Bias alert: I am a teacher. Because I am a teacher, it grates hard on me when I read and see so much media devoted to the idea that our public schools would effectively serve their communities, that student learning would skyrocket, that America, that beacon of achievement and innovation, would once again lead the world in education if not for all those bad teachers out there ruining our public school system. Just type the words “Ineffective Teachers” into Google and, in less than half a second, Google will find 6,180,000 results for your perusal. This conventional wisdom has taken such hold in the American consciousness that students in California have sued their state over ineffective teaching. The goal of this lawsuit is to strip California’s teachers of their right to tenure and other collectively bargained protections. A few years back, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pushed through budget cuts and legislation that did away with those kinds of teacher protections in his state with the flourishes of his own signature. Republicans everywhere hailed this move as righteous blow against the evil unions protecting an army of bad teachers from further eroding our public education system.
What is often lost in this discussion, however, is the role poor school administration plays in diminishing the level of success our public school students can achieve. In fact, when I conducted a Google search for “Ineffective Principals”, the results that came back were a fraction of my previous search-only 1,080,000. With that in mind, I have decided to write an open letter to school district and campus administrators everywhere. Here it is:
“Dear School Administrator,
I hope your academic year has been uneventful and productive so as to keep the school board of trustees happy and your job secure. However, I doubt that is the case, since there is a cancer eating away at the effectiveness of our public school system, a problem so devious and subtle it has been overlooked by the majority of media outlets, university programs, and, yes, school administrators themselves. Overlooked because the problem is you. You have failed. You have failed in leading your districts and the communities they serve. You have failed in improving the schools under your care. Worst of all, you have failed your students.
I know, I know school principals are saddled with ineffective teachers, and you’re only one person. “You don’t know the kinds of things teachers do” you say? I’ve taught for 15 years, so, yeah, I do know the kinds of things teachers do. Some of those things horrify me. I’ve even seen a few teachers taken out of class in handcuffs. By the police. For being criminals. I’ve taught with teachers who showed up drunk to school in the morning and got even more drunk as the day passed. I’ve known teachers who abused their students in more ways than one. And I’ve seen how you deal with those teachers. They get fired, suspended, sued, then fired again for good measure. All for good reason. But there’s one thing I’ve never seen an administrator do–not an assistant principal, principal, director, or superintendent. In 15 years, I’ve never seen a single one of you take the blame for your school’s problems or heard you say, “I was wrong.”
So I have a few questions for you to think about:
1. Why are you an administrator?
There is only one right answer to this question, so take your time. Any other answer shows what you’re really about, and it’s not good. Have you guessed it yet? Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s all about students. Most of you got that right. Until you really examined why you do this job called “principal” or “director” or “superintendent”. Until you were really honest with yourself. A little honest introspection would reveal that a lot, maybe more than a lot, of school administrators are in these leadership positions out of ambition, ego, or the desire to influence the important people in their communities. Granted, some healthy self-confidence remains absolutely essential to your job. It’s hard out there for a school administrator. But if you simply want to rise in the ranks of your district’s leadership, using each campus in your charge as a stepping stone to a higher office, do us all a favor. Get another job, preferably in the private sector. They like that sort of ambition, and you’ll probably make more money. If every decision you make doesn’t start and end with students in mind, then you’re in the wrong profession. This should be the expectation you have for your teachers, so why not yourself as well?
2. Speaking of teachers, do you value them or are they just another replaceable part to be discarded when you have no more use for them?
Let’s face facts here. We’re all replaceable. You, your teachers, your paraprofessionals, even the board of trustees. So, I guess the question really is, how easily can you replace your teachers? Some of them need to go. They’re just there for a paycheck. They don’t really like kids. In my experience, those teachers make up the small minority. When you take over a campus, those teachers stand out pretty well. All you have to do is work with district administration to minimize the damage or fire them outright. However, if you’ve been leading a campus for 3 years or more, and you still have those kinds of teachers around, either you don’t know how to hire good teachers or your leadership has sucked the innovation out of their classrooms and the joy out of their jobs. In other words, you haven’t fixed the problem, you’ve made it worse. Teacher retention is a good thing. So is experience. Show teachers you value what they do, give them an inspiring vision, and train them to meet that vision. When I earned my Masters of Ed. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (yes, I’m certified as a principal in my state for early childhood through grade 12), one of my professors told my cohort that principals have 3 bullets every year. In other words, you can only fire 3 teachers a year before the rest start getting antsy and the rebels start paying attention. I’ve found in the years since that many of you think you have 3 machine guns instead of 3 bullets. Unless every teacher on your campus is totally incompetent (in which case, see my previous point about your abilities to hire the right people for the job) find the teachers you can develop and develop them. Your students are not served by replacing large chunks of your teaching staff each year.
3. Do you want to be a “boss” or a “leader”?
You can’t be both, not really. You see, “bosses” use intimidation, political maneuvering, and threats to get what they want. They are the kind of people who don’t care about faculty moral, who focus only on what they “think” a teacher “might” have done wrong. Many times, “bosses” only think a teacher has done something wrong because what that teacher did elicited a parent phone call. A “boss” leans over his or her desk and says “I’m not here to be your friend” (What, no barbecue on the deck this weekend?!) or makes teachers they don’t like the butt of their jokes in faculty meetings and conversation with other administrators (I once confronted an administrator who did this to me. The reply I got was “Sounds like hearsay to me”. Nope. 1 or 2 people is hearsay, 10 people is testifying.) A “boss” degrades current faculty when interviewing new faculty. A “boss” continually feels the need to remind everyone on staff who’s in charge.
A leader, on the other hand, builds teamwork through communicating with staff, uses interpersonal skills to engage teachers in an inspiring vision, and interacts with students both in and out of the classroom. A leader makes encouraging statements that they actually mean. A leader sits beside a teacher and says, “I’ve identified a problem. How can I help you fix it?” A leader hires new staff with an eye toward how they will work with current staff to make student achievement more effective. A leader doesn’t have to remind people who’s in charge because her staff is already following her.
Teachers, paraprofessionals, aids, we all know who’s in charge. We get it. You are. If the campuses, areas, or districts under your charge aren’t being successful, it’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s your fault. Stop complaining and looking for new ways to fire people. Stop taking the easy way out, role up your sleeves, and work with your staff, not against them. Put them in the best position to be successful and that success will carry over into the classroom. Why? Not because being a leader improves staff moral and school climate, though it does. Not because being a leader means you listen to staff and follow through with your commitments to them, though you would. Because leadership leads to teamwork, teamwork leads to learning and growth, learning and growth lead to achievement, and achievement leads to infinite possibilities.
Infinite possibilities are why your students go to school in the first place.
If you like this, please share it. If you don’t, ignore it. Either way, let me know what you think.
Peace of Christ,