Building strong, respectful relationships

It's Monday morning and you're greeting students on their way to class when you're confronted by an angry parent shouting abuse, demanding a meeting then and there.

Sound familiar? The latest Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey revealed one in four Australian school leaders have been threatened with violence by parents. Highlighting these figures, Principals Australia Institute issued a nationwide call at the start of Term 1 for parents, carers and communities to respect and support their school leaders.

Teacher visited Melbourne Principal Sharon Saitlik to hear about the approach Mont Albert Primary School is taking to building strong, respectful relationships. It is part of wider focus on student wellbeing that uses restorative practices, and ties in to the school motto LEARN (Learn, Endeavour, Aspire, Respect and Nurture).

Principal Sharon Saitlik in front of Mont Albert Primary School in Melbourne.

Principal Sharon Saitlik in front of Mont Albert Primary School in Melbourne, Victoria.

Saitlik is grateful to work with an overwhelmingly supportive parent community. However, when she was appointed in 2009 there was one thing that stood out: 'The fact that there was not a clear welfare and wellbeing program in place.

'Relationships ... not so much staff with students, but sometimes parents with teachers - there wasn't necessarily this clear, transparent line of communication.'

Whilst there were no violent incidents, she says the manner in which relationships were managed could often feel like an attack. '[From the parent point of view] if something went wrong, bang "I'm going to see the principal and I'm going to tell them what I think", bang "I'm going to demand to see the teacher now, I don't care if it's nine o'clock in the morning, I want to see them now"; yet [that staff member has] got 25 kids in front of them that they're trying to teach.

'So, it was about developing that respect and that if you want to see somebody you do need to make an appointment.' Saitlik recalls there was a policy in place, but it probably wasn't transparent, adding that it needs to work for both parties. 'We're a community, and within that community I expect that mutual respect from everybody.

'Also, really back us, we're the professionals, we're here for a reason, we expect that you back our call,' with one example being class placements. 'Sometimes we get some unrealistic expectations from parents about who they think their child should be taught by and with what students they think they should be placed with. Sometimes they are realistic and we always put it out there - you know, please let us know, but we've got 745 students in 2015, it's difficult to manage.'

Saitlik says, of course, being clear about processes and expectations is just the first step. How parent concerns are dealt with can prevent issues from escalating.

'If a parent came or wanted to make an appointment with me, often I'll get their number and I'll want to talk to them about it because sometimes you can talk some of it through.

'For me, you just listen - it's really important to just listen. In some cases you may be able to have an answer immediately, you may need time to reflect, you may say "give me 24 hours I need to go and investigate and I'll get back to you".

Whatever the response, in Saitlik's experience it's important for parents to know that there will be some 'closure'.

'You can't leave things up in the air, flying around, because then they fester as such and they become worse. Then innuendo gets involved, and that parent may then go and gossip to another parent and the story that started that could have been solved by one meeting or one phone call, escalates into something that becomes far bigger than what it ever necessarily [was].'

Does your school have a clear policy or process for making contact with the principal?

How is this communicated to parents and families?

Reflecting on your own role, what steps are you taking to build respectful relationships at work?

Related Teacher content: Results from the latest Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, Bullying – it’s not just limited to students