Super Relationship builder – Tanay Sukumar!

One of the most difficult and important competency for any leader is the art of building relationships.
Tanay Sukumar, a 2013 Alumnus, in his second year, worked on understanding the art of building strong relationships with class teachers and school staff as part of his project. After his research and work, he wants to share some tools for you to be able to become independent in working with school staff and different mindsets, and drive your own leadership development in the process. Let’s read what he has to tell:


Findings are based on conclusions made out of survey reports, discussions with Fellows and staff, and discussions within the team working in this project.

Part 1: Core Beliefs that will help you on the way

a) We needn’t be an activist or protester at school. Be a leader. Protesters demand instantly; leaders invest over time. Protesters seek short-term change, because they work with the situation; leaders seek to change things for the longer run, because they work with mindsets.

b) As a teacher, our work as a Fellow is incomplete without building sustainably invested school and class teacher relationships. If we don’t have this belief, we will tend to settle down with basic working relationships, and will tend not to think about investing them in why we do what we do and sustainability beyond my own Fellowship.

c) As a true leader, one must practise and master the art of building and maintaining difficult relationships in order to achieve one’s larger vision. If we don’t have this belief strongly, we may tend to crib about the challenges thrown at us. We may start hating the conditions and people we work with, instead of looking within ourselves to see what we can do better.

d) If it seems impossible, it’s not because there’s no solution, but because the right solution/way/approach has not been tried yet. As Fellows, our task is not to complain, give up and blame others, it’s to FIND WAYS. At the same time, be gentle on yourself.


Part 2: The Rubric

We created a rubric to explain different aspects of class teacher relationships. Caution: If your relationship is at Level 1 (cooperative but not invested), it is only a basic working relationship, and NOT ideal for our work in long term. You need to constantly push for a level higher. Look at the Class Teacher Relationships Rubric. Please work with your school teams to brainstorm how to reach the next level and how to build your leadership skills in the process.

The rubric was created by our team: Kumar Manish, 2013 Fellow; Prayas Sutar, Cherry Agarwal, Heena Narula, Pallavi Singhal, Ritika Rastogi, 2014 Fellows.

Part 3: Building Empathy and Part 4: The Conversations

Questions you need to ask (Thinking about these questions will help you guard against common mindset issues of your own)

  1. Why should the school staff think the way I do?
  2. Why should they agree to me?
  3. If they think similarly to me but still do things differently, why is that?
  4. What are their struggles? What is their life like?
  5. Am I starting conversations from my perspective, or their perspective? (Start conversations from the others’ point of view, not yours)
  6. If it’s something they have done/believed in for years and decades, why should they immediately accept my view?
  7. Do I think of myself as a teacher with mindsets, skills and training different (or maybe similar) to them, or do I think of myself as a teacher with mindsets, skill and training SUPERIOR to them? (if it’s the latter, you need to change this mindset right away. Don’t be reluctant to admit that; a lot of Fellows tend to think that way, and that is the root of most problems.)
  8. Am I expecting changed mindsets immediately? Why?
  9. Am I expecting school staff to behave the way we behave with each other at TFI? Why?
  10. Do I have a basic relationship at a human level with the person, before I even think of solving issues?

How to approach problems

  1. Don’t panic. Don’t react. Stay calm.
  2. Think: Why did the problem occur?
  3. Think: What did the person say/do which bothered you/created a problem?
  4. Think: Why did they say/do? What is their underlying mindset? Why do they think so?
  5. Think: a short-term solution (since a mindset change is a long journey; to ensure that the problem at hand doesn’t affect your students for now, think of a short-term solution which takes both your and the school staff’s point of view and mindset in consideration, and not just yours)
  6. Think: Based on how deep or strong that underlying mindset, think of a desired end result for your first conversation. Your issue might often get solved in the first conversation (followed by repeated reinforcement), or it may take multiple conversations throughout the two years. What is the goal of your first conversation? (E.g. if it’s a problem that will take a long time, your first conversation might just be an effort to understand the mindset deeper. What’s the hurry to jump to your perspective, unless you understand the other person’s perspective?)
  7. Plan: Plan the conversation in your head/on paper.

Suggested flow of conversations:

  1. Cite problematic incident and seek their perspective
  2. Find instances that are evidence for that person’s perspective
  3. Say your perspective
  4. Apply your perspective on examples that the person gave you in step 2
  5. Ask what they think about the way you thought about it
  6. Try to find something about their perspective which you appreciate/agree with/find reasonable to some extent. If you can’t, just accept the possibility of their mindset being desirable (if you’re unable to find it, you need to think about your own mindsets first: even if the teacher thinks caning kids is a way to discipline them, you can say, “I see that you really want to inculcate discipline in the kids, and I think that is a method our ancestors have used for a long time, so there might be some merit in it, but let’s think of it this way …”)
  7. Next, again come back to your perspective. Give fresh evidence and examples.

Don’t do it all in one conversation. Go back to the questions above.

Keywords: Listen, Seek Perspective, Seek Evidence, Give Evidence, Give them time, accept, Plan conversation, Don’t react impulsively, Don’t expect it to happen immediately

Use school issues to model for your kids these values: respect, patience, perseverance, and acceptance of others’ views.

Building relationships is a human skill. Be human; approach issues with basic human values: respect, empathy, patience, etc. Use basic human tools which work everywhere: examples, evidence, and just talking.

I hope this helps.

Tanay Sukumar

Trainee2013 Alumnus, Teach For India


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