“Be prepared!” is a great motto for a Boy Scout. It’s also a good strategy for a classroom teacher.
If your principal ever asks, “How can I help?” you miss an opportunity if you simply answer that you want them to be supportive. It’s the opening you have long sought, so be prepared!
I have been blessed over the course of my classroom career by a succession of really good principals. But, from the stories I hear from teachers I meet at conferences, not everyone is so lucky.
Anticipating that I would write on this subject, in the last couple of years I have actually taken notes when fellow professionals poured out their woes about their supervisors.
What follows is the result, boiled down into six themes with a couple of bonus points.
The best way to guide your principal into an excellent supervisory relationship is to find a gentle way to spell out your expectations. Often that will focus on the way you work, the manner in which you like to receive information, the way you set priorities (and what those priorities are), and the areas where you are willing to go beyond the norm to do a stellar job.
Parallel to this, the other important thing is to learn what makes your principal tick. Some are recent teachers who have served their administrative internship and are principals for the first time; others have been principals forever, and may have lapsed into not-so-good habits.
For newcomers as a principal, there’s a learning curve, so cut them some slack, just as you would expect others to treat you. Give them room to grow. For long-time administrators, they may not be receptive to new ideas because — and you know what is coming — “we have always done it that way.” And remember they have lives, too. Their apparent lack of enthusiasm for your superb idea may be because a new baby kept them awake all of the night before.
So learn their foibles. Do they favor sports over academics? It is crucial to know if they are detail-oriented or ideas people. Odd though it sounds, some principals are introverts. I can see heads nodding. That kind needs a whole different approach to the exuberant, outgoing leader whose rah!-rah! speeches will marshal their troops to greatness.
Here’s a primer for principals, but don’t nail it on the door of his or her office. Just work the themes into the conversation when he or she asks, “How can I help you be a successful teacher?”
- Respect my time. Like most enthusiastic teachers, I will go the extra mile. But after so many years of doing just that, it must be on my own terms. I will put in a full shift, and go home with grading that will keep me up late. But don’t expect me to attend every athletic or band event, and don’t call extra meetings at odd hours before or after school unless there is a true emergency.
- Respect confidentiality. When I come to my principal for guidance, perhaps with a problem with a student or parent, I don’t expect details to be broadcast to other staff members unless there is a direct relevance or need to do so.
- Respect the chain of command. For me, this is a huge one, and even my best principals over the years have slipped up here. If a parent comes to a principal with a complaint, I have an expectation that the administrator will first ask one simple question: “Have you discussed this with Mrs. Webb?” If the answer is no, then the principal should say, “Well, you must discuss it with her first and then if you are not satisfied with the outcome, return to me.” This is an extremely tough one to encourage, but the best principals make this strategy part of their problem-solving repertoire.
- Support innovation. This is another one of the toughest issues. I love trying new things. And, frankly, sometimes I fail. The best principals will create a teaching environment where it is OK to fail. I’ll repeat that for those who just fell off their chairs. The best principals create a teaching environment where it is OK to fail. And they don’t use any less-than-successful attempts as negatives during evaluation time. If there is retribution for trying ideas that don’t succeed, I think we all know what will happen to the enthusiasm for trying anything new. Yes, it will dry up.
- Communicate. That means keeping me informed of anything happening in the building that will impact my classroom, including visitors, drills, assemblies, schedule changes, staffing issues, sports, and activities. It means responding to emails within 24 hours, preferably sooner. We all have our own concept of proper email etiquette. I prefer an immediate reply, even if it is just to say “received and I will get back to you.” Others may be happy waiting for a reply until the message contains the specific “fix,” but I’m not so sure that’s the best communication method. It leads to zillions of frustrating personal encounters that begin, “Did you see my email about . . . ?”
- Be available to all, and don’t play favorites. How many teachers reading this have principals who hang out at the gym gossiping with the athletic director and the cute volleyball coach and never seem to be in their office? How about equal time for all?
All the teaching advice I have read since the computer era dawned and we embraced PowerPoint, was to limit yourself to six bullet points, and I realize I have met my quota. But there are a couple of other points where principals can help.
Money is one. How much do I have to spend on my classroom? It’s a simple question, but I have learned it needs a specific answer — at the beginning of the school year. Waffling never helps; funding “extras” on a case-by-case basis makes the decision contingent on whim, and that’s never good.
Lastly, some principals work to involve their faculty with problem solving and participatory decision-making. That’s great. But I and most colleagues work best if we know whether we are simply offering input or actually making the decision. A principal saying, “It’s my decision, but I am looking for your input” is very different from “I want the staff as a group to make this decision.” The best principals spell that out.
I don’t have a snappy conclusion, so I will end it there. I expect a zillion Tweets from fellow teachers who offer points I have missed that are important to them. Brilliant! Please add them to the list.
And if, by some small chance, there are any principals reading this, remember: We love being in our classrooms. We are willing, able, and enthusiastic about equipping our students, our nation’s most precious resource, for the challenges ahead.
All we ask is that you create an environment in which we can do so.
@DebWebb100, #WATeachLead, #ReadyWA
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