If You Want to Transform a School, Start By Building Relationships

I just finished my first year at a traditional district school as a digital learning coach. Given that my prior experiences had been at small charter schools, this was my introduction to a school that was a community staple and extremely traditional. Transitioning from schools where I was the one to start the first of many traditions, it was a new experience to walk into an environment where I heard “we usually do it this way” for every question and idea I posed. While that was something I knew I could get used to, it was the school culture that first made me question my place on campus.

After working in education for over six years, I know what I bring to the table: buckets of peppiness, lots of ideas and overexcitement to always do more. However, in knowing what I bring, I am also aware that I will never be everyone’s cup of tea as I can be a lot to take in and my desire to achieve can at times be overwhelming. Upon arrival, I was prepared for some apprehension from staff. I walked in as a digital learning coach, replacing someone who lasted a year at the school, and supporting an administrator who was also new to the campus. Thus, the lack of stability from administrative roles was already a red flag. What I wasn’t expecting was walking into an environment that lacked school spirit, lacked time for collaboration and thus created a space where staff felt unappreciated and unengaged. While I came to learn that the teachers all possessed more than fifteen years of experience and an array of talents and skills, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a missing piece to the puzzle. After a few difficult weeks, I had to ask myself a difficult question: was it time to walk away realizing that the setting was not for me, or stay and make it a goal to build a stronger school culture for our staff in order to help ensure that we could poise ourselves to a successful next year? While I was advised by many that I could only do so much and perhaps, it was not worth my time to focus my energy on things that were out of my locus of control, it was hearing naysayers make it seem so easy to give up that motivated me to stay. And man, am I happy that I stayed!

While there was no secret formula, I dedicated myself to doing three things: 1. Building relationships with every teacher on campus in one way or another, 2. Providing opportunities for every teacher to feel acknowledged, and 3. demonstrating appreciation for all staff as a way of inspiring. I once heard that if more school leaders focused on their staff’s three T’s, then we could all accomplish more. The three Ts, Treasure, Talent and Time became my compass. Every action I took and every new project I worked on, had to in one way or another connect to one of the Ts.

The first month, I focused on time. I wanted to ensure that teachers knew I was accessible and that I wanted to also respect their time. If they needed help, I was the first to offer a hand. Time proved to be important for us all.

The next two to three months focused on treasures. I wanted to know what each of our teachers treasured. As humans, we want people to respect what we treasure. Just because you are at work, you don’t stop being yourself and thus, your treasures still matter. Taking the time to learn about treasures, helped me open doors. It was realizing just how much they treasured their students, this continuously inspired me to do whatever it took to appreciate their work. They deserved to feel valued in the same way that they treasured our kids.

Then in the last few months, I shifted my focus to their talents. There is a misconception that veteran teachers are un-coachable as they are not as willing to add new tricks to their toolkit — that is false. Good teachers know they are good and like to be good. Superior teachers know they are good but are always looking for new strategies to be great. In acknowledging each of their talents and using them to share new ideas and resources, I found our staff become more willing to try new strategies. No one is un-coachable; it just takes time to make people feel comfortable to ask for help and be willing to learn from a “newbie” (I am the youngest staff member and am often seen as the “daughter” given age differences).

Fast forward to now, our staff has demonstrated in many ways that they are open to collaborate and are committed to continuing to grow together. We are nowhere near perfect, but the feeling of being unappreciated is not there. I don’t take our progress for granted either. It has taken a lot of work and many conversations to build relationships but seeing our staff come together has made it all worthwhile.

Was it an easy year? Heck no. Emotionally, this was the most draining year on my spirit. Was it worth it? Absolutely. For the first time in my professional career, I have something to look forward to: next school year. I am excited to start the school year strong with established relationships and with new goals. Now that we have a foundation, I am excited to focus on instruction and innovation. But it would be foolish to overlook the value of building relationships as more than ever, I know just how necessary they are if we want to transform a school.

So don’t give up on your schools. Know that it takes time, and maybe even some tears and sweat, but the end product is worth it all.

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Alma Renteria

Alma Renteria

Alma-Delia Renteria is a proud product of Lynwood schools. After graduating UC Riverside, with a B.A. in English and a year earlier than anticipated, she decided to commit her “gap year” to City Year. After City Year Los Angeles, Alma went on to purse a teaching career with Teach For America Los Angeles. Upon joining TFA, Alma began her education career as a middle school teacher. It was while teaching that she realized the need to do her part to help serve the community she grew up in and decided to run for office, getting elected to the Lynwood School Board at only 23 years old. Alma completed her first Master’s degree in Urban Education at Loyola Marymount University and a 2nd Masters in Educational Leadership along with her Admin Credential at Concordia University. She was appointed by the Speaker to the Instructional Quality Commission and re-elected to the Lynwood School Board in 2018. She currently serves as the Principal at a local elementary school in Pico Rivera, where she hopes to demonstrate that magic is possible when thee right people are given opportunities to lead.

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