With a new school year quickly approaching, I find myself reflecting on my past experience as a teacher. Education has seen many changes over the years, some of them good and some of them bad. Sadly, teachers tend to see more of the bad. Their workload has doubled while their pay has remained roughly the same. Parental involvement has decreased and negative student behavior has increased. Teachers face many challenges and though I am no longer a member of this esteemed group of superheroes, I want to do whatever I can to make their jobs easier and to show my appreciation for their continued efforts. Therefore, I am devoting the month of August to education and all of the players involved in the hope that I can make a positive impact. This week I am focusing on school administrators and policy makers.
Let me first of all say that I know you want to see our educational system improve. You would not be in this profession if you did not care about the quality of the curriculum and the future of our students. That being said, it has been my experience that in the desire to improve things, those eagerly making what they hope will be positive policy do not always consider the long-term ramifications. I realize that your job is not easy; I’m sure your job was much simpler before No Child Left Behind was enacted. Now you constantly have to worry about accreditation and school ranking. You want the community to see your schools in a good light and your schools to draw in quality students. Being seen as the best is a noble goal, but too often these days the pursuit of that image leads to ineffective and sometimes illogical policy. At times, it can even lead to illegal or immoral activity, as demonstrated by the number of school systems that have made the news for consciously allowing irregularities on state testing. What I would like to propose is that we all take a step back and focus on four key elements: integrity, accountability, respect, and support.
Integrity and accountability go hand in hand and have a trickledown effect. Having integrity and standing up for your beliefs is not easy, but it is worthwhile. Every time you lower standards by forcing teachers to assign a grade when no work was submitted or to accept excessively late work, integrity crumbles. When teachers are made to feel guilty for writing referrals because the number of referrals affects school image, integrity crumbles. Whenever anything else is done that can be seen as fudging the numbers, whether it relates to grades, state exams, or graduation rates, integrity crumbles. Every person in the system needs to be held accountable starting with those at the top; our system will not survive otherwise. I know that administrators have perfectly valid reasons for implementing such policies, but I ask you to remember that we are dealing with children. You might determine that giving a minimum grade of fifty will allow students who are struggling to learn a concept a fair shot at passing and an improved self-esteem. Think about it from their perspective though. If I can get something for nothing, why should I attempt the work? That student knows he is struggling and wants to give up, and now he has an out. He can go to sleep, talk to friends, or cause classroom disruptions instead of doing the assignment, and his grade will not drop because of it. Of course, his grade won’t rise either, but he isn’t really concerned with that now. Perhaps it will hit him at the end of the school year or the end of his school career but not now. He isn’t thinking of the long-term consequences; he needs those in charge to think of them. By putting policies in place which hold teachers accountable for teaching and students accountable for learning, you will maintain your integrity and allow students and teachers to do the same. You will also earn their respect. Will there be a few rough years while students adjust? Yes. Will the numbers initially drop? Yes. However, they will rebound and when they do, you will be able to feel pride that your school earned a positive reputation.
Another concern you may have is recruiting and retaining quality teachers. When I was a student, it seemed the teachers were an institution; they were there for the long haul. That is no longer the norm. Each year of my teaching career I saw at least twenty new faces, many of which were gone within a year or two. I believe the secret to keeping them is to show them respect and offer support. Some of you are doing that, but it takes more than just a strong principal. If school administration is great but district policy is not, you are still going to have a revolving door of teachers. Work together. Show teachers that you respect them by valuing their time. Be mindful that even though teachers may have a planning period, it is not sufficient to lesson plan and grade papers for an average of a hundred students, especially if that planning period is also used to attend IEP meetings, common planning, or parent-teacher conferences. Teachers are also expected to tutor students and attend department, faculty, and district meetings after school. When do they do most of their grading and lesson planning? They do it in the evenings and on weekends when they should be devoting time to their families. Most teachers work 24/7 during the school year, so I ask you to please respect their time. If the information can be relayed via email rather than calling a meeting, then send an email. If that form, survey, or professional development is not going to be life altering, then make it optional. Supporting your teachers does not need to take inordinate amounts of time or money. Those luncheons provided two or three times a year are great, but they are not necessarily what teachers need in order to feel appreciated or supported. Being visible in the halls and offering a friendly greeting is a start. Let your teachers know that you genuinely care if things are going well. If they are struggling to maintain discipline with a certain group of students, offer to stop by to assist on occasion. Don’t just visit classes for teacher observations and evaluations. Stop by to observe the students so you know just what issues the teacher is facing on a daily basis. Let the teacher know you have his/her back. Don’t criticize them for writing referrals. Back them up with disgruntled parents. Leave an encouraging note in a teacher’s mailbox. Know which teachers have a difficult schedule, for instance those who teach an extra class instead of having a planning period, and offer to watch their classes so they can use the restroom. That is a huge deal to teachers and will go a long way to showing that you care about their well-being.
If you maintain your integrity, hold yourself and others accountable for maintaining high standards, recognize there may be another side to the issue, admit you might be wrong, and respect and support your teachers, you will reap some serious rewards. The school climate will change, teachers will stick around, and students will achieve.