Help Me to Help You

I was honored when Scott asked for my contribution to this series of posts on what teacher want from an administrator. It just so happens I have a thought or two on the subject. :-) My name is Adina Sullivan and I currently teach 4th grade about 1/2 hour north of San Diego, CA. I've taught at the elementary school level (K, 3, 3/4, 4) for 12 years. Prior to that I worked with adults for about 10 years, both in a corporate trainer capacity and as an adult literacy tutor and tutor trainer. At the elementary school level, I used to work in a predominantly middle-class school and now teach in a school where 90% of our families are low-income and 90% are English language learners. We've improved from a school labeled as "failing" to one that now meets state achievement levels. Much of that success can be contributed to positive leadership of a dedicated staff.

In this piece, I tried to include what I've seen work well, the opposite of what I've seen fail, and the dream of what I'd like to see. Before I really get into it, I want thank all administrators who strive to be the best and never forget they are still educators and not just managers.

What's Really Important

  • Stay in touch with the realities of the classroom. Visit a few classrooms each day and not just for performance reviews. I know this may not be popular with teachers who believe they should have free rein behind a closed door. Students and staff should see your presence as a natural occurrence. If they only see you for performance reviews or when there is a problem, it becomes a distraction and teachers are uncomfortable. When you do visit, take a moment to write even one sentence about what you noticed. Mention something positive. If there was something that didn't look right, as about it first. It may be that you saw it out of context. It it really is a problem, discuss it right away. Visit other schools in your area as well. It may help to provide some perspective.

  • Teach students periodically. I know one administrator (approx. 1,000 student school) who takes a small group for 1/2 hour each day. Another didn't understand why teachers were struggling with a particular group of students until she actually taught that group for 1/2 hour each day for a week. She was then better able to offer suggestions and make decisions about how we work with those small groups.

  • I believe both of the above apply even for those at the district office and university college of education level. "Ivory tower syndrome" is a terrible disease that can set in and results in teachers having less respect for your suggestions and frustration at top-down management decisions. The teaching environment is changing. The pressure I felt and teaching strategies I used 12 years ago are different from five years ago. Today is different still--dramatically different. I know you are busy, but how much impact is all your work having if teachers don't believe you know what you're talking about.
  • Just About as Important

    • Provide and support sustainable professional development opportunities and allow staff input on what and when.

    • Set high expectations, but no higher than you set for yourself.

    • There are times when a teacher is not performing well. If you've been making classroom visits, you can better recognize patterns for that teacher and won't be making judgments based only on test scores or a couple of performance reviews. Give that teacher concrete suggestions and a reasonable time to make adjustments. Demonstrate what you are asking him or her to do. Sometimes it's also appropriate to have them visit another classroom for examples. If this is the case, find out if it would be preferable to visit another school rather than a site colleague. If a teacher is doing genuine harm or is indifferent to making change, take action. Otherwise it's bad for morale and feeds into the argument that tenured teachers' jobs are guaranteed. Yes, it takes an effort. Sometimes it needs to be done.

    • Promote collaboration, not competition. Staff should be encouraged and given time to plan, create, and share together. Comparing teachers doesn't push any teacher I know to out-do someone else. It only breeds resentment.

    • Know why you are asking for something (technology, new programs, pedagogy changes, etc.). Popular doesn't always mean better. Sometimes it just means better salesmanship. Don't fall for bright shiny objects unless you have a clear view of how they not only support, but improve student learning. 

    • Be willing to admit you are wrong and allow for respectful disagreement. If you don't, you run the risk of either having your staff ignore you, or saying one thing to your face and another behind your back. I absolutely cannot stand when colleagues to do this, but I can see why they sometimes feel it's necessary.
    • And Don't Forget These

      • Make parents comfortable on campus and a valuable part of decision making without allowing them to take over. Decisions should never be made due to fear of how a parent will react because he/she didn't get their way.

      • Allow students to have meaningful input. They should be allowed to have at least some input on decisions in a place where they spend so much of their lives.

      • Honor my time. Staff meetings should be held to time limits and stick to agendas. We run our staff and grade-level meetings in a facilitation format. It has made a huge difference. If you've never had facilitation training, it's worth a little practice. In return, you should require that staff honor that time by actually focusing on the meeting and not holding side conversations or doing other work during that time.

      • Give credit for positive things that happen and take responsibility for the negative. Allow your staff to shine, and you will will shine as a result.

      • Be the biggest supporter of your school to the rest of the district and the community. Be willing to fight for what is right for your students and staff. Seek out grant opportunities. Be willing to stand up when a policy, procedure, or situation is not right. Stand up even when it isn't popular to do so.

      • Stay informed and read something new. Try reading a variety of books, blogs, magazines and research written from different points of view (other administrators, teachers, parents, students, etc.) You may not agree with all you read. Think critically about why.
      • Whew! It's a long list. You have hundreds of other items already on your to-do list. I truly believe though, that these ideas can go a long way toward making our schools positive, productive, and happy places for students, staff, parents, and you. We're in this together.

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