Ditch the Ice Breakers

authentic connection instructional coach school leader Aug 20, 2022

Why should school leaders focus on building authentic relationships over “breaking the ice” with their staff during teacher work week? 


The days are finally getting shorter again. The kids at home are beginning the chorus of “I’m bored.” That last summer paycheck just hit the bank account, and guess what - it’s August. For many educators, it can mean only one thing - school is almost back in session. After months of empty buildings and delayed alarm clocks, teachers and school leaders are flooding back to classrooms and offices to get ready for the start of a new year. 


While school leaders manage last-minute changes with enrollment, schedules, and back-to-school professional development, teachers are cutting out pieces for bulletin boards, designing first-day plans, and meticulously drawing up seating charts. All of this is happening in between hours of professional development and hallway catch-up sessions with colleagues. But despite all this planning and preparing and learning, do teachers feel ready to start on day one, and if they don’t, do they feel safe coming to their administrator to find a solution? 


We spend a lot of time during teacher work-week in PD, sometimes with sit-and-get sessions, sometimes with gallery walks, but often with icebreaker activities. They range from think-pair-shares to silly exercises to get everyone loosened up and hyped for the year, and while these may be like a shot of espresso for some teachers, instructional facilitators and school leaders have to ask themselves if these activities really foster strong relationships in their buildings. 


Sure, now we know that Ms. Smith has two dogs, has read all seven Harry Potter books but has not ever been to New York City - but did that game of two-truths-and-a-lie do anything to strengthen the administrator-staff member relationship? Does it tell the school leader that Ms. Smith is quietly worrying about school safety given the recent violence in schools, and it’s causing her significant stress as she prepares for the first week of school? And unfortunately, that stress is taking up valuable shelf-space in her brain that could be better spent on lesson planning, classroom decorating, or just resting up in preparation for a new year. 


If you remember the very early days of your teacher school experience, you most likely remember learning about Maslow’s hierarchy - a psychological diagram detailing everything a person needs to feel safe, to express themselves, and ultimately to reach their full potential. There are some things on this pyramid we can’t control ourselves - we all know this, and we bear it despairingly, but at the same time, there is a lot that we can control for our students. But here’s the deal - there’s also a lot that school leaders can control for their staff.


The second level from the bottom of the pyramid is all about safety - physical and emotional. Are we in a space where no one will harm our bodies? Is this room a place where I can express myself without becoming a target for embarrassment? The middle level of the pyramid is all about belonging. Do I fit in here? Will I be accepted for who I authentically am? Can I be vulnerable and honest and kind here? 


How do school leaders make sure their teachers feel safe, and make sure they know they belong? Is it as simple as a silly icebreaker game? While they can be fun and have their place for sparking joy and lightening the mood, that may not be the stuff some adults need to feel safe. 


So how do we actually make that happen? It requires some intentionality on our parts, but it can definitely be done. One thing school leaders can do is schedule an informal, drop-by check-in with each member of their staff before the first day of school. 


Will it sometimes be awkward? Yes. 

Will teachers immediately open up and spill their guts? No.

But will both parties leave knowing the door is always open? Yes. Will teachers be more likely to come and share their concerns if they feel like they can have a trusting, one-on-one conversation with their supervisor? Yes. Is this all there is to it? No, but it’s the first step to creating an authentically connected relationship.


We always talk about the importance of making sure our students feel psychologically safe, but how can we do that if our teachers don’t feel psychologically safe to share their thoughts, ideas, fears, and celebrations? Once they feel seen and heard, our teachers are even more empowered to do their best work and create real-life differences for our kids. So give them those opportunities, and kick off the school year building authentic affinity with your staff - you won’t regret it. 

Looking for additional professional development in creating authentic human connection with your educators? Check out our upcoming free webinar "Happy Secret to Building Teacher Buy In".

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