Protocols AND Relationships

A Balancing Act

As a first-time senior leader in 2001, my Area Supervisor told me that my job was about “The three Rs – Relationships, Relationships, Relationships.”

In recent years, the role of senior leader has evolved to ensure that compliance issues are managed and that teaching and learning remain a priority. It begs the question:
How do school leaders manage to balance the core business of teaching and learning in a safe (compliant) environment AND building relationships with all the key stakeholders?

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There are numerous reasons why schools, and probably many businesses, have to meet and maintain their compliance:

• Accreditation = Funding
• Workplace Health and Safety = Safe work environment
• Compliance = Regulations
• Standards = Achievements= Reputation = Enrollments (business expansion) = Income.

This now begs the second question: Where do relationships fit into this model?

Schools and education authorities (and most probably businesses) have numerous policies, protocols, procedures, frameworks, guidelines, rules, regulations – all in order
to provide high quality teaching and learning (core business in the corporate world) in a safe (compliant) environment. Does this litany allow relationships to be built and strengthened to ensure that the core business is provided in a climate and culture that values the human connections? It is a delicate balancing act to create that climate and culture. It relies on school leaders creating teams where the strengths of the individual add to the collective wisdom, allowing the school culture to be one of trust and collaboration.

Most teachers are in the teaching profession to teach, to have a positive impact on the impressionable lives of the students whom they teach. When it comes to matters of
compliance, teachers may not be as dedicated to completing paperwork or following protocols as they are to providing engaging learning experiences through differentiation, making adjustments and seeing students thrive. There is the balancing act! Let me explore some real-life scenarios to see if I can clear up some muddy waters, if in fact, it is possible.

School leaders are expected to follow their education authority’s mandated protocols. For example, staff are expected to complete mandatory training in student
protection. This is a non-negotiable and teachers may not stand in front of a class until training is complete. In all reality, there may be only a handful of mandatory
requirements that teachers must follow to meet their obligations. However, a school leader has numerous compliance protocols to meet to support the system
of schools maintaining their accreditation. Within individual schools, leaders may implement numerous procedures to ensure  consistency of practice to provide
high quality teaching and learning for all students. Once again, does this litany allow relationships to be built and strengthened to ensure that the core business
is provided in a climate and culture that values the human connections?

When teachers plan excursions there is paperwork required to ensure the risk assessments have been completed, that buses are booked and that links to the curriculum are relevant. If all of the paperwork is NOT complete by the due date, is that enough reason to cancel the excursion? If the protocols aren’t followed, what are the response options for the leadership team?

When teachers are expected to have their planning visible and available and they do not meet the school’s expectations, are gentle reminders enough to build relationships and keep professional expectations managed? Or after repeated reminders do the protocols outweigh the relationship and hence, a teacher would be counselled and
possibly be put on performance process?

When parents/carergivers fail to follow the carpark procedures, is there scope to allow the guidelines to be bent to maintain and build relationships or do the protocols
outweigh the human connections?

When a child misbehaves and requires a significant consequence, are the protocols followed without question, or does the context and the individual impact on the action
taken by the school leadership team?

When the senior leader expects that teachers communicate with parents in a regular and professional way and a teacher struggles to meet these requirements, does this
‘failure’ result in professional guidance and jeopardise staff relationships, or is there a degree of latitude allowed?

At this point may I suggest there is no easy answer. There is no, “one size fits all” solution. What we have are some real-life examples that senior leaders and deputies have to navigate on a regular basis. It is these types of scenarios that require experience, wisdom and a transparent rationale in order to build a culture of trust and collaboration. It is this culture that results in the balance between honouring and following protocols while appreciating the importance of relationships between all the stakeholders of the school community.

Teachers, parents and students appreciate consistency in response to issues and appreciate transparency in processes. They appreciate clear rationales for actions, both reactive and proactive. There will be times that decisions and actions are made by the senior leader without a public rationale. These decisions are largely accepted when the senior leader has “runs on the board” and has a solid balance in the emotional bank account of the school community.

School senior leader’s preference may sit in either the protocol camp or the relationship camp. The advantage of working collaboratively in a leadership team, means that
each member brings strengths which should ideally balance the importance of following protocols AND the importance of building relationships.

There may be a query as to why relationships are so important in an industry when teaching and learning is the core business. Here is the rationale as to why relationships
are SO important.

Parents cannot provide a complete education for their children without teachers. Teachers cannot provide all opportunities for their students without parents. Parents
are the first educators of their children. Six hours per day teachers stand in “loco parentis,” in place of the parents, in educating the children. Teachers are the most important people when educating students at school (apart from the student themselves). Hence relationships across school stakeholders are important.

Protocols are easier to follow for employees (school staff) and clients (parents and students) with a transparent rationale. A transparent rationale builds a culture of trust
and collaboration through strengthening relationships. School leaders are required to build a culture of trust and collaboration so that they can balance building relationships so protocols can be established and followed so that high quality education may be provided for all students.

It almost sounds like the chicken and the egg dilemma. Which comes first? Neither and both.


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Andrew Oberthur

Andrew Oberthur is a primary school principal with over 30 years experience teaching and leading primary schools in Brisbane. Andrew has been on ABC radio a dozen times in the last couple of years. He is available for presentations and workshops for school staff and parents. In 2018 he published his first book “Are You Ready for Primary School This Year? which is about building a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry between parents and teachers. His book is available from his website: