Cult of Pedagogy Search

What Teachers Want You To Know: A Note to School Administrators

Close

Can't find what you are looking for? Contact Us


Listen to this post as a podcast:


 

Dear School Administrator,

I begin this letter with some hesitation, because I know you were a teacher once. Nothing I say here should be new to you. So why would I ask you to take the time to listen?

It’s because I talk to teachers every day. They share their thoughts on social media, in the comments they leave on my blog, and in private emails. I see how many of them are struggling. Some are engaged in a healthy struggle, the “good stress” of working at a challenging job. 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.

After listening to thousands of teachers tell their stories, I have reached the conclusion that there is one deciding factor that determines where teachers will fall on the continuum, one element that makes the difference in whether the teachers in any given school will lean toward positive and productive or desperate and crushed: That element is the 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. If too many teachers are drowning at the unhealthy end of the continuum—and our current teacher shortage suggests that this is the case—then too many administrators are tolerating, or creating, unhealthy working conditions. Administrators who may have forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher.

 

Most of us will never fully understand the difficulty of your job, 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.

Most of us will never sit behind an administrator’s desk, so when we consider how your actions impact us, we would be wise to remember that we can never truly understand all of your decisions because we don’t have your responsibilities.

With that said, there are a few things your teachers would like you to know. I’m taking the liberty of speaking for them here because many don’t feel free to speak for themselves. But if they felt comfortable telling you, they would probably ask you to consider one of the following five things, five actions they wish you would take to help them become the best teachers they can be for the students you all serve.

If you’re already doing these things, then you’re probably not the intended audience for this letter. Also, your teachers probably love you like crazy.

But if you’re not doing some of them, my hope is that you’ll find something here to reflect on as you work to move your staff closer to the healthy end of the continuum.

1. Treat teacher time as a precious commodity.

It is so easy to believe that you already respect teachers’ time as much as you are able to, but I’m asking you to consider this with fresh eyes.

If your school is like most, it’s already set up to give teachers very little time without students present—maybe an hour a day at most, and in some cases, much less. In that time, teachers are expected to plan engaging lessons, assess student work, provide meaningful feedback, contact parents, make photocopies, collaborate with their colleagues, design instructional materials, meet with students to provide extra help, troubleshoot technology programs, display student work, maintain a relatively interesting and tidy classroom, enter grades into a centralized grading system, and complete various kinds of paperwork.

That’s the baseline, the normal expectations. And it’s clearly more than any human can handle in the time allotted, which you know, since you were a teacher and you’ve been there. You know that they are already taking work home and putting in evening and weekend hours just to meet the standard expectations.

So when you make decisions that take more of that already scarce time away from teachers, it’s soul-crushing. 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. Time is a finite resource that can’t be recovered once it’s lost, and although your teachers might still show up, the quality of their instruction is what’s ultimately going to suffer.

Here’s a metaphor I heard from my own principal years ago: Think of a teacher’s workload like a backpack. They already have a lot loaded in there, and as more things get added, the backpack gets heavier. Eventually, you just can’t get anything else in; there’s simply no more room left. When you’re thinking about adding anything else to your teachers’ backpacks, make it your policy to take something else out: An old requirement that doesn’t really make sense anymore, an administrative task that might be handled by someone else or dropped altogether. When forced to choose between the new thing and the old, this kind of policy will help you choose more carefully.

Here are some more specific ways you can protect teacher time:

 

2. Differentiate your leadership.

Just like students, every teacher in your building is a unique individual with different strengths and weaknesses. So they need different things from you as a leader. Some of the most ham-handed mistakes administrators make come from a place of treating all staff members as a single homogeneous unit. Instead, consider these ways to refine your approach:

 

3. Give specific feedback.

When I was in the classroom, my principal used to tell me all the time that I was a great teacher. It was nice to hear, but it didn’t mean much, because he almost never saw me teach. I asked him about this once, and he said that it was because he didn’t get any complaints about me. He said it almost as a joke, and to be fair, I do feel he knew my heart as a teacher, that he built his impression of me over several years of seeing the work I put in and how I talked about my students.

But still. It would have meant so much if he actually knew what I was doing in my classroom. If he stopped by for five minutes, found something specific to compliment me on, and pointed it out to me later: The way I redirected a student respectfully, the fact that I asked good questions, the way my students really seemed to enjoy a particular part of a lesson or that he noticed what good writing they were doing.

I know coming up with specific feedback is hard. Teachers get this; when we grade a hundred papers we can easily default to rotating between Good job! Excellent!, and Well done! We know how useless these are, and how much more meaningful it would be, how much more ACTIONABLE it would be if we pointed out something specific our students did well. So when we’re doing our best, we give specific feedback.

And we need the same from you. Two or three times a year, if you watched us teach for a few minutes and then later said something like, “I really like the way you let students design that whole bulletin board themselves,” or sent a quick email that said, “You were really good with wait time in today’s lesson. Your students were really thinking about their answers.”

That’s it. Something that small would go a LONG way toward making us feel seen and appreciated. I mean, a catered lunch every now and then is fantastic, but a meaningful compliment lasts a lot longer than a chicken salad croissant and some pie.

 

4. 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. 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, and ego.

I can only assume that in your position, you also may have occasionally let your ego drive decisions. Consider these situations:

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. Sometimes you only have to recognize it to make it quiet down.

 

These four certainly don’t cover everything. I haven’t mentioned how important it is to create a family atmosphere in your school, how teachers need your support with classroom management, or how much they appreciate it when you back them up with parents, but these four are big ones, the issues that come up over and over again when I see teachers who are truly feeling crushed by the weight of their work.

Number 5 is not something that comes up in these conversations, but I think it’s something we should talk about.

5. Fight for us.

A lot of the factors that contribute to teachers’ difficult working conditions may seem to be out of your control. The decisions come from above your head and you just have to go along with them; after all, you want to keep your job, too.

But ask yourself this: When policies or norms that impact teacher 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?

Maybe you’re already doing this. Maybe I’m just revealing my ignorance of how these things work. I’m just going on a hunch here.

But it’s a hard hunch to shake: You stand right in the middle, wedged between those who make the policies and the teachers and students impacted by them.

I addressed this letter to school administrators, but an administrator just administers programs and systems created by others. By taking this last step, going beyond administering and working to create real change for your teachers and students, that would make you a leader. And if you choose to be a leader instead of an administrator, your influence could be tremendous.

With respect and optimism,

Your Teachers

 


 

Stay in touch.
Join my mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration—in quick, bite-sized packages—all geared toward making your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll get access to our members-only library of free downloads, including 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half the e-booklet that has helped thousands of teachers save time on grading. Come on in!!

 

19 Comments

  1. I love your blog, and now I love it even more. YES re: needing time alone in our classrooms., without something new to tackle. We fight for students to experience the flow of unstructured time. Why do I feel it so infrequently? I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to read this, tonight of all nights. Thank you for being the voice I really needed now, and for your wisdom and humor all the time.

  2. Christa Biddle says:

    I am so sharing this with my colleagues and even my union. We battle this every day, and your words put the challenge to our admin in such clear, precise, and motivational words…they should be able to hear our cry. If not, at least we tried. Thank you for taking the time to put our feelings into kind considerate, yet powerful, words!

    I am retiring 3 years earlier than i planned, just for these reasons. I wish that they would hear us.

  3. Jeannie says:

    You hit the nail on the head FIVE TIMES. So well-written. I am going through a struggle right now involving all of the above! Thank you for expressing just what I am experiencing in such a fair and detailed way.

  4. adriana lemos says:

    Dear Jenn,

    thanks a lot for the covering. I felt myself heard. I felt myself saying out loud those requests.

    Not to mention fear I actually have to share it with my superiors, I belive they must hear us!

    Thanks again for trying to make our lives as a teacher, a bit easier.

  5. Julie says:

    Just…wow. When I think your articles can’t get any better, they do. Thank you for all the time and thoughtfulness and truth you put into this.

  6. Amelia says:

    As a veteran teacher of almost 30 years, your insight is incredible! Each year I find myself looking for valuable MINUTES to do quality planning to prepare for my lessons. So many things have been put into our backpacks over the past 10 years and nothing taken out. It is a sad scenario that so many administrators very quickly forget the demands of being a teacher and understanding that most of us love teaching and would like to get on with the task of being a better teacher and not a paper pusher (on-line). I wish this could be sent to all administrators. Thank you.

  7. Wendy says:

    Great timing for this letter! We were told that for the first ten days of school we had to eat lunch with our students so we could “bond” with them. We also have a new reading program that was handed to us a few weeks before school started. It’s so overwhelming, we all feel like we can’t do this. Morale is down already!

  8. As an administrator in a small Christian school, I resonated first with your paragraph acknowledging that you understand some of the different pressures that we administrators face. But I was able to remember being a teacher in the classroom and your advice also resonated with me. Thank you for courageously being a voice for teachers!

  9. Albert Franklin says:

    Even with a teacher’s union at our disposal, it’s hard to get support for attacks from within the rank and file. The vast number of highly qualified teachers who were forced out of the profession even though they were able to do what ever needed to be done otherwise.

  10. Michelle says:

    As an administrator, I appreciate this. Just this past week, I met with my leadership team, and many of the points you referenced (specifically dealing with time and meetings) were discussed. I haven’t been doing too well with respecting my teachers’ time. And, I get it. You hit the nail on the head, that administrators stand in the middle of what the policy makers want us to do and the impact that those decisions have on teachers and students. I was convicted by my team at that meeting, and I am convicted by reading these words here.
    Check your ego at the door – yep!
    Thanks again for being a voice for teachers, in a way that also respects the struggles of administrators. We all entered this profession to help kids grow. We are a team and I do appreciate that you did not present this in an “us vs. them” fashion. (Although not a surprise, as everything that you have ever written has been respectful!)

  11. Debra says:

    I taught kindergarten and have now retired. We were a high poverty school with students who were so often not given any encouragement or help at home. We were pushed to get our school grade up quickly. We had to push, push, push kids who had few basic skills. There were 2 of us teaching kinder. I had no help in my room. The other teacher had her husband helping her in her room. He took care of attendance, any money transactions, pulled workbook pages and put them in order. He handled centers while the teacher did individual/small group, helped grade papers, put papers together to take home. He also made copies many times. Our admin knew he helped that teacher, but still wondered why I couldn’t get everything done that she did as quickly as she did. That truly hit me hard.

  12. Rick Martinez says:

    Hi Jenn:

    I’m not a teacher per se, but a dad of a teacher who loves her profession and involves me in her experience. I thoroughly enjoyed your five suggestions to school administrators with respect to their relationship with teachers as I believe “healthy relationships” leads to “emotional wellness” professionally and personally–and “healthy relationships” with our students–and ultimately “peak teaching and learning performance.” There’s nothing like a happy, fulfilled teacher.
    Happiness seems to be the secret motive of all we do and of all we are willing to endure. Thank you.

  13. Tamara Nicoll says:

    I am profoundly grateful to you for your depth of insight! The entire letter is completely on point, but when I got to number five, I thought you had a magical power to read my heart and mind. I posted comments to your request for ideas on Facebook, and admire your ability to synthesize the myriad issues relating to the of the complexities of teaching, and then poignantly speak for the whole of the profession. I am moved and heartened by your voice.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Oh this rings a bell! I have only been in secondary education for Two years, after a decade in higher ed- the lack of respect from Administrators and ‘the front offices’ is beyond humiliating fo adults to have to go trough. Paper and other supplies passed out to favorites or just hoarded in cabinets, custodians having to even buy their own supplies.

    I think my observations go beyond you very well written and thought out essay

  15. Thank you! I have just shared your blog with my entire administrative team. Much appreciate the words of guidance and wisdom!

  16. Mrs K says:

    The lesson plans…. the hours I spend preparing them for the principal, not for teaching…those teaching plans are written in the margins, underlined and post-ettes through out the teaching manual.

    Why anyone thinks copy and pasting a teacher manual into an electronic lesson plan is a good idea, is beyond me?

  17. Jennifer says:

    I’m feeling foolish as I sit here in tears over the truth in these words. Sometimes I feel like my expectations are too high or that I’m a bit crazy for wanting something better. After 20 years of teaching, I feel like it shouldn’t be this hard. My students are amazing people but their needs are many, and I have to keep reminding myself to breathe just to get through each week. It’s only September and I AM SO TIRED!

    • Mary says:

      I know exactly how you feel. After almost 25 years of teaching, it Does not get easier. . Hang in there, and I will too.

  18. Greg Adams says:

    Terrific podcast! I shared it with my admin team and will share with teachers during PLC time. Points in the podcast are well taken. An open line of communication is key though. Principals and teachers are in the same arena, or at least I have always thought so. If you are frustrated walk in the principal’s office and say “here is why I am frustrated”.

    It seems education becomes more and more of a political football and we are all held to any number of mandates causing our “initiative fatigue”, both teacher and administrator. “New and improved” is the nature of the business that seems out of local control at this point. Some good, some not so good. Good administrators know the difference between essential information that must be shared and nonessential information that interferes and frustrates teachers.

    Greg Adams
    Elementary Principal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.