When we asked our Leadership Program alumni about building better relationships with their local communities, they told us not to underestimate the power of a cup of tea.
While there is no set formula or process, our alumni tell us that what is important is taking the time to question, listen and learn.
Starting the conversation
Building relationships is as simple and as complex as starting a conversation.
Alumni told us they found many ways to start the conversation. For some it was being visible at the school gate every afternoon to talk to parents. For others it was inviting community elders into the school for a cup of tea. Alumni told us how they ran afternoon teas for families or developed fun and innovative ways to hold community events where staff were seen in a more ‘human’ light – as ‘someone who cares about my child.’
Todd Osland told us a story about when he was the Principal at Gwandalan Public School in the Central Coast region of NSW.
“I started a conversation – we call it front gate. I do a front gate with my exec team where we each have a front gate and we say goodbye and give a high five and start to be visible in the school and start to change the conversation about what the leadership is going to do in the future. We had an older Uncle; he was the Grandad of one of the little boys in the school. He stood outside the gate for the first three months just watching. And I’d invite him every day – do you want to come in and have a cuppa. He’d just put his hand up and say ‘Na, Na’. Three months later I walked past and said ‘Gday’ and he said, ‘have you got that cup of tea’ and he just came in and had a chat and just listening –as leaders we don’t always do that all that well – just listening to what our community is saying – listen to that feedback – and feedback is a gift …. if you’re listening, you’re building that high-expectations relationship. … its deep relationships and deep understanding of what you’re about, and once I did that, he came up and he actively helped out in the school,
The conversation has to come from a place of acknowledging the complexities within the community – historically, socially, culturally and emotionally – and a desire to listen and learn. For school staff, this can sometimes mean letting go of being the knowledge holder, the one who solves everything, and accepting that the knowledge is held in the community.
Our alumni told us how important it was for families and community members to feel they were being heard, and how this deep listening had to become a part of the school culture.
… [Aunty] started yarn ups, and everyone was very shy at first, and then someone cracked the ice and then it flowed. We wanted the good and the bad, and we got it. And it was just great to see people realise that’s what it’s all about – it’s about them having a voice. And it really changed what we wrote in the school plan.
Gary Barton told us that when he was Principal at Baryugil Public School in northern NSW, he looked at different ways to make the school more welcoming for the community.
We’d often have the elders come in at lunch time and have a cup of tea which was fantastic for me. I think the first couple of weeks I was there, I thought maybe I was spending too much time drinking tea with the older people in the community. It was only when I went along to Stronger Smarter and they said, ‘that’s what you should be doing” and I thought ahh …, because it’s working. Letting people know who you are, and why you’re there, and how can they help, and how can I help, I suppose communication is a vital part of it all.
Equal power sharing
When informal conversations become a part of the school culture, it then becomes easier to run the more formal meetings, especially when these meetings also involve deep listening and multiple voices. Alumni found positive outcomes when they ran meetings or committees with parents and community members using a Yarning circle instead of the usual speaker at the front with everyone listening. Creating this space of equal power sharing ensured greater participation and collaboration. Alumni told us that community members felt more comfortable to speak their mind and question and challenge school decisions in the Circle.
Alumni told us it was important to set the meetings up in a way that leads to honesty and genuine outcomes. This was not so much about telling families what the school was doing, but asking the questions of ‘What do you think?’ and ‘What would you like to see? ‘
The Stronger Smarter Approach describes bringing the Personal, Community and School spheres together. Rather than trying to move the community into the school space, it is looking at where the school can move to meet the community sphere as a true partnership that shares both aspirations and achievements.
A space to come together and yarn over a cup of tea.
How have you built relationships with your local community? If you have stories to share, please let us know.