(This is the first post in a five-part series)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen an administrator make (or, if you are an administrator, that you’ve made)? What should have been done, instead?
All of us, incliuding school administrators, have made mistakes. This series will explore the biggest ones educators have seen—or made—and alternatives to them.
Commentaries from Anne Vilen, Marcy Webb, Dr. Jason Kotch, Roxanna Elden, Baruti Kafele, and Dr. Manuel Rustin “kick off” this five-part series. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anne, Marcy, and Jason on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
You might also be interested in previous posts from this column on Administrator Leadership.
Response From Anne Vilen
Anne Vilen is senior writer and project manager at EL Education, a K-12, nonprofit educational organization. Previously, she worked as associate director for a high-performing mentor school in the EL Education school network:
Feedback Is Your Friend
In my first year as a rookie administrator, I put a lot of energy toward marshaling resources for teachers. I rearranged schedules to provide equal planning time and fair car-line duties. I funneled more money toward class book sets and ensured that the workroom had a sharp paper cutter and a functional laminator. In the first months, several teachers thanked me for these small improvements that addressed the chronic headaches in a teacher’s day. I figured I was headed in the right direction.
Then, six months into the year, I left the building to attend a three-day conference. When I returned, a teacher who I considered to be a friend pulled me aside and warned me that she and others had been invited to a “secret meeting” organized to discuss my leadership. The instigator was unhappy about new expectations for lesson planning and assessment. She’d been with the school from the beginning—"before there was a you,” she would later tell me—and she wanted to safeguard an entrenched culture of live and let live.
It took me months to regain my footing with the faculty. What should I have done differently?
Cultivate a Feedback Culture
A culture of feedback is built on a foundation of trust that starts with deep listening. Part of regaining my faculty’s trust was making the time to visit teachers’ classrooms informally at times when they didn’t have students, just to ask “how are things going” and to have a brief friendly conversation about children, vacations, or good books. Being a human being first, and being accessible in the teacher’s space rather than in my office, often led to deeper professional conversations and laid the groundwork for problem-solving around real concerns.
These one-on-one conversations also gave me a chance to model and reinforce an important norm: If you have a gripe with someone, speak first and directly to that person, not to anyone else. A feedback culture begins and ends with direct, candid, and respectful communication. An effective administrative leader models this norm and supports others in the learning community, regardless of power, background, or history, to learn strategies for having courageous conversations when conflicts arise.
Establish structures to gather feedback from multiple perspectives
Leaders often make the mistake of getting into classrooms only enough to fulfill the obligations of formal observations. Similarly, they often request feedback for themselves only a couple of times a year as required for their own supervision. They sit down for a formal check-in with the president of the board or the superintendent or they review the results of a parent survey or mandated school climate survey. While looking at these sorts of data is laudable, it’s unlikely to give you the street-level perspective you need to really reflect on your own leadership and decisionmaking.
Feedback is most useful if it comes from a variety of stakeholders and comes in a variety of forms—informal and focused as well as formal and comprehensive. It’s especially important for leaders to seek the diverse views of those who disagree with them. After my own rocky start as an administrator, I met a principal who identified one colleague each week with whom to have a structured 10-minute dialogue. One week he would ask the teacher’s assistant who had been in the building for 15 years. The following week he’d ask a veteran teacher who was also on the leadership team.
The protocol he used was this: The principal invited his colleague to share exactly six minutes of feedback: three minutes of neutral observations, two minutes of questions, and one minute to offer a concrete suggestion. He was explicit about the protocol, setting a timer in the middle of the table for both to see while he simply listened and took notes. (Leadership consultant Shane Safir describes a similar protocol that teachers can use with each other.)
Through regular brief conversations like this one, this principal was able to see idiosyncrasies, patterns, and bald-faced blunders that he wasn’t previously aware of. And, because the conversations happened every week, he was able to evaluate small bites of feedback as it came in and decide whether to respond immediately with a small course correction or table the feedback for further consideration at a later time. Leadership can be just like reading a compass; sometimes you have to get around this giant boulder or crevasse first and then shift course to head back in the right direction.
Ask the right questions
When soliciting feedback, focused, specific questions will produce more helpful feedback than vague, open-ended questions. Consider questions that probe both satellite-level data about leadership (like school climate surveys) and street-level data generated by one-on-one conversations. This short survey for leaders completed anonymously by all staff could provide a healthy big picture of your strengths and growth edges. Importantly, to generate the most specific feedback, staff should complete the survey for individual leaders, not collectively for a multimember administrative team. When talking one-on-one with teachers, parents, community members, or even students, here are five questions that are sure to evoke productive reflection:
- When was the last time you saw me teach something? What did you notice about my teaching?
- What do you think I value most in teachers (e.g., organization, planning, engagement, high test scores)?
- What decision have I made that helped our school improve? What decision have I made that you disagreed with and why?
- What one thing could I do to improve how we work with each other at this school?
- What does our school need most? What am I not paying attention to that I should be?
Listen more than you speak . . . and keep listening
It’s often the case that as leaders become more confident and more entrenched in their roles, they stop seeking feedback. Even when leadership is self-consciously egalitarian in a school’s infancy, it trends toward hierarchy as systems become codified and the same faces and personalities are on staff year after year. Faculty and families fall back on the assumption that this is “just how we do things here” and stop looking for a better way. Practices that were once innovative become conventions that may no longer serve a changing or growing population of students. At this phase in the life of a school, when things seem to be going well and you are the recognized and revered head of the school, it’s best to remember that feedback is not just the annoying echo of your own amplified voice. This is exactly the time to ask, how are my decisions and actions impacting the life of the school and student performance? Ask the teachers. Ask parents and community members. Ask students. Then listen. Examining your own leadership is the first step to getting the school realigned with your vision.
Response From Marcy Webb
Marcy Webb is a secondary school Spanish teacher, workshop presenter, and occasional writer:
At one point in my career, an administrator told a group of veteran teachers at a preplanning meeting that they lacked a work ethic because they weren’t willing to remain after school past 4 PM. Unfortunately, there was some classic cultural stereotyping going on, i.e., they were Southern and, therefore, lazy. This administrator was not only new in his role, but also new to the school in question.
What should have happened? In order to gain the respect and trust of his new colleagues, the administrator should have taken more time to get to know his new colleagues, what their beliefs were, and how they approached their work. Additionally, he should have been more. Given his actions, he never was able to regain their trust or respect.
Response From Dr. Jason Kotch
Jason M. Kotch, Ed.D., is the co-author of 7 Steps to Sharing Your School’s Story on Social Media, a Routledge Eye on Education book. He is the principal of Garnet Valley Elementary School in Pennsylvania, a school with grades 3-5, where he tells the school’s story using #jaguarmax on social media and on their iTunes podcast, Jaguarmax Radio. Dr. Kotch is a 3rd-generation school leader, having observed communication from several different perspectives:
In my 12 years of being an administrator, I’ve found that most of my mistakes are related to communication.
Upon moving to a new school, we began the process of writing new vision and mission statements. We attached goals and measures to them as we started moving through an action plan of steps to move closer to the school we envisioned. The big mistake was that after three years, the results of this work were being perceived as my path and not the path that our school chose. The issue was communication.
We are all limited by time. Teachers don’t have enough of it or have too many tasks or just use every second to continuously improve on the current state. Administrators have the same challenges. We have to make the time we need to share ideas and gather feedback. I was definitely guilty of crafting a meeting agenda, emailing it to attendees, quickly talking through each point at the meeting, and then asking for questions. As a newer administrator, I called this communication. Now, I’ve become more skilled at inviting others into the conversation and creating safe spaces where more people are comfortable sharing. What has happened? We now have better ideas. We now have an enhanced culture of innovation. We now share in the vision and mission of our work and the path we chose. Sometimes it’s not easy for an administrator to share control or give it up entirely but it’s essential to empower staff members in our meetings just as we want our teachers to engage students in the classroom.
Keys steps for enhancing communication:
- Structure meetings so that staff members can participate in groups of different sizes.
- Ask for feedback in different ways. Use surveys so that individuals can provide input that might not have been recorded in the group.
- Establish norms to value everyone’s perspective regardless of position.
- Invite others into the conversation and ask reflective questions.
- As the administrator, don’t start by sharing your opinion.
- Facilitate the conversation so that the minds of the whole group can develop better ideas and solutions.
- Share ideas and decisions with all stakeholders.
- Create feedback loops to provide time to process ideas and ask questions.
The reality of communication is that it is hard to measure because success is based on the impression it leaves on each individual. After taking the time to make a good decision, be sure to also have an effective communication plan. Without effective communication, you can turn good intentions and better decisions into big mistakes.
Response From Roxanna Elden
Roxanna Elden’s first book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, has long been a staple in school districts and training programs. Her recently released novel, Adequate Yearly Progress captures teaching with insight, humor, and heart. The story follows several teachers at an urban high school as their professional lives impact their personal lives and vice versa:
While interviewing teachers for See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, one of my questions was, “What are some things administrators do that drive teachers crazy?” The answers ranged from outright bullying to well-intentioned blunders. After a while, however, they started to fall into certain categories. Here are three of the most common—and most easily correctable—of those categories.
Making big changes at the last minute.
Teachers work best with time to plan ahead. Last-minute changes are sometimes unavoidable, but administrators who frequently flip-flop on classroom assignments, schedules, or required curriculum may not realize they’re running down the gas in teachers’ tanks. With this in mind, try to let your teachers know who, what, and where they’ll be teaching as early as possible. Then, try to avoid mid-year changes.
Undermining teachers’ authority in front of others.
Teachers have to make on-the-spot decisions all day, every day. Students challenge authority. Parents question consequences and grades. When administrators add to the mix by reversing teachers’ decisions or reprimanding them in front of others, it sends them back to class with destroyed credibility. On the other hand, knowing they’ll have your support during a conference gives your staff more confidence in the classroom. If you do have concerns about how a teacher has handled a situation, it’s OK to bring it up. Just make sure it’s a private discussion.
Even principals who don’t have a cadre of office cronies need fair, transparent processes for making their own decisions. If your faculty understands how you assign classes, distribute students with behavior problems, and make classroom upgrades, it’s good for morale—no matter who gets that new smartboard.
Want the flip side of this advice? Here are tips for teachers on working well with their administrators.
Response From Baruti Kafele
Baruti Kafele is the author of several books including The Teacher 50: Critical Questions for Inspiring Classroom Excellence (ASCD 2016) and The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence (ASCD 2015). A highly regarded urban public school educator in New Jersey for nearly 30 years, Kafele has distinguished himself both as a classroom teacher and as a school principal:
In my early years as the principal of an urban middle school in New Jersey, all of the normal challenges of leading an urban school were a part of my daily reality, which included low achievement levels. When I was hired for the position, I promised the superintendent that our achievement levels would be the best in the district at the middle school level by the time my 6th graders became 8th graders. We then “went to work.” Collectively, we became a team (in the truest sense of the word) with a collective purpose, mission, and vision while student achievement remained at the heart of our work.
At the end of the school year three years later, we got our results back. Not only had we met our goal, we also had exceeded it by meeting our adequate yearly progress (AYP) benchmarks under the new No Child Left Behind law. In hindsight, I should have immediately started planning for the following year relative to how we would take our achievements to a higher level of accomplishment. We had great momentum, and the sky was truly the limit. But instead, I resigned and accepted another urban middle school principalship in another part of the state for reasons I still can’t explain outside of sheer ego.
I knew nothing about my new city. I had not done any homework on it at all. All I knew was that it had a student demographic that was primarily African-American and Latino who resided in predominately economically disadvantaged communities. Other than that, I did not know the city. In other words, I did not know the dynamics of the city, the school district, or the school. I arrived into that school district with no prior knowledge and I was about to lead a school. This was a tremendous mistake. I sold myself well in the interview because I knew all the right things to say as a principal, but I sold myself short by not doing my homework and learning what I was getting myself into.
As challenging as the year turned out to be, and in large part because I didn’t adequately prepare myself for the move, there were some successes. But when I look over my 14 years as a principal, this is the year that always stands out for me. This is the one that gives me angst. As principal, I was in a position to lead this school to comparable successes to the previous school. The difference though was that in the previous district, I knew the school, district, and city. Why? Because I was a product of it. I was born and raised there. In the new district, I was alone and didn’t know anyone. I knew nothing and didn’t take the time to learn prior to becoming the leader. This was not only my biggest mistake as a school leader, but it is also my biggest regret as a school leader. It is now literally 15 years since I was at that school, but the thought of the experience is just as painful for me today as it was back then. I sincerely wish I could make it up to that district.
To the administrators who will read this, don’t make my early mistake your own. If for whatever the reason, you change schools or districts, do your homework. Know that school and district as best you can and get to know as many residents as possible, which will put you in a better position to be successful over the long haul.
Response From Dr. Manuel Rustin
Dr. Manuel Rustin is currently in his 15th year of teaching high school social science in California. He currently teaches U.S. History, Government, Economics, and a Hip Hop Studies course that he created. Dr. Rustin earned his doctorate in educational leadership at UCLA and currently co-hosts All of the Above, a monthly webcast about all things education:
With all the talk about the importance of teachers building positive relationships with students, an often overlooked element of education is the importance of administrators building positive relationships with teachers.
Just as students need to feel supported, challenged, and valued by their teachers in order to flourish and reach their full potential, teachers also need to feel supported, challenged, and valued by their administrators in order to do the same. The worst mistake I’ve seen an administrator make during my 15 years in the classroom was to recommend nonrenewal of the contracts of two second-year teachers after having made virtually no effort to support, challenge, or value their work.
I will never forget the hopeless sobbing of a colleague of mine who called me on a Friday evening to deliver the news.
“He fired me!”
I was the lead teacher of our small learning community (SLC), and this was a second-year core-content teacher who gave it her all in the classroom. The previous principal loved her. This new, first-year principal, evidently, did not.
Only he never made any mention of it. By her account, he never observed her teaching. He never visited her during prep time to discuss her practice. He never made mention of being concerned by her performance. Nothing. Hence, the utter shock.
On Monday, we learned that another core-content teacher in our SLC had been nonrenewed as well. Once again, out of the blue with no previous sign that the principal didn’t have confidence in the teacher’s performance.
Our SLC rallied to try to save these two young, passionate teachers. We held a vote of no confidence and met after school with the principal to express our discontent. Long story short, the principal blamed the tenure process. He argued that if he didn’t let them go now, they’d be locked into our district for life, and he wasn’t sure that they were effective enough to warrant such protection.
What would we think of a teacher whose very first piece of real feedback to a student was an F on their final report card? Just as an F should never come out of the blue, neither should any major decision that an administrator makes.
This administrator made a unilateral decision that forever altered the trajectory of these two young teacher’s lives without having bothered to connect with them and provide guidance over the course of the year.
Instead, he should have built, with intentionality, a positive working relationship with them. This includes supporting them in recognizing areas in which they need to improve, challenging them to adjust their practice and reflect on the results, and valuing their voice and the input of them and others in their SLC. You know, like effective teachers do with their students.
This was a learning experience for all involved, most especially for the principal. In time, he grew tremendously in his practice and his ability to communicate his concerns and solicit feedback from other leaders on campus. He benefited from having time to learn and grow, time that those two teachers were never allotted. One of these teachers never stepped foot in a classroom again. The other found employment in another district, but we were left with a revolving door of teachers as we attempted to permanently fill her position.
When we speak of the importance of relationships, let us remember that teachers aren’t the only ones on a school campus who need to establish them.
Thanks to Anne, Marcy, Jason, Roxanna, Baruti, and Manuel for their contributions!
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