I’m just going to say it: Administrators forget that teachers are human.
Now in my fifteenth year as an educator in the public sector, I am preparing to say goodbye to my 19th administrator. The difference this time is that I’m the one who is leaving. I have spent the entirety of my career thus far serving families of the same urban community. I have seen my middle school students grow from gangly adolescents to sure-footed, college-bound graduates. Some have returned to visit on Back to School Night or during Open House, others have come back in place of parents during conferences regarding their siblings. I am familiar with the grown-ups who frequent the front office on behalf of their children. I will miss them.
Knowing that I won’t get to see my current seventh graders in their final year of middle school genuinely hurts my sentimental heart. I know they won’t be lost without me, that there are other caring and capable educators who will see them through to the end. But I won’t be there, and I resent that it’s because I had to choose between enduring the mental and emotional toll of disrespect from my principal, or the freedom of a fresh start someplace new.
I tried to stick it out, given the high turnover rate of administrators in our district, but this one seems to be in it for the long haul, which means I am not.
Before I trade in my keys for a new set in a different zip code, I feel compelled to share a few words from the heart with future game-changers in educational leadership.
Take it from a teacher who’s been around long enough to know what spurs a faculty onward to achievement, and what it feels like to be undervalued and oppressed.
There is an endless list of ways to make faculty and staff feel seen. These five are a good place to begin.
Let’s not pretend that school is the same as it was when we were kids. Sure, teachers still greet us with smiles and thematic dress on spirit days, we stand for the pledge of allegiance, and students still clamor for that shiny gold star of approval.
But this is the facade of normalcy. Because while our eyes scan the trace of a student’s pencil in loops on a page our ears listen for gunshots. We wonder if the door lock is engaged, how quickly we can huddle in a corner. We might not need to perform these acts, but we are prepared to, nevertheless.
We are scared. Hearing from an administrator that our presence is valued would mean so much. Words of appreciation won’t change the course of the world, but it can change the tone of a classroom, so it’s a start.
Teacher Appreciation Day (or even a week) isn’t enough to cut it. As an educational leader, please make it a point to let your faculty know that you are glad to have them there. Make it personal.
Go beyond acknowledging the entire department. Shining a spotlight on the entire Language Arts department glosses over your duty of praise. This is when it’s definitely okay to single out a staff member.
“Great job on those test scores, Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Jones, your students have been talking about the book you’re reading while they play on the blacktop. Great job keeping them engaged!”
If acknowledgement and praise are easy for you to forget, choose three teachers a day, write their names in your calendar, set reminders on your phone, and rotate that list so everyone feels seen.
Our job as educators is to teach the future of America to think critically, to read analytically, to compute the equations that will one day become novels, bills signed into law, skyline-shaping architecture.
We work toward these goals as a team on a daily basis, and though we acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of each teacher on campus, it is of utmost importance that you celebrate what teachers achieve in their personal lives too.
Why? Because teachers are people. We can lose ourselves in our job, and too often administrators allow it when they absolutely should not.
I know that the many tasks of an educational leader will overwhelm you at times, but will you promise to keep one thing a priority? Congratulate your teachers on their personal success. You don’t need to be best friends with every faculty member – gosh, you don’t even have to like them – but you do have to act like you respect them.
One way to communicate this is by asking about something specific in their life. In education, you won’t be hard-pressed to find someone working on their master’s degree, making plans for a holiday break, or welcoming a new baby or beloved into their family. Ask them about it. Even if the conversation is a brief two minutes long, it will make a difference in your relationship with the faculty or staff member, and thus their performance at work. Take it a step further by announcing staff accomplishments during staff meetings or in a weekly email.
People thrive at work when those they work beside care about them and act on it. A simple (yet personal) atta girl is an investment with long-lasting benefits.
3. Be Neutral
Don’t play favorites.
People will know who they are – like those with the dream schedules with the honors classes they aren’t qualified to teach, who get to sneak out two minutes before the last bell of the day while you conveniently look the other way, the same teachers who are given yesses when everyone else is given a no, the people who are chosen to serve on committees year after year to cultivate an agenda that blocks diverse thought.
It’s a bad look that eliminates any trust the remaining faculty have in you and their colleagues.
Don’t be the administrator who treats teachers like their presence should be smaller and depending on the language of a contract, can become an issue between administration and the teachers’ union. Do be the administrator who can find friends at work but treats them with neutrality while on campus.
4. Be Present
This one is pretty simple: Show up, physically.
There will be times as an administrator when it feels like the purpose of your job is to dole out consequences to students who have made poor choices, which is why it is important to set aside time to make appearances in each classroom multiple times throughout the year. You don’t need a negative referral or a request for help from a teacher in order for you to walk in the door. So do it.
Show up. Smile. Ask the kids what they are learning. Ask the teacher how it’s going. Crack a corny joke. Smile and nod, give a thumbs up, and be on your way.
In the past four years, my classroom has been casually visited by administration a whopping three times.
The difference it makes for students and faculty to see an educational leader without it being about the threat of consequence is monumental.
It sets a tone of familiarity, it gives an ease to the teachers and students alike, knowing that everyone might have a different role to play but they are all working toward related goals.
5. Put the Teacher First... Well, Second
If you were tasked with ranking a hierarchy of leadership at your school, who would be on top? You’re spot on if it looks like this:
Hear me out: Effective administrators are those who are servant leaders.
Though they are the leaders, they do so by serving their faculty and staff genuinely and sacrificially. Their goal is to do what it takes to make the jobs of teaching as smooth as possible. Second from the top is the teacher who serves their students who sit at the top of the pyramid. As teachers, we need to meet our students where they are then set repeated examples of what they need to know along the educational journey.
Everything in education should be done because it’s in the best interest of the student. The teacher is the closest to the students, both physically in the classroom and emotionally, as we spend the most time with them throughout their education. For a teacher to do their best work with the students, they need to have whatever support they need from their administrators. Educational leadership is truly about doing what it takes to create sustainable success. Serving the teachers so they can reciprocate by serving the students is what will allow that to happen.