For school leaders, your top commitment is to improve student learning — and creating a positive school culture is an important step that shouldn’t be ignored on your quest to help students succeed. As a matter of fact, emerging research is giving a clearer picture to the critically important role that school climate plays in how well students learn. In a report for the Review of Educational Research, for instance, researchers found substantial evidence that positive school climates contribute to academic achievement and can improve outcomes for students. In addition, the research showed that a positive school climate often depended on factors such as the strength of students’ relationships with school staff. 

Usually, discussions of adult-student relationships focus on that of the teacher and the student. However, the principal-student relationship is an equally important building block to student achievement. When students are known, noticed, appreciated, and challenged by school leaders (and their staff), they’re able to form deeper bonds to the school. And, in turn, these deeper connections ultimately accelerate motivation and learning. 

However, when it comes to actually building these relationships, principals are at a bit of a disadvantage. Unlike classroom teachers, they have neither a set time nor a set place to build relationships with a particular group of students. So, how can school leaders carve out the time to connect with students one-on-one? And how can they support classroom teachers in their own efforts to build relationships with students? 

Drawing on educational best practices and the expertise of educators in the TpT community, we’ve outlined some strategic ways that school leaders like you can build impactful relationships with students, while juggling your already over-full to-do lists. We’ll also shine some light on tactics that your teachers may not have considered on their own that you can share with them.

What school leaders can do right now to build relationships with students

Carve out time while doing routine tasks. 

While time is often in short supply for school leaders, there are opportunities to connect with students while completing other routine tasks or activities. While doing a walk-through, for instance, you can catch students in the hallway and tell them something you may have noticed them doing in class earlier in the day or week. If you want to address specific things with students in these moments, you can have your teachers give you a list of students who are doing well — or who might need some positive encouragement — to look out for in the hallways. Overall, these three-second moments can add up over time and make a huge difference in your relationships. 

Another way that many principals carve out the time to interact with students is by eating their meals in the cafeteria with students. Being present in the cafeteria not only allows you to be consistently visible and available, but it also helps you to keep a pulse on how students are feeling that day. In an article for the Association for Middle Level Education, one principal said that eating each day in the cafeteria allowed him to quickly learn about students. Since he was observing their habits and patterns each day, he started being able to recognize students’ patterns of movement, learn their names, and notice when things are out of the ordinary, such as when certain students were absent. 

Call them to the principal’s office — when they’re not in trouble.

Many students dread interactions with their principal because getting a call to go to the principal’s office can only mean one thing: certain doom and an uncomfortable phone call to parents or caregivers. However, you can help erase the stigma by making a trip to the principal’s office a perk rather than a punishment. A principal in North Carolina, for instance, instituted a birthday program, where students are called to the principal’s office and given a book for their birthdays. While a book for every child may not be feasible, school leaders could replicate this relationship-building activity with things as simple as a pencil or stickers. Principals can also invite students for a tour of their office “just to see it,” and use the time to break down some barriers by sharing fun facts about themselves. 

Make positive phone calls home.

Positive phone calls home can help school administrators, who are often removed from day-to-day classroom life, not only get to know students better, but also incentivize good behavior. For example, an elementary school in Colorado focuses on a different value every month (like risk-taking, respect, or excellence). When a student excels at that value, they get to make a special visit to the principal’s office for recognition. “We call the student to the office and phone a family member with the great news,” principal Kristin Golden told Chalkbeat. “The student gets a chance to speak with family about his or her accomplishments before going back to class. It is such a celebration between the student, their family, and the office staff. Parents are thrilled to be receiving a positive call from [the] school.”

In addition, frequent communications home can also increase student engagement. For instance, Harvard education researchers discovered numerous benefits of educators phoning students’ homes. On average, their study found that it increased the odds that students completed their homework by 40 percent, decreased instances in which teachers had to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand by 25 percent, and increased class participation rates by 15 percent.

Sit and learn with students during observations. 

Classroom visits and observations can give principals valuable information about what’s working — or not working — in their schools. On top of that, it’s also a way to show an interest in students and gain some insight into what they’re learning. During observations, sit down with students and talk to them while they work. During the conversation, you can also encourage them to make cross-curricular connections, where applicable. For example, you can prompt students working on a passage in ELA class to make connections to what they’re learning in science with questions like: “what this character is going through sounds similar to the anxiety hormone you’re learning about in science. How might these two things be related?” Doing so can demonstrate to the student that you’re dialed in to what’s going on and make their overall learning more effective.

Tactics your teachers may not have considered 

For teachers, strong student relationships not only make their classrooms a nice place to be, but it also makes instructional strategies more effective. Research indicates that building relationships with students improves student achievement (Marzano, Pickering, and Hefelbower, 2010). Here are some avenues that your teachers might not have considered when building relationships with students:

  • Take not only students’ interests but their learning styles into account. It’s often recommended that teachers cultivate knowledge of their students on a personal level by learning what they do after school and how they spend their weekends. This knowledge of their special interests or hobbies can be integrated into your instruction to make lessons more relatable. You can take it one step further by digging into students’ “praise” languages and how they like to learn.
  • Leverage your good relationships with your colleagues. Teachers — and administrators, alike — can utilize the strong relationships they’ve cultivated with each other as a building block to connecting with students. Some students have a stronger relationship with other teachers or staff members and if they see you having a similarly strong relationship, you can use this to help you build rapport.
  • Take time every day to check in with students. TpT Teacher-Author Leigh from The Applicious Teacher recommends using the morning time to walk around and check students planners. “While I was checking planners, I was able to touch base with every single one of my students,” she said. “It allowed me to know when special events occurred or what was happening at home. The whole process only took about 10 minutes, but it helped me ‘know’ my students on a personal level and allowed me to show that I truly care about them as not only a student but as a person.”

Further Reading List
Want to dive deeper into this topic? Here’s a curated reading list of the sources that we cited and referred to while writing this piece.

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