During my first year as a school principal, my school district leadership team had us survey our school staff using 12 questions from Gallup - the staff engagement survey. One of the questions was “do you have a best friend a work?” When I read it I was surprised because I didn’t understand why this would be one of the 12. I remember thinking, who cares if you have a best friend at work, work is work! Sure it is nice to have a best friend at work, but it isn’t really needed is it? Well Gallup’s employee engagement survey says it is….
As a principal, I think about my staff a lot. I think about how they feel, how they connect to each other. I worry about staff that are not happy at school because I know it will impact their work with our students and because everyone deserves to be happy at work. The interesting thing about feeling happy at work however isn’t the type of work, or the workload itself, its the relationships people have with each other. I know this to be true from my own life experiences working as a teacher, a waiter, a children’s camp leader, a bus boy and a labourer. In some of the most physically demanding jobs I have had where the work was exhausting, yet I felt engaged and positive because of the camaraderie that I had with co-workers. On the other hand, I remember being a manager for a government organization where I was bored stiff, and miserable because I didn’t feel strong connections with colleagues. Found that government gig was way to political to have trusting relationships with people, and it showed in how the relationships were strained in the work place. That type of work environment feels like torture when everything is about “oneupmanship” and gossip. And in these type of situations, the environment can become toxic pretty quick, and then no one is happy.
Fun at work doesn’t happen alone (at least it shouldn’t), so friends at work make the opportunity for fun possible. Even in a tough working environment, good friends can help make the task at hand that much more enjoyable. Whenever possible, I try to help facilitate opportunities for staff to make connections with colleagues. This happens in a school when staff gathers for events, often when food is being served. I always enjoy seeing staff breaking bread together and sharing stories over a meal, so when possible I try to have our staff dine together. I also do a Monday morning event each week where we join in prayer and announcements for the week. This is another opportunity for staff to make connections and greet each other. The hope for me is that through these events staff that do not feel as connected to their colleagues as they should will start to form friendships. Hopefully they will make a friendship that will last them a lifetime. I met my best friend at school after all, and we got married 10 years ago this past October. We team taught PE to grade 9s together for a year and developed a close friendship, which certainly made going to work much more exciting!
What is also interesting to me is the research about employee burnout. Teaching in a very busy and stressful job, where the marathon of the school year starts off with bang and keeps its intensity for the whole school year. In that type of high octane environment, where the piles of work never go away, having a friend is extremely important. The research around burnout says that it isn’t from helping others that causes some to go on a stress leave, it is the disconnection from the team. For any school leader who is trying to help their staff avoid burnout, they would want to focus on helping make sure everyone is connected to a colleague, and connected to the larger team. Connections help builds resiliency, which is truly important in a high stress career.
Back in 2004 I was assigned as a school counsellor, and I didn’t have any training or background outside of being the gym teacher! We needed a counsellor on staff and I was the lucky (only) applicant that year for the role. I started my grad studies the next year, but I was flying by the seat of my pants until I got back to university. I recall working with one grade 9 student who I had taught in grade 7 and 8. He really struggled with dealing with any stress and he would get upset pretty quickly when things didn’t go well. One day it dawned on me that he was lonely. He didn’t have a true friend at school, even though his classmates were quite supportive. His resiliency was low because he didn’t have a friend, and I was determined to help change that in his last year of junior high. I was worried about what would happened when he attended high school and I realized that without a good friend, he would really struggle. I was successful in helping him build up the courage to make a connection, and he did the rest. As his new friendship blossomed, so too did his personality. His ability handle stress changed dramatically and he was able to regulate his behaviour with much more success because he had an authentic and relevant connection with a peer. Friendships are key to success!
So am I walking the talk? I am in my sixth year as a principal, but I am brand new to my school of slightly more that 1400 students and 100 staff. Beginning the school year, I noted to myself that I would make new friendships this year - some expected and some unexpected. My previous school was very small of 185 students and 18 staff in total, and we were a very tight team for the most part. This year I have remained open to see which connections would be possible, and thus far its been great! I have been blessed to have made a number of new friendships already, which has been great. I have also noticed that many of my staff have amazing connections with their colleagues and it is great to see their energy and support of each other in their work - there are many best friends at my school. My challenge is to continue to support those who are still searching for positive relationships at school and to find ways to activate those staff that have connections to reach out to others. This is a fluid situation in any work place, but one that I am particularly aware of because I recognize how important friendships are to success.