I have been a bit disenfranchised with data lately. I am not convinced it measures what it is supposed to measure. I am a bit freaked out by the data that Big Brother-esque companies like Apple, Facebook, and (it pains me to say) even Twitter use to manipulate what we consume in an effort to influence our hearts, our votes, and mostly our dollars. Yet, there is one piece of data that I know to be true; I’m convinced we must utilize it to make our schools better.
It comes from the guru of educational data, Robert Marzano. He points to the research that indicates that the single biggest influence on student achievement is the Teacher. That is why one of the most important responsibilities an administrator has is to make sure his/her Teachers know how important their job is and how much you care about them.
In education it is not about the positions, the programs, the materials, or the technology—it is about the people, their passion, their vision, their creativity, and, most of all, their desire to do right by kids. Those people are the Teachers.
Great leaders understand this and spend the time to ensure their Teachers feel appreciated so they can continue to be heros to our kids. Without Teachers, we can not hope to inspire and give our students the education they deserve. This does not mean accepting less than what kids deserve from the few bad apples all districts and schools inevitably have. It means prioritizing the Teachers and our relationships with them and realizing how important they are to students. When done right, teaching is one of the most challenging jobs in America.
How can we show these warriors just how important they are?
We need to praise them when they excel, pick them up when they are down, support them when they have a crazy new idea, and forgive them when they make a mistake so that they can be the best they can be for their students.
To say the role of Administrator is hectic is certainly an understatement, especially for the building Principal. It is commonplace for the Principal to have a lineup of Teachers outside his/her door, a docket of phone messages, students in crisis, and parents demanding to be seen—all before 9:00 AM! It is important to keep all of these balls in the air while maintaining a cool demeanor and keeping in mind the ultimate goal as an instructional leader: to make your school a better place for kids.
As crazy as your day is, leaders must remember that Teachers are the backbone of the school and they need your time, your attention, and, most importantly, they need to know that you care. Below are a few things I try to prioritize.
Sometimes You Need To Make Sacrifices
I always tried to keep this mind when I was a building Principal and continue to strive for that in my role as Assistant Superintendent. A story my good friend, Kelli, shared with me my first year as an administrator has stayed with me. She is a talented, self-contained Special Education Teacher. She gives her students the love they need, handles her own issues, and only goes to administration during the most dire situations.
One such situation occurred when she noticed one of her kids was in crisis. She went to her Principal and asked if she had a moment for her. The Principal responded by saying that she had just sat down for lunch and needed a few minutes so Kelli would have to wait. When I was first told this story I couldn’t believe that a Principal would dismiss a Teacher so easily.
After serving as a Principal for years, I have a better understanding of the Principal’s reaction. She more than likely had promised herself she would sit down and eat a civilized lunch and breathe for 15 minutes. Slowing down is healthy; we all should take the time to eat a civilized meal. That being said, the Principal damaged her relationship with an amazing Teacher and failed to prevent an issue that later ended up taking much more of her time.
Hearing that story early in my administrative career helped me have a better understanding of the position and what I was getting into. I was going to be a Principal and a Principal has to make sacrifices for the good of his/her school. It is smart to schedule time to breathe during the day. You should sit and chew and eat, but if you sign up to be Principal, you need to make sure no matter how tired, cranky, or stressed you may be, you have to be there for your Teachers so they can be there for your students.
Get To Know Your Teachers On A Different Level
We know that the most important part of effective schools is relationships. It is important for Teachers to see their students as more than a test score, a grade, or the school “mask” they wear to fit in with peers. The best Teachers get to know their students on a different level. They know their hopes, their dreams, their challenges, and their passions. The very best Teachers talk to their students one on one, go to their events outside of school, and even visit their homes.
We all know how important this is for our students, but we must not forget how important it is for Administrators to do this for their Teachers as well. I remember my first year as a Principal in a new school. The previous Principal had warned me about the bulldog building rep who wreaked havoc on her leadership and the building. I was never one to judge kids on their past or what other people thought of them so I certainly wasn’t going to fall into this trap with a Teacher.
When we first met he didn’t smile much, expressed that he was a bit distrustful of administration, and told me of his concerns with the lack of communication from my predecessor. We talked about how we could work together to make the school work for teachers and kids, but the discussion was a bit cold. That was until Sister Golden Hair by America came on the stereo in my office.
His eyes lit up as his head started to bob up and down with his full head of wavy, black hair swaying every which way. He seemed to catch himself when I asked if he liked music. He kinda smiled and said, “yeah I do and America is my favorite band.”
He was is his late forties at the time, but when he talked about music he could have passed for 25. I later found out he had a band; I made a point to go to one of his shows. When I heard in his melodic voice say, “I would like to thank my Principal, the best Principal I have ever had, for coming” in the middle of one of his sets I may have turned red, but I certainly felt pretty damn special!
That wasn’t the only Hurley Mountain Highway show I attended because they are an amazing band that plays great music, but also because I was able to build a special bond with not only my building rep, Ed, but all of the other teachers who followed his band. This “Wrecking Ball” turned out to be my partner in making our school a great place for kids. We also developed a friendship that I still value today.
It is so important to take the time to go the extra mile to get to know your staff. Get to know them as people, not just subjects areas and room numbers. A great leader knows his/her Teachers on a different level. Great leaders know what and who matters to his/her Teachers.
Some of the ways leaders can get to know their staff better:
- Know their kids, spouses, and other family member’s names
- Know when they have a birthday and recognize it
- Support their extra-curricular passions (like their band)
- Find time to talk about mutual interests
- Call or text them when they are sick or their family is not well
- Do all the little things that show you care; sometimes it is just checking in and saying hi.
Mark Barnes from Hack Learning suggests using a 360 chart for getting to know students. I found it to be a great tool to get to know my staff better, especially when you start in a new school.
Ask For Input
It is important for leaders to have a true understanding of what their teachers think and need. It is important to use a variety of means to gather this information. Surveys using Google Forms is one way to give everyone a voice, rather than just the squeaky wheels. Informal conversations are often even more valuable. The best leaders are out and about in their buildings. Living in the hallways and classrooms allows leaders to build relationships, foster trust, and allow for honest discussion that helps Principals get invaluable and honest information.
When you exchange information in this way teachers will have a greater understanding of your motivation and will more readily embrace the innovative change you are trying to implement; not to mention you can improve and build upon your ideas.
Be There When The Going Gets Tough
A few weeks ago I was having one of those days when it seems like you do not have enough time to get everything done. My mind was racing between topics, trying to prioritize and plan out my day to the minute so I could get close to finishing everything that needed to be done.
My mind was in overdrive when my Superintendent walked in and said, “let’s go.”
I looked at her in surprise; then I remembered that we had planned to attend a wake of the parent of one of our teachers. I told her I was considering skipping because I had so much to do. She didn’t say anything; she just gave me the eyes that said “get your A@# in the car, we are going.”
When I get that look I don’t argue—I just move my butt and do what she wants. My boss is the type of leader who knows best, knows what is important, and someone you don’t say no to, not only because she is the boss, but because you never want to disappoint her. I have learned from her and others that when the people you lead—the people you care about—are going through a tough time, you need to be there for them.
Every day is busy, there is always more to do, but no one will remember that you got that email out on time or how nice your newsletter turned out. What they will remember is you being there for them when they needed you most. It may be a wake, it may be a kind word, a phone call, it may even mean understanding that they may not be at their best for a little while, but great leaders prioritize their staff and support them when they are facing their toughest times. They will not forget it—neither should you.
Be Honest When Teachers Don’t Meet Expectations
One of the most difficult, yet most effective ways to let your Teachers know you care is to let them know when they haven’t lived up to your expectations and, more importantly, the ones they have for themselves or should have for themselves. No one likes to hear they could have done better, especially Teachers.
Yet, when these conversations are held compassionately, honestly, with respect, and with the best of intentions, they can help to develop a mutual respect and bond, a bond that can only be developed when two parties with the same passion, work together to get closer to their goal. I have met very few Teachers who do not want to get better, who do not want what’s best for kids, and/or who will not respect you for the courage to speak to them frankly in an effort to make them better. As for those people who don’t want that, I do not want on my team or in the field of education for that matter. Therefore, I really don’t care if I offend them.
Appreciate All That Your Teachers Do
Despite what some people not in the field may think, teaching is not an easy job. Teaching is such a huge responsibility. Our best Teachers have a lasting impact on students and, in turn, our society. As Todd Whitaker says “The best part of teaching is that it matters, the hardest part is that it matters everyday”
That is an immense burden. As leaders we must not forget how heavy that burden can be. It is essential that we let our Teachers know how important they are and how much we appreciate all they do. It is easy to forget how much the best Teachers give to our students and our schools. When we take the time to show our appreciation for all that they do, it makes for happier and better teachers that make schools a better place for kids.
Some strategies to show Teachers you care:
- Send a positive email after seeing something great in their class.
- Craft a letter for their file when they help plan and organize a school event.
- Send them a text letting them know how well they presented at a meeting.
- Announce their great accomplishment of over the PA. ( Be careful with this as some teachers do not like to be called out in this way)
- Stop by their class to let them know how respected they are in the school.
- When you see them with their family make a point to let their loved ones know what a great educator they are.
- Put a handwritten note giving them a compliment in their mailbox.
I pride myself in being a “kids first” educator. If you ask me to make a decision based on what is best for kids or what is best for adults, I will pick the kids every time. This is not a philosophy that I ever shy away from or am embarrassed about.
That being said, an educational leader I respect a great deal, Amaris Scalia, has reminded me often that we can not forget our Teachers and how important they are. In fact, as the research indicates, they are the most important variable. The best leaders do everything to let their Teachers know just how important and special they are. When we do that as leaders our schools become happier, healthier places where our students can thrive.