The Principal-Student Relationship - By Jamie Kudlats, PhD

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Relationships in schools are crucial. My guess is that if you’re reading this on this particular site, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Educators know that relationships in schools are vital. Researchers know that they’re one of the most important features of a school. In fact, I have yet to encounter any claims indicating that relationships really aren’t that big a deal. Volumes of work have been published on the topic going back decades. The vast majority, however, mainly centers on the teacher-student relationship. This isn’t surprising. The teacher-student relationship is the most important relationship in school – it’s probably the most important anything in school. But other school relationships are also important, and together, they all contribute to a relational culture within a school.

 As a former middle school principal who highly valued his relationships with his students, I was surprised to find little scholarship on the principal-student relationship as I navigated my doctoral program. Why was there so little? I know I wasn’t the only principal who had positive, meaningful relationships with students. But digging into why is a topic for another dissertation. What I do know from my own experience as a principal and from conducting research on the topic for the past few years is that the positive and healthy interactions between principals and students are tremendously important to principals, to students, and to the school.

 Principals are responsible for a lot. Principals review test scores to look for patterns and anomalies. They observe teachers and review lesson plans. Principals run countless meetings to discuss field trips, student discipline, and Individualized Education Programs. They also create policies and procedures regarding grading, attendance, and homework. Principals troubleshoot carpool inefficiencies, run interference between parents and teachers, coordinate assemblies, and monitor the security of the campus. These duties, among so many others, typically make up ten or more hours a day on campus, an additional few hours at home in the evenings, and sometimes a handful of hours over the weekend. But even during the countless hours of administrative tasks and meetings, when not even one learner is present, students are always the beneficiaries of a principal’s work, either directly or indirectly. If students are the ultimate beneficiaries of a principal’s work, why do we so rarely talk about the interpersonal relationships between the two?

 The relationships that principals have with students help keep them connected to the life of the school. It keeps their finger on the pulse, so to speak. It helps them catch small problems before they become bigger. When principals know students on a personal level, they are much better able to understand how their decisions might impact students. In fact, if they have relationships with students, the students are going to be much more willing to come to the principal over concerns, both personal, or related to the larger student body. Existing positive relationships can also make disciplinary encounters much more effective. A principal’s positive relationships with students also reinforce to the faculty what the principal values. If building meaningful student relationships doesn’t look important to the principal, why should it be important to the teachers?

The research shows what our common sense already knows – that the teacher is the most important factor contributing to student success. The research also shows that the principal is the second most important factor. But so much of what dominates the scholarly conversations about educational leadership centers on issues of increasing rigor, raising standards, testing, and monitoring and evaluating teaching. Much less attention is paid to the structures and mechanisms of social support that are also vital to effective teaching and learning taking place in schools. It’s about time to tell the stories of the school leaders who prioritize student relationships and who build a relational culture within their schools. As we work with current school administrators and as we train the next generation of school leaders, these stories need to be included in the conversation about school improvement.

I know that the stories are out there, and as the CRBE network grows, I would love to see these stories appear on our site. Here are some things to think about:

  1.  What does the principal-student relationship look like?

  2.  Are the relationships limited to disciplinary or academic conversations where the principal serves as the last resort authoritarian or are the relationships made up of more casual, subtle, and positive interactions?

  3.  How do these relationships influence the principal? How do they affect the student?

  4.  How do principal-student relationships contribute to the school’s community of support?

  5.  Do these relationships take on different qualities depending on the socioeconomic or racial makeup of the school? Could the size of the school have an effect?

  6.  Could the relationships differ from elementary to middle to secondary schools or could they vary solely from one principal to another based only on his or her personality and leadership style?

There are so many good questions about the principal-student relationship, but those of us concerned with educational leadership must always remember that our school leaders work with people, not objects to be classified, categorized, and risk-assessed according to rubrics of predetermined goals. We so often see generic mandates, objective sets of do’s and don’ts, or ambiguous (or way too specific) instructions that completely discount the fact that these people we work with have histories, emotions, desires, and fears. They have stories. They are unique. And they should be known. I’ve heard many educational leaders say, “every kid should be known by someone.” Why can’t that someone be the principal?