Why Beginning of School Year Staff Meetings Should End with a High Five and a Hug

If you believe that students pick up on and feel the emotional dynamics of adults working together in a school building – and that this feeling in turn impacts how students (and adults) ultimately perform – read on.

Every successful community of learners relies on the trust and respect built between people. We know this from experience and research. But, like many things in education, common sense is not often translated into common practice. Strengthening emotional bonds between students and teachers and students to one another is an essential component to a high functioning classroom. However, we often forget to apply this practice to the whole school level – with adults.

How do you strengthen emotional bonds among the adults in your school building? How do your teachers feel after the last orientation meeting before school begins? Are they stressed or pumped? Are they overwhelmed or joyful? Grousing or grinning? 

We tend to avoid team-building activities because ‘there are too many important things to cover’ or ‘it just feels too touchy-feely’. But when we deny adults the opportunity to connect and develop emotional bonds, we risk everything we ultimately want to accomplish.

Last week, I worked with several schools on implementing inquiry-based instruction in Houston, Texas. The staff spent much of the day working in their grade level teams on the ‘serious business’ of powerful instruction; but at the end of our day, we set aside an hour to do some emotional connecting. A simple but powerful team-building activity had them hugging and smiling as they walked out the door and into their classrooms to prepare for the year.

We started by reflecting in writing about “who we are” in terms of what makes us happy using this ‘handy’ template:


I then collected everyone’s responses (make sure everyone puts their name inside the palm of the hand so they can be identified), fold in half and shuffle them up and then ask everyone to chose ONE (like a tarot reading…the right card will choose them)! This will be their ‘buddy’; someone they look out for and support throughout the school year. They start by writing their buddy a letter (I give them about 15 minutes to do this right away). In these support letters, teachers can share what they hope to improve upon or reflect on how they plan to deepen their own practice. They can offer support, share what they have in common in terms of what makes them happy and send words of encouragement for the year ahead.

Then, when the letters have been written, the great reveal! This is my favorite part and it never ceases to amaze me how much adults really love doing this. Ask teachers to hand-deliver them to their ‘buddy’ and offer them with a hug or high five (that physical contact is key, so don’t skip this step). Teachers keep their ‘buddy’s’ hand so that throughout the school year they can refer back to what makes their buddy happy and surprise them with small gifts that relate to what makes that person happy, if they want.

At the end of the day, all of us remember the relationships and how we felt more than the content. Knowing this, let’s reserve even more staff time to deepen them. The payoff will be great; all of us will be more eager to stick with the challenging problems when we’re joyfully in it together.