In my last post, I wrote, “Even before building collaborative communities of learning…we must create, nurture and sustain respectful relationships.” But, how do we build trusting, respectful relationships, and why does it matter?
Herb Kohl talks about “developing strategies of empowerment,” and this is certainly a key to building trust and respect. Recognizing people’s strengths and providing opportunities for them to take responsibility and grow their leadership skills is one way to establish trust, a necessary prerequisite for good relationships. Whether we are working as coaches or principals alongside of teachers, or working in classrooms with students, demonstrating trust, by allowing those with whom we work to take the lead, helps in making them open to feedback, and thus learning. Leadership is not about being the best; as Bill Bradley says, “Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” And, if we believe this is the heart of our work, then it is incumbent upon us to celebrate their efforts along the way.
As a principal, again as a superintendent, and now as a coach, I use letters, photographs, and books to help accomplish this goal. Teachers are excited when their efforts are celebrated with a letter outlining why a particular job was well done or a particular lesson was so successful and effective. They are used to praising their students, but their own efforts often go unacknowledged. (In fact, one principal I knew used to say, “You get your paycheck twice a month. That’s your acknowledgment!”)
But, as one coach explained to me recently, “I used to get so excited when I got a letter like that, it just made me want to plunge back in and work even harder!” Principals who only write disciplinary letters “for file” are missing the point. “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”, as the old adage goes. And attaching classroom photos to the letter, showing how the environment supports students’ learning, makes for even more excitement and enthusiasm. I began attaching photos to my letters of observation as a middle school principal, with the result that teachers often asked me to come in whenever an exciting lesson or project was underway. They always added, “And, bring your camera!” They were open to taking risks, and even to having a project fail, because it provided opportunities to learn and get smarter, and they knew I would celebrate their efforts.
I also used books as a way of celebrating teachers. In particular, Jodi Hills’ books, I Am Amazed and Believe are wonderful celebrations of “the people around us…the ones we forget to thank, forget to touch, and so often, the ones closest to us that we overlook.” In I Am Amazed, Hills celebrates “all of the possibilities that lie within” each of us. And in Believe, she says, “We are born with our eyes and hearts wide open. Innocence and youth make it so easy to believe…to trust in smiles…where does that gift go? Why does time and experience have to wear it away instead of building on it?” These are such important questions to keep in mind while we struggle to do the work each day. We need to continue to find ways to build on that gift.
Carmen Farina, a friend and colleague, used “Books of the Month” to celebrate collaborative efforts in her school, and then, across the city. Each month, teachers received a book and a letter. These helped her hone her message in an exciting and palatable way. She ended one such letter, attached to Hills’ book, by quoting Hills, as I will now:
“It’s you who amaze me…you faithful and hopeful spirits of playfulness, wisdom and strength…you who show up every day and dance. It’s you I admire, and I am happily, joyfully, and gratefully amazed.”
If you found a copy of this book in your mailbox, along with a letter of praise and celebration, wouldn’t you believe? Wouldn’t you want to plunge back in, take risks, continue learning and growing as a participant in your own professional learning community? I know I would! So, in the words of Jodi Hills, “Thank you for believing in me…and please believe me when I tell you, that I believe in you.”
I hope you enjoyed your holidays, and your richly deserved celebrations!
Would love to hear how you celebrate teachers you work with.