From March through July 2020, I wrote and defended a thesis about face-to-face communication for my Master of Arts in Leadership. Although I had completed my research methods in January 2020 before school buildings closed, it did feel odd to be analyzing data and writing about face-to-face communication while hardly seeing anyone other than my husband and kids in person!
“By what means can the staff of Hamilton District Christian High School (HDCH) nurture our community of practice?” is the research question I developed together with Duncan Todd, HDCH’s principal. It was our hope that this inquiry project would support the growth of not just our staff relationships (our congeniality), but also professional work together (our collegiality). Staff relationships are a big deal. Roland Barth, from Educational Leadership writes that “the relationships among the educators in a school define all relationships within that school’s culture.” If it is true that the health of staff relationships directly impacts students, parents, and anyone associated with the school community—not to mention staff’s “professional practice”—then we have a responsibility to grow in this area. Duncan and I believed that paying attention to our face-to-face communication was a critical part of addressing this question.
Even though we aren’t in person with staff and students right now, I believe there are elements of my research that can still be useful for school leaders. In particular, we, as leaders, can be mindful about creating conditions for meaningful connection.
One finding from my research was that staff narratives shared common elements, demonstrating conditions that support meaningful interactions and the beneficial outcomes of interactions.
Face-to-face communication is any verbal and/or non-verbal interaction that happens between or among individuals. This space is complex and rich; it is where we create and maintain language and social norms, negotiate identities, constitute relationships, and make sense of our social world.
In the first stage of data gathering for my project, five staff members shared stories of meaningful face-to-face experiences in narrative interviews. I heard some amazing stories! These staff stories shared common elements, conditions that supported meaningful encounters. Staff stories tended to:
- begin with a challenge or opportunity of a personal or professional nature (or both),
- describe an invitational culture that allowed for vulnerability (often mutual vulnerability),
- include acceptance of the whole person, a feeling of being heard, and effective collaboration,
- be threaded with shared purpose,
- involve time, whether regular meetings, serendipitous encounters, or unconstrained connections, and
- result in growth and/or personal connection that extended beyond the encounter described.
I’d like to illustrate these conditions by sharing one participant’s story with you. “Participant 1”, as I like to call them, was relatively new to our school. They described an experience of an invitational culture which they first noticed during their job interview. In their words, the interview had “warmth and the real sense of human connection … that [they] found quite touching.” Then, early in their time at HDCH, Participant 1 took a risk in a conversation with two colleagues. They shared with two colleagues that part of their family story includes a child who is transgender. Here was the colleagues’ response, as told to me:
“[One of them] asked me a question or two just to say, “Tell us what that’s been like?” I could see on both their faces, … they weren’t jarred by it, but they were … somewhat touched by it. So, I felt like I could tell them a little bit about how that had transpired in my family and with our child; what the reality was like for us right now.
So, for Participant 1—from an interview that created an invitational culture, to colleagues who made space for them as a whole person and helped them to feel heard—their experience was that conditions for healthy encounters existed at HDCH. Encounters like this strengthen the “emotional and affective bonds” (Patricia M. Sias) among staff, and these bonds are critical. As Carolyn Crippen puts it in her work on servant leadership, “schools are places where leadership-followership succeeds and is mutually reinforced through webs of relationship.”
As Christian school leaders, how can awareness of these conditions help us to lead better? And what can we learn about communication from a face-to-face study while we work remotely?
First, conditions for meaningful connection are complex. And when we’re communicating with people as leaders, power differentials can make that even more complex. An awareness of conditions that support connection can help us do better.
Secondly, understanding conditions we can control is helpful in supporting connections. One condition that we can control is time. HDCH staff reported that meaningful connection required time, whether formal, regularly-scheduled connections, or informal, by-the-way touch points. I suppose it’s obvious, but when we make time for people, we are more likely to have meaningful encounters with them. How are you being intentional about creating time for connection–especially right now? One team that I’m on, has tried to be intentional about calling each other semi-regularly. In person, we would be popping our head in someone’s office; from home, we make a quick call. It’s less efficient and it’s more human. These short calls build our relationships in a way email does not.
Another take-away is that structures and practices support connection. What formats do you have for connecting together? What do you do in those meetings to build the web of relationships? At HDCH this year, we’ve had Staff Crew. We started Crew because our hope is to have Student Crew in future. But this year, these small cross-role groups have been a critical touchpoint. Three Mondays a month, our devotions are in Crews, and a couple of times a month, we connect after school as well. This structure has supported the welcoming of new staff, relationships among teaching and non-teaching staff, and has allowed us all to be “known” more than we would have been otherwise.
The beautiful thing about investing in staff relationships by being intentional about communication, is that they are the foundation on which other school community relationships are built. When relationships are healthy, then good work and good student learning can best happen. Even while we work remotely, we can be mindful of the conditions for connection, and get creative about how we adapt to the challenges of COVID-19.
Here’s to conditions for good connection!
Cheryl Webb is the Director of Operations at HDCH in Hamilton, Ontario.