We’ve looked at what impact means, how to start with ourselves as we try to increase our impactfulness, how to leverage what we do in the classroom toward impact, and how to work better with colleagues toward impact. Graphically, that’s this:
Today, we’ll bring it home by talking about the other groups of adults we work with throughout most of our school days: administrators, parents, and support staff. As always, I’ll strive to be as practical as possible.
Working better with administrators
I want to make explicitly clear at the start of this section that it’s a little awkward writing about administrators when you currently work for some. So with that being said, I have no single administrator in mind when I write this section, and I also have had experiences with dozens of administrators in my life (student teaching in Ypsilanti, teaching in Baltimore, substitute teaching in New York City, teaching in Cedar Springs, working with folks from all over through Teaching the Core).
So, if you’re reading this and you’re an administrator I’ve worked with in the past, keep in mind that these tips are informed by a multitude of experiences, not one!
1. First, what I said last week
Humility, gratitude, encouragement — these things aren’t just useful for developing better relationships with our colleagues. If you haven’t read last week’s post, I think it’s worth the time — the principles there are crucial for working with any adult, and probably just for any human, too.
2. The hard work of teaching is about mastery, not performance
This tip is about how to become a great teacher in general, but it can also take some “edge” out of your relationship with your evaluating administrator.
The short, “duh” version of the tip is that we need to have growth mindset about teaching. If we’re obsessed about our evaluation points, we’re going to have a hard time working productively with our admin.
Now before I go on, I know that, in an increasing amount of schools nationwide, those points are having a huge impact on our lives. In more and more places, one point can be the difference between having a job next year or not, or between thousands of dollars in merit pay.
I don’t want to seem like I’m disregarding the fact that that’s a lot of pressure.
But, like a college professor once said to me, we’ve got to act as teachers as if we’re not afraid to lose our jobs. This isn’t license to act a fool; it is encouragement to be about mastering this work rather than simply performing well in an eval.
Back to our tip: I owe Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s masterful Rigorous Reading for this one — which, by the way is a book not at all about how to work better with administrators. When reading the quote below, replace the student-teacher dynamic with our teacher-administrator lens.
From Rigorous Reading (in this quote, they are citing Alexander and Jetton’s 2000 article for Reading Research Handbook):
Performance goals: Students who view learning through this lens are interested in teacher recognition and good grades. The extrinsic rewards of the task become the goal for completing the work.
Mastery goals: Students with this orientation are interested in the content of the task and the opportunity to expand their own knowledge base.
Work-avoidant goals: Some students are primarily interested in completing the task with the least amount of effort necessary.
One thing to get out of your head is that you have only one of these orientations; at some point in our week, we probably operate out of each of these goal mindsets.
And honestly, a work-avoidant orientation is not all bad. “Work smarter, not harder” is a work-avoidant mindset that I think makes us better at teaching in many cases.
But here’s what will poison your relationship with an administrator every time: when you’re obsessed with the points and not what the points are supposed to (yet often fail to) represent.
So do yourself a favor: start making baby steps toward having an emergency fund, toward living on less, etc. — do what you can to move those financial pieces into place — so that you can worry less about points and more about becoming great at the job. This won’t just help you work better with administrators; it’ll decrease your stress!
3. Figure out what your admin does and does not appreciate
Remember when I said to view folks who you get a bad vibe from as a puzzle?
If you’re having trouble with an administrator, it’s a good idea to apply the same logic to them.
So for example, I’ve worked with (as I said in the beginning of the post, I’ve worked with dozens of admins in my career) administrators who simply want straight talk at all times, and who actually invite staff to come to them with honest (meaning sometimes less than glowing) feedback. Not a bad trait in a leader. I respect that.
But then I’ve also worked with administrators who do not desire negative feedback from their staff members; they aim to make clear that there is a role difference between administrators and staff. Also, not a horrible trait for a leader; again, I can respect it.
The key is this, however: figure out which kind of administrator yours is. Some will respect you speaking truth to power; others will not appreciate it.
I prefer coming to my own conclusions about an administrator rather than relying on what others think, so I figure out my admins slowly but surely.
4. Send misbehaving kids to the office with far-below-building-average frequency
Let’s face it — even the most supportive, teacher-friendly administrators are going to have a hard time appreciating you if you’re the teacher who sends students down to the office each day.
To avoid being that person, the key with this one is to do everything you can to solve student problems in your room — as my friend Gerome Dixon once told me, you have to stand firm on the idea that your classroom is your house, and you are the authority in it — and, even better, to see problems coming and defuse them before they develop. The only way to become that kind of teachers is to work towards it. Oftentimes, I’ve had to learn the hard way how a situation gets out of control and ends in a student being sent from class.
Once again, I recommend Michael Linsin’s work over at SmartClassroomManagement.com.
5. Make positive assumptions about the motives of your bosses
At the end of the day, humility would lead us to assume that our administrators aren’t the caricatures we often make them out to be (remember: consider others better than yourselves). I try to remind myself that you couldn’t pay me enough to be an administrator; they are simultaneously balancing the needs and desires of teachers, students, parents, the school board, the superintendent… I’d be a different person if I was under that kind of pressure. So even when an administrator behaves poorly, I try to assume that her or his intention isn’t bad — they’re simply human.
And this isn’t me trying to be a goody good — it’s just practical. What good does it do me to assume my administrators have poor motives?
6. Play nicely with parents
Admins don’t sit in their offices hoping that a parent will come to them with a complaint about your class. Do all in your power to work well with parents!
And that brings us to our next topic 🙂
The Parent-Teacher Relationship
Now before you skim past this section assuming I’m going to give pat treatment to the parent question, I’m not. Parents have far more impact potential on a kid than teachers — this is what I believe (and it’s one reason I don’t give my life to this blog or to my job — I know that my children will be one of my most enduring legacies in this world, and so I aim to invest heavily in them).
I’ve written about the importance of parents elsewhere; here, let’s talk about how to make the relationship as productive as possible.
7. Key ideas I try to communicate to every parent
When I talk with parents on the phone or in conferences, there are a few talking points I work on communicating as genuinely and directly as I can.
- They are the biggest factor in their kid’s development, and, therefore, anything good in the student is from them — I thank them for the good and give them credit.
- I am merely joining parents on their quest for providing their kid with a good future — again, I want to communicate the truth that they, not I, are the key players in their kid’s life, and so I say that it’s a privilege to be on their team.
- My class boils down to two main goals, both of which I believe will bless their student in the long term:
Those are key talking points. In none of these am I seeking to BS the parent — the truth is that they are a big deal (much more so than me) in their kid’s life.
8. Positive parent phone calls are absurdly beneficial
Even the craziest parents tend to like hearing good things about their student. A few posts ago I talked about the power of the positive parent phone call in building relationships with students; it also does a heckuva lot for your relationship with a kid’s parents and other parents in the community. (Parents talk.)
9. If possible, make a grading system that rewards grit
At parent-teacher conferences, I try to emphasize that my grading system rewards grit. For example, with any paper, students can resubmit the paper, with highlighted revisions, for a slight grade bump. For another example, when students have a missing assignment, I will accept it late for a slight point decrease.
In both examples, the system is both fair and growth-oriented. The point isn’t did you have the assignment perfect and on time — although there is a reward for doing a great job first (you can get more points) and for having it in on time.
So the point here is that I want parents to understand I’m not some dragon up in the ivory tower with an arbitrary grading system, and at the same time I’m not a loosey-goosey grader. There’s a central logic to my grading system, and it is that academics and character matter.
(Just for the record, I
hate struggle to like grades and grading.)
10. Aim for classroom management that is simple and fair
Similarly, you want to become good at explaining to parents your classroom management plan and the rationale behind it.
For this reason, it’s best to have a system that’s fair and based on growth, not punishment. Again, Michael Linsin has this figured out — head to SmartClassroomManagement.com and start reading!
11. Pro tip: the semi-regular parent email
I know, I know — you don’t have every parent’s email address, and ain’t nobody got time, etc.
There’s a master teacher in my building named Doug Stark, and he is a paragon of professional efficiency. I think Doug actually sends home a daily email to parents — it simply communicates what happened in class that day and what the day’s homework is.
Now, that’s awesome, but I am bad at that.
However, I do aim for the semi-regular (notice the ambiguity) email. Use this to communicate to parents those must-know dates or some common pitfalls you see students fall prey to every year.
Don’t forget support staff (said almost no teacher ever)
Keep this front and center when working with adults: students interact with dozens of adults each day, and every one of those interactions can have a positive, negative, or neutral effect on that student.
Too often, we forget that our building support staffs interact with students frequently throughout their day. With that in mind, it’s important to remember to be encouraging toward them as well. Two mental hacks and a practical tip to help you do so.
12. Secretaries, aides, building service workers, cafeteria staff are… wait for it… dignified human beings
First of all, we need to remember that these are people we’re dealing with. For most of the Teaching the Core community, that’s going to sound pretty lame — “duh, Stuart” — right? And yet at every school I’ve been in, there are teachers who treat non-teachers as if they are something below human status.
13. Remember: a person’s worth is not determined by their job performance
The above-mentioned problem is exacerbated when the secretary or aide or building service worker in question isn’t awesome at their job. While great leaders do need to ensure they are maintaining an excellent staff, it behooves us to remember that negative attitudes toward those who do poorly at their job don’t help.
And as with most things on this blog, this is the pot calling the kettle black — I’m writing this toward myself, too. It frustrates me when people mess up — I’m human! Yet the reminder here is to be patient, be humble, and focus on what you can control.
14. Pick up garbage in the hallway
We’ll (almost) end this post where we started — with Mr. Scriven (he is the friendly man in this post’s first image). I mention Mr. Scriven more than once in my book’s acknowledgments section because he was not just my first principal — he was an important mentor to me as a new professional and a young man far from his home state.
Whenever Scriven was walking down a hallway, if he saw some garbage on the ground he’d bend over and pick it up. I think that’s a simple, important way we can remind ourselves, physically, that we’re not above any task that will make our school a better place.
But keep in mind that there’s a way to do this while looking like a self-righteous attention-seeker, and there’s a way to do this so that it’s hardly noticeable — Scriv mastered the hardly noticeable way. It was obvious that he wasn’t picking up garbage to look a certain way, to build an image for himself. Rather, he did it because it was garbage in his building, and he cared what it looked like, down to a piece of trash on the ground.
Bring it home, Dave
At the end of the day, I think working well with adults comes down to this: are we coming to school to be served by others, or are we coming to school to serve?
On my best days, the days where it feels crazy that I get paid to do this job, I’m usually of the mind that Dave Stuart is a servant, not a master; he’s here to teach and serve and promote the flourishing of students with all he can muster.
These days are far too infrequent for me, lemme tell ya, but I like that — it’s something to work toward.
Happy to be on the journey with you,