Perception vs. Reality

When I began teaching, it was very clear that my undergraduate training had not adequately prepared me for real world teaching. That’s not meant to be a slam against the university; I don’t believe any university program can really prepare you for what you face as an educator. The same was true when I finished my administrator program.

My first three years as an administrator were full of lessons I had to learn, some easy and some much less so. Even though some of those years were the most difficult I’ve experienced in my career, I’m thankful for that experience to set me up for my current role.

One of the hardest but most useful lessons I’ve learned in my administrative journey is that reality doesn’t matter. I’m sure that sounds strange, so I’ll explain. In probably at least half of my conversations with other people (parents, staff, or students), the only thing they care about is their own perception of what really happened. For them, their perception is reality. I can try to explain what actually happened, but what is often the most effective is smile, apologize, and let them be heard.

One time this came up this year was when we sent surveys to families and staff. While the feedback is often positive, there are definitely some criticisms, particularly if the surveys are anonymous. On one particular survey, we heard from several parents that our administrative wasn’t responsive enough with our communication, particularly email. Some members of my team took offense to that. And while it may or may not be true, the fact that multiple families believe we don’t respond quickly enough says we have a problem to fix.

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes, the truth really does matter. Investigations that ultimately result in consequences for students or staff rely on accurate information. However, I’ve noticed that in the course of the investigation, different versions of the “truth” often emerge, most likely because our own “truth” is shaped by our own experience and views about the event.

A big part of this has to do with letting go of being right as an administrator. This was a hard lesson for me to learn and one I still struggle with from time to time. I’ve apologized for a great many things that weren’t my fault or weren’t actually done wrong. But that’s what the situation called for at the time. Because ultimately it’s not about me, it’s about helping them move toward a resolution.

This is Hard.

Tuesday was the first day of school, but today was the first full day of distance learning classes for our students. And it was hard.

Don’t get me wrong. We got to see all kinds of little virtual faces light up and smile when seeing their teachers and classmates, hearing them share about a favorite toy or something they like doing. I got to hear about a 3rd grade boy’s cat and his classmate’s followup question of whether or not the cat can do tricks (the answer was no, unfortunately).

I checked in with my teachers at the end of the day via email (because, you know, distance learning). I’ve never had so many teachers feeling so defeated on the first day of school. Exhausted, yes, because we are out of shape for teaching after being away all summer. But not defeated. Not wondering if they can keep teaching this year. We even had a teacher talk about quitting already. This is after two teachers quit before workshops because they didn’t want to teach this way this year.

It’s hard for everyone. Operations teams are trying to figure out how to serve lunch and get kids to school on busses. HR departments are trying to figure out how to accommodate employees with health conditions and fear over COVID. But teachers take their jobs very personally, more so than most. And for them to feel like they’ve failed on day one? It’s devastating.

I am hopeful that tomorrow will be a better day. Kids will have had some practice logging in and knowing where to find their assignments. Teachers will feel a bit more comfortable with the tools they’re using. I hope they can feel like they got a win tomorrow to send them into the weekend on a more positive note.

As a principal, it gives me an almost helpless feeling because I know there are many parts of this I can’t help them fix. I can’t control whether or not students can get online (though I did help a few parents troubleshoot today). I can’t control if the technology works as it’s supposed to. And I can’t bring us back in person, though I know that would alleviate a lot of their stress.

But I will be back at it tomorrow, checking in on them, providing training, problem solving with them, and making sure I can get as many obstacles out of their way as possible. And I am hoping that we don’t lose really good teachers because of all of this.

Twas the Night Before Distance Learning

My students start school tomorrow, but they won’t be coming into the building. I work in a school with a year round calendar, so it’s the earliest first day of school I’ve ever had. And since we’re still in a pandemic, they will be learning from home.

It’s been a strange start to the year. Our entire workshop week was virtual. I met my teaching staff over Zoom. I honestly don’t even know what most of them look like (I’m at a new school this year) because I’ve either seen them in a mask or in large groups on a screen.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we are starting in this format. The idea of bringing 900+ children into the school right now definitely leaves me feeling panicky. Expecting children to social distance when plenty of adults aren’t doing it, seems a bit ludicrous. And masks for 6 hours a day? Yikes…

But tomorrow instead of seeing all of their big smiles walk through the door, I will see them drive through the parking lot as they pick up their learning supplies. They will have no idea what I look like because I will be wearing a mask myself.

I know our staff will be great, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about them. So many in education feel like they’ve been worrying about school since we closed down in March. What would normally be a time for relaxing and recharging for the new year, for many of us, this summer was one of wearing masks, staying home, and worrying about how we would handle school in the fall.

It doesn’t help that we’ve been getting constant pressure from some parents and leaders to open up. I keep hearing this idea of wanting to “get back to normal.” But this year isn’t normal. And it won’t be for a long time. The number of COVID cases in our area keeps going up (we added another 135 in our county alone over the weekend). Teachers are afraid to go back to work, and their fear is justified.

Tomorrow will be my 15th first day of school since starting my career. And it will be one to remember. Tonight I will go to bed, a mix of excitement and nervousness. After tomorrow, the journey begins to discover ways to better support students and teachers from a distance.

Support: What’s Your Definition?

My head has been spinning lately. I’m approaching the end of my admin licensure program and I’m in year two of a new position at my school. Year one was easy: make some simple changes and get big results. Year two is a different story. A very different story.

I’ll spare you all the details that have made this year a challenging one, but one thing that has come up over and over in the past few months is the idea that administrators need to support teachers. I don’t disagree. Everyone wants to be supported in their work, particularly teachers because teaching is hard.

But I’m starting to wonder if perhaps teachers and administrators are working off of different definitions of the word support. The dictionary says that support means “to bear or hold up, to sustain or withstand without givingway, to undergo or endure, to sustain, to maintain.” For what it’s worth, it also lists some synonyms for support: to suffer, bear, stand, or stomach. I’ve worked with some colleagues over the years where I’m sure my principal felt like those words were more applicable in dealing with them. 🙂

I posted a question about this on my Facebook profile a couple of months ago. The responses were not identical, but there were definitely some trends. Most of the answers centered around the things that principals can do to make their teachers feel warm and fuzzy: writing them notes, asking about their weekend, being visible in classrooms, etc. Some also talked about their administrator defending them to parents or other stakeholders.

One concern I hear a lot from teachers is that they don’t get much feedback in their day to day. For me, once I achieved tenure in the district, I got observed (and thus got formal feedback) once every three years. If you ballpark that each school year runs about 180 days, that means my principal saw me teach and gave me feedback on approximately 0.2 percent of the time. Not even one percent! In fairness, this was the system we were expected to work in and my principal was actually in my classroom more than once every three years. Many of my non-teacher friends get evaluated annually; people who stock shelves in a retail store get feedback once a year but people educating our kids don’t? (No offense to retail folks! My point is that teachers need more feedback.)

So, if a teacher definition of support means connecting with them and telling them they did a good job, is that it? And does that work for everyone? And if a principal does those things, does that still allow them to have hard conversations when necessary and give critical feedback as well? Are there other necessary elements of the teacher-principal relationship that are missing.

What else do you need from your administrator?