Teachers tend to think of their most important professional relationships to be with their students, or other teachers, or their administrators—and with good cause.
These are the people they are most responsible for, network with, and answer to. An often forgotten individual (and it is often one individual) is the administrative assistant: the person who officially “assists” the head administrator but in reality is often the person most responsible for the day-to-day operations of the school: its communications, scheduling, and decisions. And often it is the administrative assistant with whom the teacher will have most contact in ordering materials, scheduling classes, and keeping in touch with the rest of the staff in students. It is therefore necessary for the teacher to build a strong professional relationship with the administrative assistant. In addition, other support staff, such as custodians and student assistants, also provides valuable services for which they should be recognized and thanked for the pragmatic reason that we want them to continue providing such valuable service but also because it’s simply the right thing to do to recognize another’s efforts.
Methods to Show Appreciation to Our Support Staff
Make some contact
One of the barriers between support staff and teachers is simply physical: we don’t see each other very often, and when we do, it’s only in passing. Of course it’s hard to build a relationship under these circumstances. Therefore, an instructor should make the effort to drop by an administrative assistant’s office or student assistant’s desk just to say “hello” when possible and just check in. If you see the custodian in the hall, don’t just walk by: stop occasionally to ask after him and his family. People need recognition, especially if they work in the field of education, where we are often isolated from peers.
Recognize the individual
It may seem obvious, but recognize the administrative assistants and support staff as actual people. It’s surprising, but many teachers don’t even know the names of the staff they interact on a daily basis. Greeting each person by name every day, inquiring after their families and important events in their lives, recognizes their individuality and marks you as pleasant to interact with. Sometimes, unfortunately, the custodians are particularly ignored and demeaned even by the students (e.g., any mess is addressed with “Let the janitor clean that up.”) It therefore becomes additionally important to teachers to model appropriate treatment of all staff (e.g., “We clean up our own messes, and his name is Robert.”)
Maintain a pleasant demeanor
Remain easy to be around, not just nice when you need something. If we are unfailingly courteous and patient with the staff, this is guaranteed to be remembered when we need their help with a particularly difficult or embarrassing problem (we’ve locked ourselves out of the classroom; the copier won’t stop jamming, etc.)
Offer to help
Offer to help the support staff—small things, like holding doors, carrying up boxes, watching the desk while the assistant steps away, leaving your room in order after a class party—marks you as responsible and helpful and again makes the staff willing to help you in turn when needed.
When the Time Comes to Ask for Help
Ask the right person for help
Initially, don’t ask the administrative assistant to unjam the copier. Don’t go to the custodian for help on the computers. These tasks may very well be in their skills set, but try to go to the person with the correct job description. If you aren’t sure who that is, try to find out. Going to the right person with the right problem will result in less annoyance on the part of others and less frustration on your part.
Explain the situation briefly
School staff tends to be very busy people, often multi-tasking to address multiple concerns. Therefore, being as brief when possible when asking for help and acknowledging the imposition will go a long way in building relationships: e.g., “I know you’re very busy, but when you have a moment can we talk about my book order? It still hasn’t come in, and I’d like to see what we can do about it. ” This will mark you as a “low maintenance,” nondemanding individual who is easy to get along with.
Besides being brief when asking for help, it’s also important to limit requests. Someone needing extra assistance on a daily basis marks herself as difficult to get along with. Find out yourself how to fix the copier, where the ink toner is stored, and so forth. Also, try to not to ask for help on things that are really within your own job description, such as classroom management issues.
Offer return help or acknowledge the help received
Return favors when someone has helped you; if possible, return more help than received in the form of helping new staff, for example, and orienting them to the school culture. If the administrative assistant taught you the new software program for taking attendance, pass it on by helping a new teacher learn it.
Offer your unique skills
A new high school substitute teacher I know has advanced skills in computers that he began sharing with school staff as the need arose—using his lunch break to troubleshoot malfunctioning hardware and temperamental software, for example. These skills became so quickly in demand that even with the recent economic downturn in California that has resulted in teacher layoffs, school principals worked to keep him because of these skills. And most of us probably have ancillary skills to our regular position which, if shared, may not make us as in demand as a computer tech but almost so.
Building relationships with school support staff is not easy. These are people who are regular parts of our lives, whom we depend on in many ways in order to perform our jobs, yet our interactions with them may be limited by time and space—we often only see each other in passing. But by checking in regularly, remaining pleasant, limiting requests while also returning help, the instructor can go a long way in building relationships with support staff.