Mind the Gap

post-4683-0-89462200-1402415014Pernille Ripp published this great challenge for administrators recently in which she addressed the gap that often exists between teachers and administrators head on.

Her entire post is powerful and has stuck with me over the past few days. It has had me thinking about a few changes that could have a profound impact on the trust between administrators and teachers in so many of our schools.

Our words build and destroy trust

Certain conversations have settled in as commonplace in education. In her post, Pernille put it this way:

From the poor jokes about going to the dark side to the hushed conversations behind closed doors discussing the latest admin “screw up,” it seems that there is an invisible mountain between teachers and administration that both sides don’t understand the origin of.

This is a situation where many people will look at that, think to themselves that there must be a better way, and not take the time to decide to do something different. We’re crazy if we think we can keep having those thoughts and conversations and expect something different as a result.

I’ve written before about the great care we should take to build others up with our words. If we want a change in the gap, we need a different story. Instead of thinking of and talking about people “going to the dark side,” we need leaders who will be so committed to bringing light that there’s no room for the previous belief. Administrators—commit to being great teachers of teachers who will support teachers when they need it and who will positively lead the campus with excellence.

In addition, we need teachers who will squelch the old story when it comes up (and it will come up). Replace these tired stories with stories of success. During those times when there just isn’t as much (or anything for you) to be positive about, having those landmarks to go back to will be reassuring.

Communicating our mutual trust

There are some assumptions on both sides that can inhibit trust. This won’t solve all of the problems between administrators and teachers, but if we could only correct one assumption, this would by my suggestion: Assume that people are doing the best that they know how.

This includes the idea that my principal may be showing me trust the best way he/she knows how. Be that as it may, how do we work through the gaps in our mutual understanding? Here’s a couple of ideas.

Administrators–Start the year by asking teachers what they feel good at, what they are working to get better at, and how they prefer praise and your attention. Then, make it your job to get them excited about taking on that new challenge. Get to know your teachers, and know the best ways to show your support for them. It can be both incredibly encouraging to have an administrator’s ear and a little terrifying to think you may have just invited that administrator to the riskiest thing you tried in years in your classroom. Know your audience before you show up on a risky day for teachers. The right support fans the flames of creativity. The wrong support is like a fire blanket for innovative ideas.

If it seems like one of your teachers who you can tell is doing a good job doesn’t know it, go out of your way to fix that. Tell that teacher what you love that you’ve seen and ask him or her what you can do to offer support. Maybe it’s time the teacher needs, maybe it’s a thank you note for the extra hours you see the teacher put in or the way that teacher cares for students; whatever it is, there is something you can do to champion and celebrate that teacher. Do it. I don’t know how isn’t good enough.

My only word for teachers here: If you have very specific expectations for your administrator, you should make those in a very specific way. As an administrator, it’s helpful to know those things, and it gives me a way to know that I’m going to meet that need. I’m just one administrator, but I appreciate it.

Is there anybody out there?

Pernille’s blog got me fired up—but not in a defensive way. It got me excited because I hope that I’m working to be an administrator who interacts with staff in a way that these questions don’t come up. Or maybe if they come up (like by people who are new to the campus or the district), people are reassured by campus veterans that risk taking, transparency, trust, and support are all part of campus culture.

So, to Pernille and to all the other teachers who are exhausting themselves to push students to learn, first of all–thank you. Your work makes schools the place where students love to learn, where they know they feel safe, and where they know they’re loved. There are administrators who want what you want, and I hope they are leading your schools.

To administrators, let’s make this happen. If you agree that change needs to happen, start thinking of what you’re going to do differently to make that change reality. It can happen, and as a labeled leader on your campus, I think it’s your responsibility to start the conversation.

2 Replies to “Mind the Gap”

  1. As a classroom teacher of twenty years I’ve experienced a taste of the admin plate when I ran our WASC accreditation process twice. (It’s a two year process culminating in a 200 page report)

    Here is what I would like to tell admins, especially new admins:

    1. Pick ONE flag pole issue that comes from your heart and let that be the focus of your year or tenure: http://thereadinessisall.com/2013/03/02/hey-principals-want-to-be-great-answer-this-question-correctly
    2. Be transparent, if not to the whole staff, at least to key staff members.
    3. Find ways of rewarding the teachers and staff who make your life easier.
    4. As you state in your article, catch teachers doing “good work” and leave notes. I’ll run through a brick wall after reading a good admin thank you note.
    5. Don’t be perfunctory or phony with “shared decision making.” Ask for advice before making decisions and then make the tough decisions, don’t pull together a phony study committee and make them the scapegoats for a new project or direction in your school, most teachers admire an administrator who is willing to make some waves even if it will ruffle the feathers of a few noisy complainers.

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