From her point of view, English language arts teacher Annette Christiansen tells principals what they can do in order to improve next year’s learning environment.
This article originally appeared in Education Week Teacher as part of a publishing partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality. Reprinted with permission from the author.
As soon as the last bell of the school year sounds, educators begin reinventing themselves. So principals, while you are enjoying the quiet that only comes when both teachers and students are out, consider some things you can do right now to make teachers’ lives (and by extension, your own) easier.
Let’s break down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to help guide your path to developing a highly effective building:
1. Build Relationships
Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Nothing positive will happen in your school without building relationships. School leaders are working with people after all, not widgets. Look to develop “Love/Belonging” and “Esteem” in all your interactions.
Cognitive coaching is a method that helps facilitate self-reflection and problem-solving qualities that can strengthen interpersonal relationships. While I encourage you to study the whole program, I’ve included some quick and easy examples that you can implement immediately. Consistently following these strategies will help you demonstrate your role to teachers as an instructional leader.
- Teacher picks an important, achievable, measurable goal.
- Principal observes instruction on day(s) of teacher’s choice and records data.
- Teacher and principal review data and debrief.
Let’s say the teacher wants to ask more high-level questions of their students during a discussion. The principal would observe the class and merely keep track of how often the teacher asks these types of questions. The principal and teacher would then meet and the principal would ask the teacher to reflect on how many questions they felt were asked and how the teacher felt overall about the lesson. The principal would then show the data and guide the teacher into reflection on things that went well and co-create a plan for improvement.
This would not replace the formal evaluation process; instead, it would help build a collaborative environment and go a long way in establishing the trust, honesty, and respect necessary for an effective school. Teachers are often scared when the principal steps in the room. Take the fear away, and real improvement can occur.
2. Create Culture
According to the book Leverage Leadership, there are two major components of any school culture—staff members and students. Both groups need to work efficiently in order for your school to function at its highest potential. You must lead by example.
The focus of your school is learning, and anything that interferes with that learning environment should not be tolerated. If things have gotten out of hand, pick a manageable change that will have a real impact on classroom instruction. Take on an “all hands on deck” approach by having staff agree to the culture goal and implementation plan and then execute it on Day 1. Use the chart below as a template for your school’s plan. Be sure to include all stakeholders in the planning.
3. Develop Leaders
The topmost attribute of the Hierarchy of Needs is self-actualization. Teachers must be given opportunities to grow professionally in order to prevent stagnation. Everyone is important to the team, and each person should be given opportunities to develop their talents and interests.
Delegation will not only save your sanity—it is important for the growth of your staff. Since you have already built relationships, you should be able to think of small projects and bigger opportunities that will help people feel needed. Have staff suggest projects and recruit others so that people have more buy-in.
4. Stand in the Gap
The teaching profession is under attack. Media soundbites and political platforms are demoralizing and damaging to educators. Parents and students are more confrontational than ever. Educators have suddenly become responsible for all of the ills of society, and they are leaving the profession in droves.
Now more than ever, we need to support one another. This is especially true for administrators. Support your teachers in doing the right thing and avoiding common errors.
- Don’t allow a “divide and conquer” environment. Don’t be the pushover parent whose children run to you every time they don’t like something the other parent tells them to do. Make sure your counselors know this too and work with the teacher to help the child. Work with—not against—your teachers.
- If you disagree with the decision of a teacher, allow the teacher to “save face.” We all lose it sometimes and overreact or handle situations poorly. Discuss your concerns with the teacher and try to come to consensus. Then allow the teacher the option of telling the student they changed their mind, rather than swooping in and making the teacher look foolish.
- Enforce the “chain of command.” When it directly relates to the teacher, do not allow parents to discuss an issue with you or even a counselor without first discussing it with the teacher. If you are in a high school, empower students to self-advocate. Tell parents that the student should discuss the issue with their teacher before involving a parent.
Few things will create more animosity among a staff than feeling disrespected. Making sure your teachers feel supported and part of a team will go a long; we are in this together. Make sure your teachers know you are on their team.
5. Admit Defeat
You start each day with a plan, but plans can be thwarted when three teachers suddenly fall sick from bad tuna salad at the staff potluck with no one to sub for them or any number of other unplanned scenarios.
It’s time to admit you can’t do it all. Your teachers have bad days, so why can’t you? It’s days like these that you need your team more than ever.
If you’ve already built strong relationships, it will be easy to apologize for missing a discussion one of your teachers wanted you to observe. You’ve created a culture that prevents as many unplanned student interruptions as possible. Your teacher leaders can step in to help everything run smoothly while you deal with a crisis. As you’ve stood in the trenches for them many times, these same teachers will step up to support you when needed.
As the leader of your building, much like the conductor of an orchestra, it is your responsibility to make sure that everyone is working to his or her maximum potential to serve our students. You have an incredibly important job. Thank you for stepping up to the challenge.