Last month, I had a hunch about something. I noticed that when I talked to teachers about their job satisfaction, the thing that seemed to make the biggest difference from school to school was the principal. So I decided to conduct a survey, asking teachers for more specifics. To reach more respondents, I also wrote a guest piece on Anthony Cody’s Education Week blog.
The results are in. Eighty-five teachers from over 20 U.S. states (and at least two countries outside the U.S.) took the time to provide detailed descriptions of the specific things their administrators do to make their jobs wonderful, and the things they do to make them miserable.
Overall, the results ran the full spectrum between teachers who respect and admire their administrators, and those who can’t stand them. A few specific issues came up over and over again. In no particular order, they are:
Time in the Classroom. When asked what they would like more of, even those who felt good about their principals said they’d like them to spend more time in their classrooms. “He tells me I’m one of his best teachers, but he’s never really seen me teach,” wrote one person. “I think this is based more on the fact that I don’t cause a lot of trouble. It would be nice if he actually knew more about the nuts and bolts of teaching — his opinion would mean more to me.”
Another teacher felt their administrator’s effectiveness was built on time in their classroom: “She has spent enough time in my room to understand my classroom management style and the systems I have in place for rewarding and disciplining students. She trusts me because she has taken the time to get to know me, how I teach, my students, and any pertinent ongoing issues.”
Respect for Teachers’ Time. Not surprisingly, many teachers reported not having enough time to fulfill their job requirements. In some cases, administrators helped to ease this problem: “My admin never expected more than we could do,” said one teacher. “I think he thought many of us worked too hard and tried to make teaching easier for us.” In many other cases, however, principals did things that made time constraints worse. “Many of our so-called planning periods are used just to have yet another meeting or to catch up on work that keeps getting piled on us. I literally use none of my planning for actual planning. None.”
How organized a principal is makes a difference, too. Teacher after teacher wrote about mandatory tasks that were handed down at the last minute, requiring them to find time in already squeezed schedules. “He will often let deadlines slip up on him, then expect us to make up for the mistake by submitting work in a very short time.”
In many cases, teachers pointed to a lack of administrator awareness of just how much time teachers spent on schoolwork. “Despite being in the school when she is not and despite working many hours (sometimes staying up all night) at home, she has told me several times that she needs teachers who are willing to put the time in to have nice bulletin boards.”
Seeking Teacher Input. Although some respondents described administrators who include them in decision-making, many reported just the opposite. When asked how often their administrators sought teacher input on decisions that would impact the work teachers do, 45 percent said “Never” or “Almost Never.” One teacher wrote, “He has a handful of teachers who are training to one day become administrators. He consults with them regularly. The rest of us? No.”
When it comes to academic decisions, many teachers feel their expertise is ignored. “People who have no academic background in developmental reading and/or have never taught struggling readers have NO BUSINESS determining how children are taught to read,” one teacher wrote. “This is frustrating for staff and devastating for children. Admit when you don’t know something and let those who do understand the issue to determine how it is dealt with. Teachers will have much more buy-in (a critical component for change) if we are consulted and trusted as experts.”
At other times, teacher expertise is met with hostility: “I have far more education and teaching experience than my principal. She is threatened by my expertise and openly hostile to hearing opinions that differ from her own.”
Some respondents felt that although teachers were given some opportunity for input, the timing was off. “Agendas are often provided the day of or the day before meetings. This is a start in the right direction. However, the agendas often just have general topics listed. If relevant questions for the staff were also listed, we could prepare answers, suggestions, or even research and student work as needed.”
School Culture. One of the most dramatic responses was to question 8, which asked how well administrators cultivated positive relationships between faculty members. Almost half of respondents answered “Poor” (17%) or “Very Poor” (32%). Another 26% rated their administrators as merely “OK” in this category.
One big factor that seems to contribute to these numbers is the quality of communication between administrators and their teachers. Gossip, manipulation, and playing favorites came up frequently in the comments. “He pits faculty members against one another rather than having open conversations,” said one respondent. “That creates an atmosphere of distrust.”
In other cases, administrators created a competitive atmosphere openly, comparing teachers’ performance during faculty meetings. “I don’t want to be compared to others,” said one teacher. “I just want to be the best that I can be.”
Summing up their school culture, one teacher simply wrote, “Everyone, including students, is terrified to go to her with anything.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
I will be the first to say that 85 respondents is not exactly a huge sample of teachers. This was an independently conducted survey with no budget, taken over just a few weeks, using a free online survey platform. With that said, I think these results can serve as a springboard for future action:
Principals can use these results to reflect on their own practice. Whether a member of your staff actually took the survey is irrelevant, because these stories could have been told about many, many principals walking the halls of our schools right this minute. And regardless of what you believe about your performance as an administrator, this survey makes one thing clear: Your teachers aren’t telling you everything. When asked whether they felt comfortable going to their administrator with a complaint about something the administrator had done, a full 70 percent of respondents said they did not. If you want to, and are brave enough to learn more about how your faculty really feels about you, give them the survey yourself. And do it in a way that guarantees anonymity, with no fear of retribution for honest answers. (To make this easier, download a blank copy of our survey, which you can modify for your own needs and distribute to your staff. See link at the bottom of this article.)
Beyond the individual principal, these results could prompt a more robust study from a university or other institution interested in discovering what really impacts the work of teachers. Because this survey was voluntary, I think it naturally attracted more teachers who had negative experiences. This is not to discount those, but there is more to be learned about what good administrators are doing right.
Finally, more public attention needs to be given to the day-to-day skills of principals. The vast majority of reform focuses on teacher quality, but I see almost no public discourse on the specifics of what makes an effective principal. If nothing else, my hope is that this survey will alert readers to the incredible impact a principal can make on a teacher, and that doing the right thing can be as simple as paying attention. “Open your eyes and look at how hard people are working,” writes one teacher. “There are heroic things going on in classrooms all over your building. Have a little humility and NOTICE the good that is being done for children.”
Read the full report here.
Download a blank copy of the survey for your own use: Admin_Feedback_Form