Developing positive relationships with colleagues can be rewarding, but in today’s highly demanding education atmosphere, teachers may find themselves saving their energy for their classrooms—the one place we feel we can truly be effective. However, even if just a handful of teachers on any given campus determine there is merit in transforming their workplace relationships, a staff can experience huge gains in trust, respect, and collaboration—to the benefit of all. If you and a team of your colleagues want to upgrade the quality of your professional relationships this year, consider a few of the following action steps:
Form a Birthday Committee
Try persuading a few of your colleagues to join you in recognizing every birthday for every adult on campus. Commit to getting a card and a small gift, like candy or a pre-paid coffee card. As you work to recognize each birthday, your committee may start to grow. A gesture of kindness goes a long way in helping to develop trust among staff members. Keep things small and simple to avoid adding stress to the workplace. It's not the items that help grow trust but the gesture. (Hint: Be sure to include all adults on campus, not just the teachers. Also, find a creative way to acknowledge summer and holiday birthdays, too.)
Strive for Understanding
Just like with their students, teachers know when a colleague isn’t really listening. Whether you are hearing the same complaint from Negative Nellie or sitting through another round of “Why I’m Awesome” from Mr. or Mrs. Superstar, listen like you care. Avoid the temptation to see a caricature and determine instead to connect with a real person. Contribute something positive to their story. Don’t simply tolerate; participate, genuinely. Test your ability to be compassionate, even when your coworker seems to be stuck in a repeating vine.
We’ve all heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” According to Kenneth Kendler, Director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University, rather than people “being what they eat” they should be understood as “being what they experience.”
Keeping this in mind can help us show empathy for our fellow teachers, office staff, custodians, paraeducators, volunteers, food service staff, administrators, and more. Empathy and understanding are game changers in any profession.
Share Something Positive
When my son entered middle school, where I teach, he was welcomed warmly and treated with great care by my colleagues. At a staff meeting early in the year, I stood up and shared how much I appreciated how they had made him feel special. I named each teacher and let him or her know that Lucas (my son) enjoyed telling us about school each evening. I said, “He loves it here, and you’re the reason why.” It would have been very easy to say nothing. Each of us faces situations where we could determine to say something positive. If we look for opportunities to thank or recognize our colleagues, we will be doing our part to strengthen relationships and improve climate.
Our staff meetings begin with “celebrations,” which allow anyone to share something positive about someone else. If you have a rocky relationship with a colleague, publicly sharing something positive can be a first step toward mending the rift. It might be as simple as, “I really appreciate how quiet Ms. Loyd’s class was while working in the hall today” or “Last night’s band concert was awesome. I know how much hard work that took.” We all want to work with people who build others up.
If your staff meetings don’t begin with celebrations, ask your principal to consider giving them a try this year.
Show Up to Social Events
Like any organization, there are social events planned throughout the school year. Teachers and administrators plan barbecues and golf tournaments, participate in holiday gatherings, attend retirement parties and baby showers. These may not seem very important, but our presence says as much, or more, as our absence when it comes to these events. Last year, I went to my first book club meeting at a coworker’s home. (Turned out I was the only male in attendance.) What I thought might be uncomfortable turned out to be loads of fun, with food, drink, discussion, and, most importantly, laughter. The conversations continued back at work, and positive connections were established.
Taking time to show up – and contribute to – planned activities is part of building trust. The teachers who regularly stay away leave doubts in the minds of their colleagues. Doubt erodes trust. This year, make a point of attending some of the social events organized by your staff. Better yet, join in planning one of these events. Your effort might pay off in ways you don’t yet anticipate.
This might be the most important item on the list. Nothing erodes relationships more quickly or more decisively than gossip. I am guilty of it. Despite my best intentions, I find myself pulled toward sharing that little piece of juicy information that might elevate my own position while devaluing a colleague. Even when disguised in loose generalities, even when names are “left out,” gossip acts as a cancer in any workplace. My personal and professional commitment for the coming year is to abstain from anything that remotely resembles gossip. If you have a colleague you trust, consider making a pact to do the same. Commit to changing the things around us by changing the things inside us. If it sounds like gossip, walk away. Even better, point it out as gently as possible. Something as simple as, “Maybe we should talk about something else” clearly demonstrates your good intentions. By using “we” instead of “you,” the message is inclusive and not intended to single out any individual. This simple stand might inspire others to follow your lead.
I am committed to these five action steps for the coming school year. I invite you to partner with me. Together, we can enact some education reform that actually makes a difference.
Chad Donohue is a middle school teacher, blogger, and adjunct professor living in Snohomish, Washington. Chad writes passionately about issues pertaining to educators, students, and families. He has been teaching since 1993.