School & District Management Opinion

Parents Berating Teachers? Making Decisions Without the Data? Advice for Principals

And other timely questions from school leaders
By Sharif El-Mekki — January 21, 2021 6 min read
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The job of a school leader can be an isolating one—now more so than ever because of COVID-19 and the changes it has wrought. In this recurring Education Week advice column, two experienced former principals—Tamara McWilliams and Sharif El-Mekki—take turns sharing their decades of expertise with their colleagues.

Have a question? Send it in to AskAPrincipal@educationweek.org and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.

My state has canceled standardized testing this year, and, for the most part, I think that’s for the best. I can’t imagine those results would be an accurate reflection of what students have managed to learn remotely—and how much they’ve had to overcome to do so. But, as someone who loves data, I have some worries about losing that benchmark. What other metrics should I be thinking about instead during this deeply weird year to figure out what’s working in my school?

I am glad you are thinking of data-based decisionmaking and how the lack of data can cause muddy visions for next steps. I would be sure to think of holistic approaches to data collection—and subsequent actions based on it. Not enough school leaders ask families what data they want to see about their child’s progress. Hearing from families can offer important insights from families about their aspirations for their children. Students can also share what they want to learn about their own learning. Helping them to identify their own meta-cognition goals can create lifelong learners.

Some data can include attendance as well as information about student health and well-being, including how they are doing from an emotional standpoint. You and your team can also reanalyze past data and carefully chart trends. For example, what was the last benchmark assessment and when was it? What were gaps or areas students struggled with or had limited understanding of? Interventions can be built to mitigate some of those concerns.

This past summer, college students serving as teacher apprentices in our Freedom Schools Literacy Academy provided literacy instruction and supports to 1st through 3rd graders. They assessed students weekly, regrouped them, and taught (and sometimes retaught) necessary skills. Students, families, and our teacher apprentices used this assessment data to help students raise their reading levels.

I would strongly encourage teachers to work together in designing assessments and grading them. This coordination can be a powerful technique (and can outlast the pandemic) to build effective assessments that can inform instruction and schoolwide or gradewide approaches to teaching. This can lead to better collaboration, objective grading, and more accurate results.

Lastly, using online programming like MAP Accelerator, from NWEA and Khan Academy, can give you a sense of where students are and what skills to prioritize during interventions and differentiation.

We hope you will share back what you learn and how you continue to use data to inform your teaching and learning. Please keep us posted.

I have a difficult problem with one parent at the elementary school that I lead. She frequently uses profanity and berates a teacher on my staff, almost daily. When I try to intercede, she won’t take my calls or hangs up and continues to harass the teacher. I don’t want to diagnose this parent from afar, but it’s clear from these exchanges that there’s something really wrong here. We’re fully remote right now, so parent communication is too important to ban her from contacting the teacher, but I can’t just stand by as my teacher is repeatedly subjected to abusive language. What are my options?

This type of situation can be challenging and stressful for all involved. Stressors are high so look for signs that the parent is frustrated or triggered by something. You might need to explore the situation further for additional context.

I have been in similar situations and have found that the best time to engage with parents who may be as frustrated as you describe is during a period of calm—prior to an episode, assuming you can determine a pattern.

This gives both you and the parent time to reflect, problem-solve, and be transparent with each other. As the leader of the school, commit to being objective and solutions oriented—ultimately, relationships and school culture are at stake. How you approach this can support and protect both parents and your teachers.

Reaching out to deepen the parent-school relationship communicates courtesy, respect, and curiosity. Give the parent an opportunity to provide you with feedback—at an hour they want to be communicated with. Really listen to the parent so you can understand what the source of her frustration is. Once you’ve heard the parent’s grievances, come to an agreement of how the parent will share their frustrations going forward, including how they’ll communicate them and to whom and what actions you’ll take to remedy the situation. Talk to any staff members who have good relationships with the parent to get an understanding of how they have navigated challenges.

Be sure to work with the staff member, too. Listen to the teacher’s concerns and encourage him or her to not take it personally. The teacher is human and shouldn’t feel alone. Relationship building isn’t always easy, but it is imperative.

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Conceptual Illustration
Raul Arias for Education Week

Traditionally at my school, our December staff meeting doubles as a holiday celebration with music and a secret Santa gift exchange. It’s one of my favorite parts of the school year. I know this is a bit of a frivolous question, given everything that’s going on, but I don’t want to lose all of our traditions. Do you have any ideas for how to celebrate the amazing resilience my team has brought to this school year when we can’t gather in person? With teachers spending so much of their days on video already, I worry a Zoom party would feel like yet another obligation rather than a reprieve.

Although the holiday season has passed, it’s still important to find time to celebrate, bond, and build on our relationships. This is a crucial aspect of a healthy school community. While we may have traditions, we must also provide space to iterate when the times arise. Exploring how your staff wants to communicate their bonds, reconnect, and celebrate demonstrates your willingness to hear their thoughts and ideas. They may surprise you and share that your idea—despite their weariness of Zoom—is what they want.

Ask for volunteers who want to plan a celebration or send a survey to the staff asking them how they want to socialize remotely. Be transparent and vulnerable about your concerns, that you don’t want to lose cherished traditions. Many may share your concerns. Others may be interested in exploring and investing in new traditions.

For some staff members, the biggest celebration and sign of respect may be giving them time for self-care (away from a screen). Others may want to virtually connect with their colleagues even for a limited time. But hearing directly from your staff, including their diverse perspectives, can tell you a lot. And these extra steps can go a long way.

At my school, members from different grade or content teams often volunteered to participate in committees. Sometimes it was during the school day and, if it was outside of school hours, participation was voluntary.

Best wishes in this. Thinking about joy and building community as your school does this important work is certainly worthy of your time.

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