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

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Tips for new administrators (or any bosses who want some honest feedback)

Summer's lease hath all too short a date... and that saying carries extra poignancy in the NCLB-era. I don't know about you, but since the passage of No Child Left Behind, the state in which I live has moved back the starting time for the school year by nearly three weeks so that we have more time with students before the all-important tests and the assessment of Adequate Yearly Progress began shooting skyward like a Saturn-V rocket. 'Tis a brave soul indeed who is willing to wade into the area of administration in this day and age. 'Ats off to ya, guv'nah!

So after several requests, I am here offering suggestions for administrators to go along with my post of suggestions for new teachers. Suggestions from others are always welcome and will be included, so this post will be revised as we go along. Call it "The Carnival of Administration!" So, since my first suggestion has to do with not wasting time, let's get right on with it.

1. Have meetings only if you have something to say. Holding meetings for the sake of holding meetings, or to show the higher-ups that you hold regular meetings, wastes valuable time for everyone. This is especially important in the days before the school year actually starts. Teachers are trying to get their classrooms ready-- sometimes after the summer maintenance staff has broken or misplaced half of their belongings-- and the last thing they need is for you to read a Powerpoint presentation to them like they are preschoolers.

And how do you find something to say? Walk out amongst us, into the school, into the classroom, into the hallways. Stay current on what's going on in education. Ask people what they need and what they think. Then take that seriously.

2. Telling a room full of people you appreciate them is very nice indeed. Telling five individuals on your staff you appreciate something specific they have done is far nicer.

Of course it requires more work, not to mention attention to detail. But consider what you ask your teachers and staff to do in the course of every school day. This can be done. It SHOULD be done. And it shouldn't be done just to people who hang around your office. This behavior also shows that you know what is going on in the classrooms and hallways.

3. Especially if you are new to a district or to a building, decide on three to five things you want to change. State the change you want to accomplish in manageable, measurable terms. Then do everything you can to help make the change happen. Nothing is more maddening than for an administrator to emerge from her office as if awakening from hibernation, blinking against the glare of the light, and then sally forth through the building at full speed, dropping commands like scented hankies in Scarlett O'Hara's wake. After all, tomorrow IS another day.

Pick which things are really important to you. You don't have to change everything overnight, even if you are walking into the loosest ship in the fleet. People need to feel that they are successful at adjusting to a new leader's way of doing things. A never-ending list of demands makes your staff feel as if they can never accomplish what you want, and they can never make you happy. If this happens, they will either eventually a) subside into a sullen, mutinous silence in your presence if you are lucky, or, b) erupt into loud, openly mutinous displeasure and write you off as a crazed Captain Queeg.

And by the way, you should watch the following films for instructional purposes on what NOT to do: The Caine Mutiny, Mr. Roberts, and Office Space, especially if you don't know who Captain Queeg is.

4. Hold all teachers (and students) to the same standards. If you decide that ending tardiness is one of your priorities, and then you let one teacher make kids late routinely, you will not only erode your chances of changing the problem of tardiness, you will erode your chances of making the staff believe in any other changes you want to make.

5. Know the behavior guide. If there are rules in there you will not enforce, get rid of them. Then follow the behavior guide when dealing with discipline. And enforce it with all students.

6. If you are new, you will have a treasure bank of goodwill from which to draw. You can build on this to accomplish great things by being proactive, by being groundedly optimistic, by listening attentively, by adopting an attitude of cooperation. You only get one chance to make a first impression, but you can ruin your reputation over and over.

7. Just as the best teachers get the students to help manage the classroom and encourage a classroom emphasis on learning, the best administrators get teachers to help make their jobs easier by feeling actively involved in the operation of the school and knowing that their contributions are valued. In a well run school, administrators don't even have to think of micromanaging. Look for the teachers who not only love the kids but who make the kids work. Cultivate these as your advisors and "go-to" people. Be wary of sycophants. Realize that we are all pulling together. If we don't, we'll never get anywhere. Much less at ramming speed.

8. Purge the following sayings from your vocabulary. Actually, don't even think them:
"Bring 'em on!"
"It's my way or the highway."
"Make my day."
"I'm the decider."
"It's not about the teaching."
"Let them eat cake!"
"Do as I say, not as I do."

9. Keep the lines of communication open. Keep the office door open. Answer emails promptly. Seek feedback. Return phone calls.

Make eye contact when a staff member is speaking to you. We know when you're reading your email instead of listening, even if it's over the phone.

If the only time you ever speak to teachers is when you want to correct them, you have a problem.

9a. Never spend the day speaking only to other administrators. Do not allow administrators to stand in a huddle in the hallways ignoring what is going on around them. Don't erect an impenetrable barricade through the strategic use of a secretary or voicemail. A defensive posture is NEVER a winning posture.

10. Mundane things can make you look really smart:
Have someone proofread any written communication that is issued from your office to the staff, and especially that which will go out into the community.
Never promise to provide anything until you already have it on hand.
Before meetings, make sure there are working batteries in the microphone and in the remote.
Try to provide sustenance on Open House or Conference nights-- calorically and emotionally.
Have a sense of humor about yourself. Laugh! Helping kids learn is a joy!
Don't have nicer furniture than your teachers, and then claim that you understand our hardships.

11. Know what you are asking your teachers to do. Know the general socioeconomic background of the school population. At the end of the day, we are people who haven't had five minutes to call our own all day. Recognize that. Give us five minutes to go to the can and stretch out the kinks before starting the after school staff meeting.

12. Ultimately, it IS about the teaching. That is the thing you are there to enable. It's not about the budget, or about the football team, or about enlarging your kingdom or moving up to superintendent.

13. Finally, if you didn't like teaching, or if you weren't good at it, for God's sake, don't become an administrator!!!!! And especially, never, never allow yourself to be afraid of a student.

Enjoy the school year!

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At 8/25/08, 7:16 AM, Blogger Mrs. Chili said...

None of these suggestions is unattainable or unreasonable. In fact, they're really very common-sense. Too bad that they have to be spelled out like this, though; I know of precious few administrators who would be able to cop to more than a few of these...

At 8/25/08, 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They moved your starting time back to give you more time before the test.

In Texas, were this testing insanity started, they have move the starting time forward giving us less time before the test.

In Texas school traditionally started in mid August. Now we start the last week - for a very sound education reason /sarcasm.

Seems the tourist industry was losing its cheap HS labor so they had to move the start date.

At 8/26/08, 5:36 PM, Blogger Mamacita (The REAL one) said...

EXCELLENT! There's nothing else to say. Simply EXCELLENT.

You rock.

At 8/26/08, 8:59 PM, Blogger Anna Rickert said...

Great tips! Number thirteen should be number one in importance.

At 8/27/08, 3:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Again, I may pass this on to the Teacher-In-Training at our house.

Can I add a couple?

- Never say in an email what you wouldn't say to a staff member's face. That's a good rule for all adult humans, but folks in ivory towers seem to forget that emails can be printed, forwarded, passed around, posted on bulletin boards, and attached to grievances.

- If your school has a dress code for students, enforce it. Consistently. For all students.

And use the same standards for teachers. I'm sick of male colleagues who come to work looking like they have come to cut the grass or go fishing, and I am tired of looking at the belly buttons and/or cleavage of female teachers whose tops ride up or hang down in a way that would get them written up if they were female students.

Hope you and all the educators who visit here have a happy, healthy, successful, and safe school year!

At 8/28/08, 10:05 PM, Blogger Dan Edwards said...

Very nice. You said almost all of it. MsChili above mentions "common sense". I try to make it a point to ask anyone I encounter who is in "Educational Administration" training to try hard to identify the point of their indoctrination where their common sense becomes a thing of the past.......


At 8/30/08, 4:59 PM, Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

This is a great list!! I have a principal who breaks every rule on this list and a new assistant principal who seems to epitomize this list. I can tell you who the staff members respect more, but I think you could probably figure it out on your own.

At 9/1/08, 2:30 PM, Blogger Fred said...

Sometimes I wonder how some of the administrators ever taught.

At 9/2/08, 2:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great list. I will share it with some administrators I know.

At 9/2/08, 6:30 PM, Blogger David Foster said...

Pretty good stuff. A few additions:

1)Don't just watch "Caine Mutiny," read the book, which is deeper in ways relevant to managers/administrators.

2)Read Peter Drucker, particularly his early works on management.

3)Be ready to set an example at the right moment: see this story about George Westinghouse for an example of how it can be done.

At 9/3/08, 12:07 AM, Blogger SpeakerSue said...

#1,2, 9 and 12 for all person-kind. Can you print up bumper stickers please? Kind of like when we see 13.1 and you know the driver of the car ran a half-marathon? I want 1,2, 9 and 12! You rock! Wish I would have learned from you when I was teaching 7th and 8th grade!
SpeakerSue www.SpeakerSue.com

At 9/5/08, 8:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely concur with you regarding mindless staff development. When will administrators allow teachers the freedom to work in their classrooms all day? If any of you are interested in reforming the teaching profession for real, please join the American Education Association, read my books Smart Kids, Bad Schools and The $100,000 Teacher and let's work together on truly changing things.

At 9/12/08, 12:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this blog! Administrators are mind-blowing sometimes. I had a principal who told me, "Don't bother with these knuckleheads. They're not going anywhere." We taught at-risk students in an inner-city school. I loved my job, and my students. But the administration was so abusive that it created additional stress to an already stressful job. I dealt with gangs, drugs, a riot, shootings, murdered students, abusive principals. It got to be a bit much!! Due to the lack of "support" from administration, the turnover rate of our teachers was about 90%. I wrote a book about the joys I experienced teaching, and the obstacles I fought. NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND? THE TRUE STORY OF A TEACHER'S QUEST by Elizabeth Blake, on Amazon.com. It's referred to as 'the Up the Down Staircase of the 21st century.'


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