The importance of relationships in the flourishing of principals

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Positive relationships and their role in nurturing school improvement has been the subject of a study by Benjamin Kutsyuruba, Terry Kharyati and Nadia Arghash. Here they describe their research and what we can learn from it.

A bird’s eye view of school principals’ current state of wellbeing

School principals interact with people from various walks of life who unite in one goal; to deliver a standard of learning and development that meets and exceeds expectations, nurture potentials, and prepare students for adulthood and all it entails. In light of the gravity of these responsibilities and the toll they take on school principals, many independent researchers, scholars, and government bodies have turned their attention to the wellbeing of school principals. 

The picture seems grim; data shows that principals continue to suffer with the lowest rates of  mental health compared to the general population (Riley, 2014) and feel increasingly overwhelmed (Couture, 2014). The fact remains that principals’ mental health is declining in many places around the world (e.g., Canadian Association of Principals, 2014; Ontario Principals’ Council, 2017; Australian Lutheran Institute for Theology and Ethics [ALITE], 2013; Wylie, 2016) and not much seems to be helping. 

This perhaps calls for a change in direction and, instead, diving into what makes principals feel fulfilled. Learning what  it means to flourish to a school principal and how they feel this can be achieved, may offer a more useful perspective.  

Research overview

Our study is grounded in positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and positive organisational scholarship (Carr, 2004; Roberts & Dutton, 2009). In essence, the study of positive psychology seeks to understand how ordinary individuals can reach their potential, experience a sense of happiness, and overcome the difficulties they face in life, while maintaining a state of overall physical and mental wellbeing. Positive organisational scholarship focuses on positive attitudes within organisations that lead to happier and healthier individuals. For school principals, flourishing may be a combination of positive conditions, feelings, and experiences.

To understand these, we studied an extraordinary group of school principals. Distinguished for their remarkable initiatives, Canada’s Outstanding Principals (COP) are a collection of super principals; not only have they meaningfully changed the lives of countless students, but they have done so while working with some of the most socio-economically underprivileged school districts in Canada. They are outstanding because they have inspired teachers, built infrastructure, and overcome countless budgetary roadblocks while sustaining conditions that helped them grow. These principals, to us, seemed to know a thing or two about flourishing.

Positive relationships and school principals’ flourishing – Connecting the dots

Our research showed that the COPs self-reported high levels of positive attributes leading to flourishing. When describing their experiences of flourishing as school principals, they centered their stories around creating, maintaining, and leveraging positive relationships. Building positive relationships, for these COPs, was key in helping them sustain a sense of flourishing. This was also vital in helping other people flourish, such as teachers and students. There was a close interdependency between the flourishing of these school principals and that of the teachers and students. This reciprocity became a strong source that seemed to fuel the flourishing of everyone involved in this exchange. 

We know from numerous studies that the existence of positive relationships for school principals is a strong catalyst to creating positive school climates (Cherkowski & Walker, 2016). What is interesting here is that these school principals were the direct beneficiaries of a positive school climate that they helped create by fostering positive relationships. In other words, they perceived a strong causational relationship between their flourishing and the flourishing of all other individuals in the school community. This also suggests that school principals cannot flourish if the entire school community is not flourishing and, by the same token, if the school is flourishing, so is the school principal. 

The experience of flourishing, therefore, may not be individualistic in nature, but rather it is a living, breathing organism that feeds on positive relationships and allows flourishing to happen for the school community as a whole.

Concluding thought  

The quality of the relationships harnessed in a school reflects not only the school principal’s, but also the entire school’s sense of flourishing. The more meaningful these relationships are, the stronger the sense of flourishing is in the school community. Each and every connection built on trust, compassion, and respect adds up to a vibrating and flourishing school. For school principals, these relationships are vital because they allow them to sustain their flourishing and be better leaders. It also helps them experience vitality, become resilient, persevere, and grow.

If you ever wondered why some school principals are not well, start by taking a deep look at the quality of the relationships in the school community and the answer will unfold. 

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About the authors

Benjamin Kutsyuruba (PhD) is an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership, and School Law in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. Throughout his career, Benjamin has worked as a teacher, researcher, manager, and professor in the field of education in Ukraine and Canada. His research interests include educational policymaking; educational leadership; induction, mentorship and development of teachers; trust, moral agency, and ethical decision-making in education; international education; school climate, safety, well-being, and flourishing; and, educational change, reform, and restructuring.

Nadia Arghash (M.Ed.; B.A.; B.Sc.) is a researcher in the field of education at Queen’s University, Canada. She is interested in positive psychology as it relates to the conditions that promote wellbeing for individuals in the educational context. Her research pursuits include positive organizational leadership and thriving for students of higher education. Nadia is also an Instructional Designer working in the field of learning and development to help organizations achieve their educational goals.

Terry Kharyati is a former teacher. vice-principal, and principal and is now working as a Director at the Western Quebec School Board. A recipient of 2014 Canada’s Outstanding Principals Award, he shares the award with the team of staff and students from the school he worked with for almost 18 years and very proud of all they accomplished together.  In 2015, he graduated from the M.Ed. program at Queen’s University where he immersed himself in the study of the impact of leadership on school climate and student and staff efficacy, and he believes that effective systems are needed to support and nurture all school leaders. He is a proud husband and father of three beautiful girls and lives in the community he proudly serves. 

A chapter with key findings from our research on Canada’s Outstanding Principals has been published in “Positive Leadership for Flourishing Schools” (2021, Edited by Walker, Kutsyuruba, & Cherkowski): https://www.infoagepub.com/products/Positive-Leadership-for-Flourishing-Schools

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Resources