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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:
- Drastically reduce meetings. Meetings kill an insane amount of time: all-staff meetings after school, team or department meetings that gobble up whole planning periods, last-minute meetings, meetings that run over time, meetings that don’t apply to everyone in attendance. It doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t. But the only person who truly has the power to change the status quo is you. You can refuse to accept meetings as a necessary evil and commit yourself to reducing the time teachers spend in meetings by as much as possible. Start by cutting your regularly scheduled meetings in half: Instead of meeting as a staff once a week, see what happens if you switch to every other week. Do the same with teachers’ team, grade-level, or department meetings. Then try replacing some face-to-face meetings with cloud-based ones using a tool like Voxer, which allows you to have group voice chats anywhere, at any time. Finally, look for ways to shorten the meetings you do have: What business can be handled ahead of time, so you don’t have to spend as much time discussing things in the meeting? And what steps can you take to make sure you absolutely, always end your meetings on time? An extra five or ten minutes makes a world of difference when you’re talking about rush-hour traffic and picking kids up from daycare or after-school activities. It’s a big deal, so make this one a non-negotiable.
- Guard instructional time like a Doberman. How often are classes interrupted by all-calls on the P.A. system or buzz-ins from the office? These may seem like no big deal, but if a teacher has just gotten students focused and is finally getting somewhere with a lesson, even the briefest interruption can send things off-course for several minutes. Do whatever you can to limit these interruptions. On a macro level, how many times during the year do teachers have to rework their plans due to a class being tossed out for an assembly or another standardized test? There is such rare beauty in a simple week with no special events, where teachers can just plan a course of instruction and actually implement it; so when new opportunities come up that would disrupt this, make sure they’re really worth it.
- Trust that unstructured time will be used well. I can’t make my point here without sounding a little dramatic, so here goes: If you’re not giving teachers regular time alone in their rooms, without micromanaging that time, you’re destroying their ability to teach. In a lot of cases, 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. Especially at the beginning of the school year and the end of every marking period. Yes, some teachers may take advantage of the free time. 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. Which brings me to my next point.
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:
- Instructionally, meet teachers where they are. In some schools, administrators require every teacher to turn in detailed lesson plans every week. For an experienced teacher who has proven her competence time and time again, this feels demeaning, as if her professionalism isn’t being respected. But some teachers might actually need to be checked on more often. Why require the same thing of every teacher? Why not require some teachers to provide more detail, while only asking others to submit a rough outline, or maybe not turn in any plans at all? And while we’re on the subject of lesson plans, how necessary is it to require that every teacher use the exact same lesson plan template? We all know that there is no universally agreed-upon format for a lesson plan, so why not let teachers choose the style that works best for them? Although this process will be messier than requiring the same thing from every teacher, it’s the same personalized approach our teachers should be taking with students. If the goal is to have everyone meet a certain standard of instruction, it just makes sense to honor the different path each person might take to get there.
- 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. In most of these cases, the vast majority of people being scolded have no idea what you’re talking about, but they start to wonder if maybe they did do something wrong without knowing it. It’s very confusing. When you then compound the problem by creating some new restriction or requirement for all teachers, when it’s just a few who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing? This is just awful, and it tells the whole staff that you trust none of them. 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. One of the best professional development days I attended recently was done boutique style, where the schedule was broken into four 60-minute blocks, and teachers could choose between eight different sessions per block. Unlike other events I have seen, where all teachers are herded into a single room to listen to one speaker deliver one message, the teachers at this PD were energized and invested in what they were learning. No one rolled their eyes or scrolled furtively through their phones. They went to the sessions that applied directly to their work, and everyone got something out of the day. Obviously this required a lot of advance planning and might be more than any one school could handle, but the underlying principle is sound: Whenever you can give your teachers choice in content, process, or product, you’ll get better results.
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:
- If a new initiative was going to put more work on your teachers, would you opt out of it even if it would make your school look great from the outside?
- If you rolled out a new system or program, and it wasn’t going well, would you stop things and reassess, admitting that you may have been wrong, or would you press on despite the program’s ineffectiveness?
- When considering whether to give up some control with your staff, like no longer asking for them to turn in lesson plans, do you worry that it will make you look weak or that teachers will take advantage of you?
- When was the last time you asked your teachers to give you anonymous feedback on your work as an administrator?
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,