A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Sunday, September 10, 2006

O captain, my captain! Advice for administrators

A while back, a friend asked me what advice I would give administrators, since we were discusing advice to new teachers. After having gotten through the first few weeks of school, I am riled up enough now that I'm going to pick up that challenge. So here we go: advice for vice principals, principals, assistant superintendents, superintendents, and any other person who gets to dip their toes into actual policy-making for the educational world.

First, let's deal with experience.

If you have very little teaching experience, be willing to seek advice from veteran teachers or administrators whenever you are unsure about a course of action. They will be able to understand how it will impact the learning environment, and you will be prevented from floundering very publicly because you overlooked some major consequence of your decisions.

And if you do have little experience in front of a classrooom of squirming, energetic, or just ornery young people, handle evaluations and demands on teachers very carefully. All the ed school classes in the world will not give you insight into what it's like to perform the juggling-with-flaming-torches-while-lion-taming-while-documenting-every-action-in-triplicate act that is teaching.

(Unfortunately, in my neck of the woods, there are four kinds of principals: 24-year-olds who taught for two years, 45-year-olds who taught for two years twenty years ago, 50 year-olds who taught for ten years and since then have been administrators, and, yes, principals who never spent one single day in a classroom of their own. Three of these four things are usually very bad.

Now listen, EdWonk has a post right now about how hard it is for some school districts to find good principals. I have an idea that could fix this, if I were Queen of the Eduworld: I would like to see all administrators rotate back into the classroom for a full year every five years. They would deal with all the paperwork that gets shoved on teachers, they would try to teach under NCLB, they would see what it's like to perform all those duties and try to plan and grade and stay abreast of current research. They would see how being lax on discipline affects the learning environment and climate of the school. This would also help solve the principal shortage problem, because a spot would open up for a staff member who has gained his or her administrative certification to do a year-long practicum, just the same as teachers do. The administrator would come back to his or her position with a lot of practical knowledge and appreciation for the teaching life as it is now, and the practicum administrator would get a taste of what being an administrator is all about. Of course, the Queen would also issue a decree that no one could be an administrator until they have taught in a classroom with a regular schedule for at least ten years. And Her Royal Highness would also demand that coaches would have to teach an academic subject before they became administrators.

And if an administrator thinks being back in the classroom is a punishment rather than an opportunity, then he or she has a poisonous and dismissive attitude toward teaching and teachers which is probably coming across loud and clear to the teachers with whom this person works. This person has no business being in a school. And that means you, Secretary Spellings.)

Oh, and ask someone who's capable to proofread any written materials you will send out into the community. Nothing looks worse than having a newsletter from a school that is full of misspelled words and grammatical errors (not to mention my bete noir, apostrophe misuse).

Now, let's deal with collegiality.

Treat people with respect, and you will receive respect. Treat people with disdain, and you will be treated with disdain. Treat teachers as your colleagues and teammates, and teachers will treat you the same. If you behave this way, when you have to lay down the law, you will have a bank of goodwill from which to draw.

Do not have favorites among the staff members, and for God's sake, don't have a romantic relationship with one, either. This causes nothing, and I mean NOTHING, but trouble. Be wary of bootlickers who are trying to suck up to you, versus people who are merely friendly colleagues. Those toadies are usually either A) incompetent and want you as a friend for protection, or B) they want your job.

Consider some spirit-building events and random acts of kindness for the staff, such as providing hors d’oeuvres in the staff lounge during parent-teacher conference nights, or making sure staff have bathroom breaks during testing.

Be willing to laugh at yourself. God knows there will be plenty of opportunities to do so.

For the next topic, let's address professionalism.

Be on time.

Be visible in the school hallways and classrooms.

Be a person of your word. If you say you are going to visit classrooms, then for Pete's sake visit them.

Ask for imput from the staff whenever you're contemplating a major policy change. They may have some good ideas. Don't make it impossible for staff to talk to you. Before acting, ask yourself: "Will this improve the learning climate in the school?" Then really contemplate the answer.

Be responsible. If you know of a teacher who is not performing, don't ignore it. Offer remediation, document attempts to resolve the isues, and, if none of that works, for the good of the children get rid of that dead wood, no matter how annoying all the paperwork is! Most of the other staff members will thank you, and even if they don't, ensuring that all children work with effective teachers should be your primary job.

Let me repeat that: Ensuring that all children work with effective teachers should be your primary job. Not budgets, or meetings, or repaving the parking lot. All of those things are important, but making sure children learn in your building or district is JOB ONE.

Demonstrate accountability. Don't spend $10,000 (or even $1,000) renovating your office when your staff are sitting on cracked, avocado-green plastic chairs under mildewed ceiling tiles. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. And try to make sure that teachers aren't forced to spend their own money on school supplies. It will happen, but it shouldn't.

Be reasonable. Don't ask people to do things which you are not willing to do yourself. This means, for instance, that you should not write a draconian dress code or ID policy and tell the staff must enforce it, and then not follow through with the consequences. Actually, a good principal should adhere to the behavior guide. If there's a rule you don't like, work to get it removed for next year. But while it's there, deal with it. This echoes advice I recommend to teachers: Only have the rules you are going to enforce, and enforce the rules you have.

Be aware. Don't ignore a teacher who has come up to you in the hallway when you are smalltalking with another administrator. I once had a principal ignore me and give me the "talk to the hand" gesture when I was desperately trying to get his assistance with a fight that was on the verge of breaking out. So while he rambled on about his new puppy, three kids ended up smashing each other into lockers and kicking each other. He then had the nerve to chew me out for not telling him about the impending fight, because I "let them get away."

Be present. Don't cluster in a group and laugh and talk when you're supposed to be supervising an area. I have seen administrators continually huddle in a circle and arrogantly turn their backs on students and staff when they could have spent that time making contact with others and finding out what was going on in the school. There have been countless times when I or one of my colleagues has been the only adult in a hallway or cafeteria watching over 500 kids by ourselves. If there has been a situation that has developed, all the administrators should not go trooping off to the office and leave students unsupervised.

Be consistent. Have only one standard of discipline. If you have a school rule that students must obey and be respectful to all staff members, don't let kids get away with cursing the custodians or secretaries or the teachers-- and if you don't have such an expectation, then you should add one. A student who is insubordinate to the teachers or staff should get the same consequence as if that kid had done the same thing to YOU.

Further, know the law. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, teachers have the right to know information about the students that will help them help the students. Don't withhold information about students from those who spend most of their day with them. I have previously written about that issue here. Teachers are education professionals.

Well, those are my suggestions for administrators. I'm sure the above is not exhaustive, but it's a start.


At 9/10/06, 3:23 PM, Blogger EHT said...

I think this is a very good start. Your category of the four types of administrators are very correct. Luckily, I have been blesesed by the administrator gods the last few years to have persons in authority who respect me and let me do what I do best....but we know how fast things can change in education.

At 9/10/06, 3:55 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Thanks EHT!

At 9/10/06, 9:00 PM, Blogger Mamacita (The REAL one) said...

Excellent. I might still be in the middle school if my administrators had had even a few of these qualities. I would add, that administrators MUST be computer-savvy. Knowing how to turn it on and knowing how to read email are not enough.

At 9/12/06, 5:15 PM, Blogger Dr. Homeslice said...

This is why I read your blog. Well put indeed.

At 9/12/06, 7:10 PM, Blogger Mrs. Bluebird said...

Once again I am reminded about how blessed I am to work in a building with outstanding administrators. Then again, I did put some time in (especially while subbing) with the losers.

At 9/12/06, 10:42 PM, Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

I will remmeber these great thoughts if ever I join the darkside. Once again, you show your brilliance--or at least your common sense!

At 9/16/06, 4:05 PM, Blogger Jim Connolly said...

Now that I have joined the dark side, I will endeavor to follow these very reasonable guidelines. I've had administrative models at both ends of the spectrum in my 9 years in the classroom (not quite the 10 the Queen decrees, but I hope she'll let it slide!) and have learned a great deal of what not to do as well what I must do.


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