School principal Tina King still vividly recalls the day a recently qualified teacher knocked on her office door and began sobbing.
Just months into the role, pressures from parents, students, and impending exams had begun to feel overwhelming – her last hope to purge all in an impromptu meeting with her boss.
“It was heartbreaking,” Ms. King recounts. “I remember feeling sadness for her. But at the same time, I was incredibly grateful she entrusted me in that way.
“It was thanks to this that we were able to put supports in place and help her deal with the demands of the job more effectively,” she added.
This undercurrent of trust and respect in her working relationships has helped Ms. King – who now heads the Australian Principals Federation – navigate a myriad of complex issues during her thirty year career in school leadership.
On one occasion, Ms. King dealt with an acute case of classroom ostracism by staging an afterschool meeting with parents – something she said would not have been possible without the strong relationships she’d cultivated with them.
“Trust is the magic ingredient,” she said. “When team members trust you, they are more likely to come to you for support and listen to what you have to say. When parents trust you, they respect your advice and often let you take into consideration what’s best for their children,” she added.
By the same token, building trust has helped Ms. King gain cooperation from students.
“Students that trust you are more likely to feel positive about being in school, to risk making mistakes with their work, and to ask for help when they need it. They’re also more willing to embody the values you are trying to enstil in them,” she said.
Ms. King’s advice isn’t just anecdotal. Data has consistently shown the importance of trust in a school environment.
Students with positive teacher relationships are more motivated, achieve higher grades, and even have better health into adulthood.
Conversely, students with poor teacher relationships have more peer problems, greater emotional difficulties, and are less likely to exhibit prosocial behaviour in the classroom.
While the solution may seem obvious, the pathway to get there isn’t always that clear. So how does Ms. King cultivate trust in her working relationships?
“Firstly, you need a clear set of defined values – and to live by them religiously,” she said. “Having values written on your school website is great. But you need to embody those in everything you say and do. There has to be that consistency,” she emphasised.
“For example, are you ordering your students to listen to one another and then getting distracted when they come and talk to you? Are you telling them to keep calm when they’re upset, then getting angry when other children misbehave?
“It’s important to model the behaviour you want to see in your students. If you do that, they will learn to trust and respect your authority.”
Secondly, you need to be accessible and make the time to talk to people, Ms. King said.
“If you don’t give due diligence people can feel isolated. Your advice comes as a top down directive, with no moral purpose and no real incentive to achieve those things. Conversely, when you make people feel valued by sharing your time with them, they feel part of a team, and have all the motivation that comes with teamsmanship,” she said.
The third ingredient is active listening – a skill that Ms. King describes as a ‘forgotten art’.
“Genuinely listening to people’s opinions, ideas and problems is really important,” she said. “It’s something we don’t do enough of these days, but it can really help foster those meaningful relationships that help students and team members thrive.”
By the same token, non-verbal communication, like facial expressions that show you are interested and a tone of voice that conveys empathy is also a skill worth perfecting, Ms. King said.
“Children are surprisingly capable at reading non-verbal cues. They know when a teacher is showing genuine interest in them,” she added.
A growing need
Recent studies have shown that teachers are more likely to suffer job-related stress than other professionals. One in five report feeling ‘tense’ about their job ‘most’ or ‘all of the time’, compared with one in eight workers in other professions.
Meanwhile, more than half (57 percent) of those living with health and emotional pressures have considered leaving the sector in the past two years. Volume of work, “not feeling valued”, and an increasingly target-driven culture are among the top cited reasons.
In this climate, Ms. King said cultivating trust-based relationships is especially important.
“Teaching is becoming a lot more complex. These days, we need to be many things to our students,” she said. “On top of that, demands from parents are becoming greater and there is far more accountability than there was thirty years ago when I began in the profession.
“As leaders, we need to support children as best we can, but also our staff. If we don’t we’ll see more people walking away from the jobs they would otherwise love to stay in, and which they worked hard to get into,” she concluded.
Tina King is Principal of Watsonia North Primary School and Acting President of the Australian Principal’s Federation. Hear more from Ms. King about the skills that have helped her gain national recognition for teaching and school leadership.
Register now for The Age Schools Summit, due to take place April 27, 2021 at the Melbourne Convention Centre.