What I like about you: What teachers need from administrators (Day 2)

Scott McLeod asked a bunch of teachers, me among them, to write about what they thought teachers needed from an administrator. What are my qualifications for this task other than having a big mouth, and a modestly popular teacher blog? Well, I've seen a lot of administrators in my day. To start, until this year, I've changed jobs or sites every three years. Before that, I spent my first year with my own classroom at a year-round school working with four different principals (yeah, it was that kind of year, and that kind of place). I started my career substitute teaching, so I saw a lot of different schools with a lot of different administrators. I have only ever worked in urban, Title One schools, so my advice skews towards that demographic. In addition, the school I've taught at the last three years (and I am returning to) is currently being reformed using a "transformation" model (50% new, 50% existing staff) for being "persistently failing".

Here is the wisdom that I've gleaned from that experience; moderation in most things will not only save your sanity as an administrator, but make you a better boss for your teachers. Now that's a pretty general, and potentially banal, bit of advice. Most administrators I've worked for are concrete thinkers and those types maybe wondering, "What the heck?" So I'll try to explain this in a little more detail with examples that could come from your life.

Let's start off with a task of being an instructional leader. This is frequently invoked, but a not always seen skill in administrators. My experience is solely in elementary, so most of what I'm going to talk about pertains to that, but there are points that apply at all levels. First, if you want to see the kids do it, and the teachers do it, you need to be able to do whatever that "it" is as well. Somewhere in my state, I'd rather not say where, there was an administrator in charge of Language Arts curriculum. This administrator did not have a background in this subject at all (they had taught Home Economics), but much worse than that, they once said something along the lines of, "I really hate to do writing, and I always have." Not surprisingly, this administrator pushed a program that was highly scripted and demanded teachers practice "program fidelity" (following the teachers' edition and pacing guide religiously). I'm sure this approach seemed reasonable to someone with both no background, but also no interest in the subject they were in charge of. My current, and brand new, administrator has attended all of the trainings we've had this summer, including ones on writing, and has participated in them actively. This not only sets the tone, it tells us he knows what we will be doing and what to expect from us.

This story brings me to my next point, workers who have a greater sense of control and efficacy about their work are happier and less stressed. Give me options and treat me as a professional. Good teaching requires constant monitoring and ADJUSTMENT and children will not learn without it. If fidelity to the program is something you can't live without I'm going to suggest a new career, something like accounting or regulatory compliance--where rule adherence is a positive attribute--because you should not be working with children. What can this look like? Larry Ferlazzo's post about how his school is working with the California Writing Project is good example. In talking to Larry, and his principal, Ted Appel, I found out that this project started at staff request, and is sustained by staff efforts. They like the program, and are willing participants because of the control and success they feel. Even as my site is undergoing some pretty extreme reforms, I can see my administrator looking for opportunities to give staff choices and the opportunities to come up with their own approaches, and offering these to teachers.

While you give control to staff, it is important that someone be in charge. Most work staffs (and not just in teaching) have their own anthropology, and we can be a little crazy with the usual mix of personality disorders, and control freaks. Just like teachers need to make the classroom safe for kids, you need to make sure that those crucial and courageous conversations are not just an excuse for bullying by certain staff members. Also, you need to realize that you, and your staff, cannot do it all. Be focused, and set limits on your time and efforts, and help your staff to develop this as well. My school is heading into a process that could be overwhelming, transforming a "failing" school. The new administrator has asked us explicitly to be careful about over-committing and taking on too many tasks. This contrasts with other administrators I have known who demanded staffs do it all. To sum things up, give your staff as much control as they need, and can handle (i.e. don't "over-delegate" because their first priority needs to be teaching).

Here is my final point; do unto me, as you would have me do unto you. Let's talk about lying (I know, I just dive right in, don't I?) I bring this up because in the slew of recent trainings I've had to attend as part of my school being reformed, an administrator (not one at my site) shared a story (which he said was okay for public consumption and occurred in another district) about how he had moved up from being a teacher to being an administrator. He had friends among the teachers that he was now supervising. One of his friends lied to him. Like most teacher lies, it was stupid because what he was lying about something would not have gotten him fired. So he risked a friendship, and his professional "honor" for something that wasn't even going to put his job in danger.

What's the lesson for administrators? If you have a teacher who lies about something that isn't a career-ender (e.g., "I warned the kid 3 times" when they didn't, "I called the parent and left a message" when they didn't) use this as a teachable moment (as the administrator who told me the story did). If a number of staff members are lying to you then you have to ask yourself, are they scared to tell you the truth, or have you have set a standard that lying is acceptable by doing so yourself? If you are a practitioner of lying, even on an occasional basis, you need to stop it now for your own professional health and the health of your school. Don't lie to your staff. Don't lie to the students. Don't lie to the parents. You can say, "I can't answer that," or "I don't know", but if you don't want people lying to you (or not trusting you) don't lie. I know this seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many administrators out there think it's okay to fib to the kids, lie to parents, and bs their staff.

So these are my "rules" for being my BAA (Best Administrator Always): to be a curriculum leader, you need to know curriculum; give your teachers control--but stay in charge and keep things focused; and don't lie and don't let your staff get in lying habits.

Now most of this is about site administrators, such as principals, and is not so much about central office administrators (except for Ms. Fidelity to the Program who didn't like to write). I'll tell you why, because it's a good lesson for those of you heading towards that type of job. I haven't seen many central office administrators around at the school sites I've worked at until recently (when we got a new Superintendent). I once asked a teacher who had "bumped" back down to a classroom position why we never saw folks from the central admin office at our school site. "We were too busy working on projects, " was her answer. So they basically spent all day writing reports, and going to meetings. When they wanted to "talk to the sites" they called the administrator up to listen to them. All the communication was coming down the org chart, and everyone was "looking" up to see what was going on, and what to do. This is part of the reason why my school is in the lowest 5% of performance on state tests, and had to be reformed. We had members of the school board visiting more often than central office administrators. We had the State Superintendent of Instruction spend more minutes on our campus than some of our Associate Superintendents. I'll spell it out for those of you who haven't figured out the lesson. If you are a central office administrator, you need to go out to the school sites on a regular basis to really find out what is going on. Reading test scores, and getting reports from site administrators will not take care of your job for you. If you aren't spending time at school sites, you are not doing your job.

Photo Credit: I'll Give You All I Can on Flickr

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.