Protocols AND Relationships – Now Here’s a Balancing Act

Relationships across school stakeholders are important.
School culture
Relationships and protocols make a school function.

As a first-time principal in 2001, my Area Supervisor told me that my job was about “the three Rs – Relationships, Relationships, Relationships”. Those words have held true for me for the last 20 years (or the first 20 years of my principalship career – whichever way you say it, 20 years is a few years leading schools.)

In recent years the role of principal has evolved to ensure that compliance issues are managed and that teaching and learning remain a priority. It begs the question – How do school leaders manage to balance the core business of teaching and learning in a safe (compliant) environment AND building relationships with all the key stakeholders?

There are numerous reasons why schools, and probably many businesses, have to meet and maintain their compliance: Accreditation = funding; Workplace Health and Safety = Safe work environment; Compliance = Regulations; Standards = Achievements = Reputation = Enrolments (business expansion) = Income. This now begs the second question – where do relationships fit in to this model?

Schools and education authorities (and most probably businesses) have numerous policies, protocols, procedures, frameworks, guidelines, rules, regulations – all in order to provide high quality teaching and learning (core business in the corporate world) in a safe (compliant) environment. Does this litany allow relationships to be built and strengthened to ensure that the core business is provided in a climate and culture that values the human connections? It is a delicate balancing act to create that climate and culture. It relies on school leaders creating teams where the strengths of the individual add to the collective wisdom, allowing the school culture to be one of trust and collaboration.

Most teachers are in the teaching profession to teach; to have a positive impact on the impressionable lives of the students whom they teach. When it comes to matters of compliance, teachers may not be as dedicated to completing paperwork, following protocols as they are to providing engaging learning experiences through differentiation, making adjustments and seeing students thrive. There is the balancing act! Let me explore some real-life scenarios to see if I can clear up some muddy waters, if in fact, it is possible.

School leaders are expected to follow their education authority’s mandated protocols. For example, staff are expected to complete mandatory training in student protection. This is a non-negotiable and teachers may not stand on front of a class until training is complete. In all reality there may be only a handful of mandatory requirements that teachers must follow to meet their obligations. However, a school leader has numerous compliance protocols to meet to support the system of schools maintaining their accreditation. Within individual schools, leaders may implement numerous procedures to ensure consistency of practice to provide high quality teaching and learning for all students. Once again does this litany allow relationships to be built and strengthened to ensure that the core business is provided in a climate and culture that values the human connections?

When teachers plan excursions there is paperwork required to ensure the risk assessments have been completed, that buses are booked and that links to the curriculum are relevant. If all of the paperwork is NOT complete by the due date, is that enough reason to cancel the excursion? If the protocols aren’t followed what are the response options for the leadership team?

When teachers are expected to have their planning visible and available and they do not meet the school’s expectations, are gentle reminders enough to build relationships and keep professional expectations managed? Or after repeated reminders do the protocols outweigh the relationship and hence a teacher would be counselled and possibly be put on performance process?

When parents / carers fail to follow the carpark procedures, is there scope to allow the guidelines to be bent to maintain and build relationships or do the protocols outweigh the human connections?

When a child misbehaves and requires a significant consequence, are the protocols followed without question, or does the context and the individual impact on the action taken by the school leadership team?

When the principal expects that teachers communicate with parents in a regular and professional way and a teacher struggles to meet these requirements, does this ‘failure’ result in professional guidance and jeopardise staff relationships or is there a degree of latitude allowed?

At this point may I suggest there is no easy answer. There is no “one size fits all” solution. What we have are some real-life examples that principals and deputies have to navigate on a regular basis. It is these types of scenarios that require experience, wisdom and a transparent rationale in order to build a culture of trust and collaboration. It is this culture that results in the balance between honouring and following protocols while appreciating the importance of relationships between all the stakeholders of the school community.

Teachers and parents and students appreciate consistency in response to issues. Teachers and parents and students appreciate transparency in processes. They appreciate clear rationales for actions, both reactive and proactive. There will be times that decisions and actions are made by the principal without a public rationale. These decisions are largely accepted when the principal has “runs on the board” and have a solid balance in the emotional bank account of the school community.

School principals’ preference may sit in either the protocol camp or the relationship camp. The advantage of working collaboratively in a leadership team, means that each member brings strengths which should ideally balance the importance of following protocols AND the importance of building relationships.

There may be a query as to why relationships are so important in an industry when teaching and learning is the core business. Here is the rationale as to why relationships are SO important.

Parents cannot provide a complete education for their children without teachers. Teachers cannot provide all opportunities for their students without parents. Parents are the first educators of their children. Six hours per day teachers stand in “loco parentis”, in place of the parents, in educating the children. Teachers are the most important people when educating students at school (apart from the student themselves). Hence relationships across school stakeholders are important.

Protocols are easier to follow for employees (school staff) and clients (parents and students) with a transparent rationale. And a transparent rationale builds a culture of trust and collaboration through strengthening relationships. It almost sounds like the chicken and the egg dilemma. Which comes first? Neither and both.

School leaders are required to build a culture of trust and collaboration so that they can balance building relationships so protocols can be established and followed so that high quality education may be provided for all students.

Take a look at Andrew's latest book Balance – Building Positive Relationships within Educational Protocols