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Five Messages Some Principals Need to Hear from Their Teachers

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The Article: “What Teachers Want You to Know: A Note to School Administrators” by Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy, September 4, 2017,
In this Cult of Pedagogy article, Jennifer Gonzalez says the teachers she hears from have a range of emotions about their work. “Some are engaged in a healthy struggle, the ‘good stress’ of working at a challenging job,” she says. “If we think of teacher stress as a continuum, I would put these teachers at the healthy end. At the other end, the struggle has a different character, a kind of desperation that goes beyond ‘good stress.’ Teachers at that end of the continuum are panicked. Many nights they go home and cry. They don’t sleep. They can’t concentrate. And they are thinking seriously about leaving the profession altogether.”
There’s a common factor with the most stressed-out teachers, says Gonzalez: their administrator. “Behind every teacher story is an administrator who is interpreting policy, setting expectations, and establishing a tone that will determine the quality of their teachers’ work, and by extension, the education their students receive… [T]oo many administrators are tolerating, or creating, unhealthy working conditions. Administrators who may have forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher.”
Gonzalez acknowledges that few teachers understand how difficult it is to be a principal. “Most of us will never fully understand the difficulty of your job,” she says, “the pressures from parents, community members, central office, students, and teachers. How mandates are passed down without your input. How things like safety and the budget weigh on you. The dozens of decisions you make every hour. How you protect your staff in ways they will never know, how you do things for kids that no one ever sees. We forget how, unlike when you were in the classroom and had plenty of colleagues to vent to when things got tough, you are now mostly alone. How you miss out on so much of the good stuff: because you’re constantly putting out fires and making sure the ship keeps sailing, you don’t get to experience so much of the joy of educating young people. You don’t have time to really get to know kids, to make memories with them and impact them in small ways all year long. We don’t often consider the fact that despite doing your very best, you always have to disappoint someone.”
That said, Gonzalez wants to pass along a few things for school leaders to keep in mind about the professional conditions in their schools:
• Treat teachers’ time as a precious commodity. Most schools give teachers about an hour a day, sometimes less, when they’re not teaching classes. In that time, teachers need to plan units and lessons, design materials, make copies, write feedback on student work, enter grades in the system, complete office paperwork, contact parents, work with colleagues, give extra help to struggling students, troubleshoot technology problems, display student work, and tidy up the classroom. Given all this, says Gonzalez, it’s “soul-crushing” when administrators steal during-the-day time for nonessential activities. “It forces teachers to make the choice between bringing more work home or just not doing it. The lessons become less engaging. The feedback gets less meaningful, more robotic. The paperwork comes back late. The collaboration gets postponed, again.” Her suggestions:
- Drastically reduce meetings. Many are unnecessary, or could be handled by e-mail or conducted remotely using software like Voxer.
- Guard instructional time like a Doberman. Eliminate public address all-calls, buzz-ins to classrooms, and disruptions to the regular schedule that aren’t worth the time.
- Trust that unstructured time will be used well. “In a lot of cases,” says Gonzalez, “what teachers need is not more professional development, more collaboration with peers, or even more materials to work with. What they need is time, in their rooms, alone, to implement the things they have already learned to do. They need to concentrate. They need to not be interrupted. They need you to trust them.”
Yes, some teachers might not use unstructured time well, she acknowledges. “They might socialize. They might fool around. Don’t punish everyone else for that. Deal with those teachers one-on-one and treat everyone else like the professionals they are.”
Differentiate your leadership. “Some of the most ham-handed mistakes administrators make come from a place of treating all staff members as a single homogenous unit,” says Gonzalez. A better approach:
- Meet teachers where they are instructionally. On lesson plans, some teachers might need to be checked more frequently than others, and some might have developed a non-standard format that works for them.
- Address problems on a case-by-case basis. “One of the most maddening things some administrators do is reprimand an entire staff for the transgressions of a few,” says Gonzalez. “What would be so much better is if you just went directly to the people who are causing the problem and deal with them alone.”
- Provide choice. An ideal PD would be several blocks of time with multiple offerings in each one.
- As needed, support teachers with classroom management and back them up when dealing with parents.
The underlying principle: Every teacher is in a different place instructionally, personally, and career-wise. Personalization is challenging, but it’s something principals should strive for.
Give specific feedback. Telling teachers they’re doing a great job is thin gruel for professionals, especially if it’s based on few if any classroom visits, and a catered lunch every now and then isn’t much better. Short classroom visits followed by specific observations are far more affirming – for example, noting the way the teacher respectfully redirected a student, the quality of questioning, wait time after posing a question, students’ enjoyment of a particular part of the lesson.
Regularly check in with your ego. “Some of the worst mistakes I made as a classroom teacher could be traced back to me protecting my ego,” says Gonzalez. “I overreacted at times when I thought my students weren’t respecting me. I did stupid things so my students would think I was cool. I kept my mouth shut at times when I should have spoken up because I wanted my colleagues to like me. Ego, ego, ego, ego.” Principals can fall into the same traps: Bringing in a new program that makes the school look good but overloads teachers. Not admitting that a new program isn’t going well. Being unwilling to loosen up on certain policies – for example, requiring that lesson plans be turned in – for fear of appearing weak or being taken advantage of by a few. Not daring to ask for anonymous feedback from the staff. “In all of your decisions, but especially the ones where you’ll be asking more from your teachers, take a few moments and see whether your ego is shouting in your ear,” says Gonzalez. “Sometimes you only have to recognize it to make it quiet down.”
Fight for us. “You stand right in the middle, wedged between those who make the policies and the teachers and students impacted by them,” she says. “When policies or norms that affect teachers’ workload come down from above, and they aren’t working, and they ultimately don’t serve kids, whose responsibility is it to communicate that to those in power? You have the ear of the superintendent, at least more than the average classroom teacher. Is it possible that you could be the vanguard in reversing some of our biggest problems in schools? Could you say to those above you, This isn’t working? Could you join forces with other administrators, tell stories to make the decision-makers understand, and then tell them again?”

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