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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

What I Want From My Principal

By Guest Blogger — February 10, 2014 3 min read

Note: Last week and this week RHSU is featuring guest bloggers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. For more on NNSTOY, check them out here. Today’s post is from Jeff Charbonneau. Jeff is a chemistry, physics, and engineering teacher at Zillah High School in Zillah, Washington, and was both Washington teacher of the year and the national teacher of the year in 2013.

I have a bit of problem, to be honest with you. I am addicted to teaching. I can’t stop thinking about school. My mind is constantly thinking about new ways to organize my lessons, challenge my students, and help improve student engagement. The list goes on.

That doesn’t sound like a problem to most, but in reality it is. You see, I am somewhat of an education dreamer. I see problems around me and want to fix them. Most of the time I come up with big answers to small problems.

I am not alone. Most teachers I meet are exactly the same. We strive to do one thing: Improve.

However, we need to be reined in from time to time.

I need my administration. And I need them to tell me “NO.”

That’s right. I need my administration to say no when I have a crazy new idea.

Fortunately enough, I work with some of the best administrators I have ever seen. They tell me “no” constantly, sometimes even a little too enthusiastically.

But there is a catch.

Great administrators, like my principal Mike Torres and superintendent Kevin McKay, don’t stop at “no.”

Great administrators say, “No, but if you...”

A few years ago I, along with two fellow teachers, realized that students in our high school who had an interest in the outdoors had no outlet in our school system. So we started dreaming big.

We proposed a summer hiking and backpacking program that would take us on a 1,000 mile drive out of state to Yellowstone National Park and the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. We would hike as far as 26 miles away from the nearest road.

Did I just hear you say wow and laugh a little? Yeah, that was pretty much my administrator’s first reaction too.

Followed by a “no.”

Then the real leadership kicked in. Despite the craziness of the idea, administration saw the potential value of the program, but more importantly they saw the enthusiasm in the three of us. So they added in “but if you...”

Specifically, our administrators wanted us to develop a program, rather than a trip. They asked questions like:

• How will you select the students?
• What physical conditioning will you do with the students prior to trip?
• What type of learning situations will take place?
• How will the students document their learning experiences?

Working together we navigated all of the red tape, came up with solutions for all the possible reasons why we shouldn’t, and developed a program.

That’s what we need from our administration. We need them to tell us “no” to our crazy ideas, so that we can in turn redefine and solidify our proposals.

Had I been told “yes” in that first meeting, we would have been doomed to fail. We had not thought it through enough; we did not have back up plans, budgets, and more. By telling us “no, but...” they turned our crazy idea into an amazing program.

Teachers and administration need to have that healthy back and forth dialogue; administrators working as guides and influencers of projects, programs, and lessons. And teachers as professional learners, ready to accept critiques and feedback as part of the improvement process.

Administrators, you have a tough job. You may not see value in every project that comes across your desk. But it needs to be your job to find value in them and help teachers realize the potential of their ideas.

When you see a program idea that isn’t quite there yet, resist the urge to turn it down outright. Instead, set a bar, and set it high. You may just be surprised what your teachers are able to come up with. They may clear the bar you never expected them to reach. The trick is that you MUST set a bar. Give your teachers a chance to reach it.

Teachers, there are so many outstanding ideas floating around in the world of education, just waiting for the right people to take them to the next level. I urge you to try. From backpacking to robotics programs to integrated art and science courses, there are thousands of exciting new ways to engage our students in high quality learning opportunities. It’s your job to continue to seek out and develop them, in cooperation with your districts. All I ask is that you ask them to turn you down on your first try--you will be better because of it.

Oh, and that backpacking program? Still going strong, now in our 8th year thanks to the crazy idea of three teachers and leadership that was strong enough to say “No, but...”

--Jeff Charbonneau
Twitter: @JeffCharbonneau

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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