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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Administrators Run the Risk of Losing Touch with Students?

By Peter DeWitt — October 06, 2011 5 min read
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“Communication doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel.”

Typically, most administrators spent time as a classroom teacher. Some of them may have taught for two or three years, while others may have taught for a decade or more. For a variety of reasons they decided to leave the classroom in order to lead a building, and many had the much larger dream to move to the central office so they could help lead a district. As the years pass by and administrators get further away from their career as a classroom teacher, they run the risk of forgetting what it is like to be in the classroom full time.

There are many reasons why this could happen. Administrators have their own list of tasks that need to be done during the day, and given the number of mandates at the state and federal level, those lists are getting longer by the day. Those new tasks complicate the amount of time that administrators get to go into classrooms and work with students and teachers.

All of these new issues for building principals create a “perfect storm” situation where the lists become more time consuming and “important” than making connections with students and continuing to create connections with teachers and staff. Don’t let tasks get in the way of the more important part of the job, which is connecting with students. Staff, students, parents, teachers and administrators need to work together in order to create an inclusive and engaging school climate. If you’re not working together as a team, then you are not doing your job.

Administrator - Staff Relations
As administrators spend less time in the classroom, because of tasks and the years away from teaching, there becomes a disconnection in the communication between teachers and administrators, even though they share the same building. It’s really important that both parties take time to understand each other’s role because both have an impact on students.

As much as administrators need teachers to understand their role, they need to understand that teachers have never been principals. However, administrators have been teachers at one time in their life. They need to remember how hard it is to get paperwork done when you are staring at a classroom full of students.

Remember the following:

  • Not everything (beginning of the year paperwork, observation paperwork, etc.) can be completed in the timeframe we want just because we think it should take a defined number of days to complete the task.
  • Getting 25 students (give or take a few) to complete a task or be engaged in a lesson is hard work. It’s as difficult for teachers to educate students as it is for a principal to run a building. Difficult work is relative to the person doing the job.
  • Even when we say high stakes testing is not the only data that matters, it’s the only data that teachers hear about.
  • Do not estimate the time a task (i.e. student progress monitoring, direction giving for high stakes testing, whole school initiatives, etc) will take a teacher to complete because it could take longer. Having students in a classroom while trying to complete a task is the wild card that you cannot always estimate

Communication is a Two-Way Street
An administrator may forget the daily routine of teaching but it does not mean they forget how to connect with their student population. The best school administrators have special connections with their students, especially those students that give everyone else a difficult time.

In addition, administrators typically hear all the bad news that is going on in a building. As they walk down the hallways, teachers tend to tell administrators all of their school building concerns (i.e. cleanliness, parent issues, etc.). Meetings between administrators and teachers are few and far between so the hallway becomes the venue where administrators hear about all of the students who are struggling academically of behaviorally. Although some people are just plain negative, these conversations also happen because teachers are frustrated because they do not always know the best way to help their students.

It is important for teachers to remember that the administrator is also an educator and not just the enforcer of rules (perhaps the administrator needs to remember that as well!). Administrators want to hear good news too. They want to hear about the student that is reading better than ever, or the child that resolved an issue on their own. They want to be invited into the classroom to read to students or be read to by students. Those are some of the reasons why administrators show up to school every day.

Although some administrators took the fast track into administration and may not have spent many years as teachers, most administrators understand what it is like to have a classroom full of students who have needs. Finding time to talk about those issues are important.

Administrative Role
Administrators can, and should play an important role in the lives of students and teachers. So many of our students leave us feeling disconnected from school, and administrators have the ability to change that.


  • Have the perspective of seeing all ranges of students who are struggling academically and behaviorally
  • Follow our students over a number of years and have the opportunity to form some strong bonds
  • Work with the same families over a number of years as opposed to one year at a time
  • Be a teacher’s greatest advocate inside and outside the classroom. Administrators are sometimes used to going it alone and can support teachers when they are having a difficult time with a parent or student

Teachers and administrators share the same building but often have different goals. Communicating effectively about those different goals and exploring ways to find some common ground is really important to the school culture. Staff, teachers and administrators who take time to communicate issues and celebrate successes have a better chance of reaching more students and providing a safe and inclusive school culture. In addition, when the adults in a school communicate effectively, they teach children how to communicate effectively.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.