Schools across the country are welcoming back students, faculty and staff. Due to pandemic-fueled turnover and an onslaught of retirements, hundreds of thousands of new teachers will begin their careers this fall. This means fresh opportunities for professional relationships.

While we often strategize how to cultivate positive relationships with students and families, we sometimes forget that our own workplace relationships matter, too. Just like students and families, educators need to feel a sense of belonging in schools. They need camaraderie to feel comfortable enough to take risks and try new approaches in the classroom. In fact, research shows that positive educator relationships are an essential feature of highly effective schools. As one teacher shared with Search Institute, "We're human beings. We're not robots.”

Similar to other workplaces, research shows that educators tend to spend the most time socializing and collaborating with colleagues who have similar interests, roles, and identities. These dynamics can lead to strong bonds that support teachers when challenges arise. However, they can also be damaging. For instance, veteran educators might unwittingly hoard knowledge and expertise while new teachers struggle to find their footing. Additionally, teachers from historically marginalized backgrounds may find themselves minorities amongst their colleagues and without a tight-knit social group. As you prepare to head back to the classroom, it is important to take stock of how to build collaborative relationships with all colleagues.

To learn how teachers cultivate meaningful relationships at work, as part of the Educator-to-Educator Relationships Framework Project, Search Institute facilitated nationwide focus groups and interviews with 72 educators from public, private, and charter schools in the spring of 2022. Based on these conversations, we compiled the “ABCs,” or foundational elements, of lasting, productive educator-to-educator relationships.


The ABCs highlight actions, beliefs, and connection as three critical components of professional relationships.

A is for ACTION. You create your community. Your actions send signals that you are a welcoming and supportive colleague.

  • Communicate. Frequent and transparent communication lays the groundwork for lasting bonds. Although the rush of a new school year may be frantic, try to slow down when speaking with and listening to your colleagues. Carry an extra blank page on your clipboard as a “thought catcher.” Take in their body language, tone of voice, and emotions. Jot down their comments, questions, concerns, and suggestions. Follow-up as needed.
  • Collaborate. Work in teams whenever possible. Share strategies within and beyond your grade teams or content areas. Ask for and give feedback. While your first instinct may be to seek out veteran colleagues, challenge yourself by asking new colleagues for their thoughts. You may find novice teachers’ contributions useful as they have novel strategies from a more recent teacher preparation program or pre-service experience.
  • Support. We all need a little help sometimes. Support can come in many different forms (e.g., sharing a resource, modeling a lesson, mentoring, co-teaching). When seeking support from colleagues, it is helpful if you are able to articulate the specific form of support that you want. Relatedly, when meeting new colleagues, name your strengths so they know when to ask you for help. Recognize colleagues who go above and beyond to support others.

B is for BELIEFS. Teaching is a distinct craft that merges the personal and professional. Whether we realize it or not, we bring our unique belief systems into the classroom and the ways in which we interact with other educators.

  • Affirm values. While you may not always agree with your colleagues, you can still connect in ways that elevate your shared beliefs about teaching. Engage new colleagues in a conversation about what teaching means to them. Share what teaching means to you.
  • Respect. Demonstrate respect for your colleagues’ teaching craft by giving specific praise that identifies a particular idea or effort. By providing specific praise, you show that you are watching and listening closely to their practice. Spread admiration with a quick email or text. A message directly to a colleague with their supervisor cc'd can go a long way.
  • Trust. Gossip or “water cooler talk” can become especially exclusionary for educators from historically marginalized backgrounds. If you find yourself gossiping about a colleague, think about the root of what you want to convey, try to reframe your comment in a productive way, and consider delivering that feedback directly to the person.

C is for CONNECTION. Ultimately, relationships are about connections. 

  • Connect professionally. Position yourself as a connector. Introduce yourself to new colleagues. Then, introduce new colleagues to former colleagues. If you find yourself in a solitary role without colleagues who have the same title or job description at your school, seek out colleagues online. Check out resources like Edutopia and New Teacher Center where you can engage with a broader landscape of teachers.
  • Connect personally. A quick nod, smile, or hello in the hallway can mean the world to another teacher. Whenever possible, make time to connect beyond the classroom through cookouts or book clubs. Celebrate birthdays and personal milestones. Establish meal trains to support colleagues through medical treatments or bereavement. Acknowledge holidays across cultures, including moments of celebration or reflection.
  • Promote inclusion and reduce bias. Be antiracist. Create, participate in, and respect affinity spaces. If you hear a colleague perpetuate a deficit-based assumption about a student or family, challenge their perspective by engaging in a discussion of how structural barriers have disproportionately affected people from historically marginalized backgrounds.

We recognize that none of this is done in isolation. Some schools have supportive structures that enable relationship-building to happen more seamlessly while other schools leave little time for their teachers to socialize or collaborate. Search Institute is invested in supporting teachers as well as school leaders. We believe in the power of relationally-rich environments. One way to better understand the relational culture at  your school or organization is to take Search Institute’s Relational Culture Checkup – a tool for self-reflection and conversation, designed for leaders and staff to learn about the relational culture of their organization.  

Melanie Muskin is a PhD student in Human Development and Social Policy in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Melanie’s academic research is informed by a prior career in New York City schools where she served as a teacher, elementary school assistant principal, director of a citywide professional development initiative, and head of a center-based preschool. Melanie is working on the Educator-to-Educator Relationships Framework Project as one of Search Institute’s 2023 Summer Scholars.

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