friend is much more likely to tell you that you have mustard on your face than a stranger. Likewise, a colleague is more likely to be invested in your development and push you to get better if you’ve built a trusting, collaborative relationship.  

Nowhere is this kind of relationship more important than in a school, where we are constantly striving to improve our work at all levels. When I started the new school year as a PhillyPLUS Resident, I met my mentor, who told me she was a “relationship principal.” She has a staff of teachers willing to do whatever it takes to improve student achievement precisely because she invests in them personally and professionally. She knows their lives, their goals, their strengths and weaknesses. When working with one of her teachers to improve their instruction, she takes the whole person into account—not just the job before them. At the beginning of the school year, my mentor principal was rolling out change after change—including longer professional development sessions, higher expectations for instruction, more frequent observations, and a new coaching system. But there was no push-back from her teachers—just excitement. They trusted her, and her enthusiasm was contagious.

These positive principal-teacher relationships serve as a model for others in our school community: between educators and students, educators and parents, and among the students.

The lessons I learned on relationship-building have pushed me to shift my leadership style. This wasn’t an immediate change, but it started with simply asking people about themselves and then gradually moving into discussing their practice. I now know my teachers’ favorite television shows and outside-of-school interests. We discuss the playoffs as well as pedagogy. Recognizing that people bring with them all of their life experiences and perspectives is essential to motivating and coaching others.

It’s paying off, too. Recently, a teacher thanked me for the best coaching session he has ever had. He told me he can’t wait for our next session. As it turns out, taking the time to build a strong sense of team cohesion hasn’t distracted us from the essential work of improving outcomes for students. On the contrary, we’re better prepared now to do whatever it takes for our students.

Today, I still keep a box of Kleenex in my office. But it’s hardly used. When I conduct feedback sessions now, I meet teachers in their classrooms and look at things from their perspectives. By investing early and often in trusting relationships, we’re able to work together to deliver the instruction our students so deserve.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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