Preparing Future Leaders For Building Relationships

Our guest author today is Corrie Stone-Johnson, Associate Professor of Educational Administration at the University at Buffalo. She is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership and Policy in Schools published by Taylor & Francis. Her research in educational change and leadership examines the social contexts and organizational cultures within which teachers, leaders, and school support staff experience and enact change. 

While many “types” of leadership models, such as instructional leadership, transformative leadership, or moral leadership, have demonstrated positive effects on student learning, one common feature of high-quality leadership is that principals lead not by themselves but “with and through others” (Hargreaves and Harris 2010, p. 36), taking responsibility not just for success and failure but for developing the relationships needed to foster such success. Robust empirical evidence indicates that strong relationships between teachers are a key lever for a variety of important outcomes, including successful and sustainable change, teacher commitment, and student achievement. Relationships matter because they help to create social capital, which Leana and Pil define as the “glue that holds a school together.” The noted benefits of teacher social capital include student achievement gains above and beyond those attributable to teacher experience and instructional ability (see here). In schools where teachers collaborate, students do better in math and reading (see here) and teachers both stay and improve at greater rates (see here).

Social capital, or the value that inheres in the relationships among people (as opposed to the attributes of individuals), is developed in networks. Networks are important for the exchange of resources and they can be influenced by intentional strategies that build upon the existing relationships (or lack thereof) between and among district and school leaders —see here. There is no doubt that strong networks—to the extent that they generate trust and facilitate professional and organizational learning – can be a successful vehicle for student achievement and teacher retention. But—and this is very important—networks do not just happen; rather, they are the result of deliberate efforts undertaken by school administrators. Starratt (2004, 2005) argues that not only is a leader responsible to multiple stakeholders in the building, the district level and the community, he or she is also responsible for developing relationships with each of these stakeholders.

In the Performing Beyond Expectations project, we certainly found this view of relationship building to be true. From 2007 to 2010, a team of international researchers led by Andy Hargreaves and Alma Harris explored how eighteen organizations across three sectors—business, education, and sports—achieved exceptionally high performance, given their history, size, client base, and previous performance. We learned that a crucial factor in performance beyond expectations is a collectivization of leadership, in which the strengths of everyone involved in the work of an organization are marshaled. Rather than viewing relationship-building as an additional activity in which they must engage—one that might keep them from focusing on student achievement—these successful leaders understood that relationship-building was an essential part of raising student achievement. Our findings suggest that as schools and systems continue to narrow their focus on student achievement, perhaps the key to success is not an intensified focus on the technical or rational components of teaching and learning, such as extra tutoring sessions, more time focusing on test-taking skills, or curricula that promise to raise scores. The key, rather, is the interpersonal and relational aspects that previously were understood not as forces of change themselves but as contextual pieces (Stone-Johnson 2014).

Here is the challenge, though. We know that school leaders need strong networks in their buildings to leverage the kinds of changes they would like to see—and for which ultimately they will be measured. However, we (at least those of us whose work focuses on the importance of relationships in schools) appear to assume that these leaders know how to make this work happen in their schools, and, further, that they recognize and can overcome the barriers that exist in their workplaces in order to do so. As Kraft and Papay note in this blog series, “Simply saying that contexts matter and can change does not give policymakers and practitioners clear guidance about how to strengthen organizational practices in schools” – see here.  Likewise, Leana and Pil note that, “Indeed, we know little about how exactly social capital might be encouraged where it’s missing and be sustained where it already exists” – see here. As we try to connect research with practice, it is vital that we turn our attention to the barriers—real or perceived—that leaders face in building relationships.

In 2010, Michael Evans and I, along with Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, looked at a networking strategy for underperforming schools in the United Kingdom. One of our most important findings was that school leaders knew that networks were important to their schools’ growth, but they struggled with getting those networks up and running. Further, most leaders saw networks as an additional strategy for change—that is, as something else they had to do, rather than as a mechanism for achieving their current goals (Evans and Stone-Johnson 2010).

While the networking strategy we explored involved school-to-school networking, the challenges faced by participating principals remain applicable to developing in-school networks. We found three challenges in particular that affected the networking activities of principals. First, we found that principals faced what we termed contextual considerations for network involvement. These considerations included the nature of the networks (mandatory or optional?), the role of competition (will I lose students if I engage in this strategy?), and the mission of the network (how does networking fit in with my other priorities?). We found that when networks became a mandatory strategy, their efficacy was diluted. In contrast, when school leaders could freely opt into a network, they were able to affirm their institutional autonomy while still using networking opportunities to achieve strategic goals. When competition was a factor, school leaders were reluctant to network with competitor schools for fear of giving away their successful strategies. When school leaders felt that the network’s purpose aligned with their school needs, they were more likely to engage in networking and benefit from the experience.

After contextual considerations, a second factor influencing network engagement was building internal capacity for network participation. The promise of networking is complicated by a long history of the autonomous teacher (Little 1990; Lortie 1975). Teachers are accustomed to working alone and schools, with their individual classrooms, are designed to reinforce this norm. We found that even teachers who want to engage in more networking need administrative support to help them do so.

Finally, as described earlier, networking may be hindered not only by the school leader’s ability to build relationships, but also by his or her capacity to prioritize building them in light of other significant pressures. If building networks is perceived as an additional activity, leaders feel that they must find time in their packed schedules to include it. Schools are also under immense pressure to maintain high achievement or improve low achievement, and leaders may view networking as something additional to these goals rather than as something essential to these goals.

These findings highlight just some of the barriers school leaders face as they strategize improvement options for their schools. Leaders may be able to identify the best options, but knowing what is best and doing what is best are not always the same. These barriers are not insurmountable, though—and there are a few ways we can begin to help principals learn to navigate the challenges.

First, there is no better place to start than with principal preparation. Research on high-quality principal preparation indicates that graduates of exemplary programs are more likely to report that their school improved in terms of organizational functioning and teacher effectiveness and engagement in the prior year, and that they made developing and supporting their teachers a priority (Darling-Hammond et al. 2007). According to research on a sub-sample of principals from this same study, teachers in schools where principals graduated from exemplary programs are also more likely than teachers in a national sample to say their school leaders encourage professional collaboration.

These findings suggest that we need to make sure that more of our preparation programs use research-based strategies, such as teacher collaboration, to improve their curriculum for aspiring leaders. We know that exemplary programs have many features in common, including curricula aligned with state and professional standards, a philosophy and aligned curriculum that emphasize instructional leadership and school improvement, knowledgeable faculty, well-designed and supervised internships, a cohort model, and strong district partnerships, among other features. Some of these features, particularly the internships, district partnerships, and the cohort model, emphasize the importance of building relationships in the work of school leaders. Working to make sure that even before principals begin their formal leadership roles they learn how to prioritize collaboration will make the actual work they do in the future that much more likely to focus on collaboration and network-building.

Principals need on-the-job opportunities to learn about collaboration strategies as well. One barrier that we found in our study of underperforming schools in the UK was that principals were reluctant to network with other schools for fear of losing students in a school-choice, competitive environment. When these schools were networked, not with neighboring schools but with demographically or academically similar schools from other geographic areas, school leaders were more likely to feel that they, too, could implement similar strategies in their schools. Their view of their demographics or student performance as limitations was changed when they saw schools “just like them” making gains. Thus, a powerful way to learn about what other schools are doing is to actually—and this sounds too simple to be true—see them doing it.

From the earliest stages, preparation and professional development for school leaders must reinforce that relationship-building is not merely a strategy for improvement—one that can be chosen from a menu of other potential options—but the strategy for improvement. This is the most important step we can take toward improving outcomes for students and teachers in schools. Consistent evidence supports the finding that relationships matter; we now need to help principals make relationship-building not just part of their work, but all of their work. It is our responsibility to do so.