One of my favourite educational articles is titled ‘Improving Relationships in the Schoolhouse’ by Roland Barth. I find I am constantly referring back to Barth’s words when coaching school leaders and trying to improve school culture. Barth categorizes staff relationships in schools broadly but quite neatly and points us in the direction of striving for a collaborative school culture. This, however, is easier said than done, as it means tackling those staff relationships that do not help the cause.

When I often think of the elements of toxic school cultures that Kent Peterson describes, I am led to think of those subversive relationships so concisely described by Barth. Of course, not everything about a school’s culture can be completely toxic, however, subversive actions and relationships can weigh you down and make progress difficult to achieve.

Try these three simple tips to improve relationships in your school:

  1. Everybody has good intentions: Too often when things go wrong in a school, we can think that this has happened deliberately. Rarely, is this the case, how many teachers can you think of really want to contribute to a toxic school culture? Not many, most teachers try to act with every good intention. This should always be the starting point for conversation, seek to understand why the relationship(s) are unhealthy, then begin the discussion.
  2. Create open face-to-face discussion: When teachers are struggling to collaborate, all too often the negativity is aired in discussions away from where they really need to happen, the staff room or faculty office. It is important to get the ‘non-discussables’ on the table in department meetings or between the teachers concerned. To do this well, the discussion must be facilitated carefully, so that each person gets to speak openly and honestly, about the issues and jointly make any resolutions or agreements moving forward.
  3. Encourage staff to talk to the ‘right’ person: Subversive behaviour often leads to teachers circumventing the person with whom they have a problem. As educational leaders it is important that we direct teachers back to talking directly to that person, otherwise the issue becomes your problem and teachers will not learn how to deal with it themselves. To do this well, as school leaders, we have to coach teachers through those difficult conversations, so that they can resolve any differences themselves.