What We Can Learn as Teachers from Challenging Administrators

We all have said the words that relationships with students, especially relationships based on mutual respect, are critical to getting the best performance out of our students. Still, a great student will excel no matter what, right?

Let me tell you a story of two school years, and the parts of the Venn Diagram of those years that most wouldn’t want to talk about.

Last year was the best year of my career. We launched a 1:1 initiative with Windows laptops for a 4200 student, 200+ teacher school. On any given day, I was pulled in 15 different directions, solving problems, developing plans, implementing training, supporting staff, and building and running a student tech support group to teach students important job skills and keep the whole program up and running. It was stressful, and not without moments of minor-frustration at students and teachers, but I left work everyday proud of what I had done and what had been accomplished. I was supported by an Assistant Principal who, while she didn’t always agree with me, considered my expertise and treated me like…if not an equal than at least someone who was close to and was worth listening to.

This year, I continued in my position, but between June and August, there were major shifts in admin. My principal and two assistant principals were either transferred or left, and they were replaced with another veteran principal, and two fresh-faced assistant principals. In addition, we have a relief school opening up next year, so we had the looming threat all year that some percentage of our staff would be released, with no real guarantee that they would be rehired at the new school.

It has genuinely been one of the most demoralizing and painful school-years of my career, and while partly it is because of the huge pendulum-swing from last year, it is also because of the constant battles I have with the assistant principal over the digital initiative. My job as Digital Coach should, in my eyes, be evidence of my expertise, and yet I regularly have to argue that I know what I’m talking about and I should be listened to, and even then, I am often ignored still.

My own plans and solutions for how to move forward are not really the point of this post, Instead, I want to try to take what I have learned this year and extrapolate meaning as a teacher.

I have been tremendously unproductive this year. I’ve gotten the things done that I needed to get done, but there has been no creativity, no new ideas, no pushing the envelope of digital integration. This week, as we collect laptops and am again met with arguments and roadblocks from someone who thinks they know better, I realized that this same feeling is what many of my students deal with everyday.

If I were to grade my performance, I was an A employee last year. I was in an environment that pushed me, lead by someone who supported and encouraged me to be my best. I did great work and thrived. This year, with a new leader, my performance is sub-par at best, at least below what I’m capable of. I’m a solid C employee.

And so it hit me that the leader makes all the difference, and by extension, the teacher does as well. A student who thrives in my class because they respect me and I in turn respect them, will do just enough to pass in another class if they don’t respect the teacher. They will comply, because that’s necessary to reduce the adversity on themselves, but they won’t really learn, won’t interact with knowledge in the way for true acquisition to occur.

These are things I already knew to be true, could have said the words before now, but it was this year that it truly hit home. I always thought, in the back of my head, that a “good student” would struggle through the problems and perform to their best effort, but how can I expect that of my kids when I haven’t done that myself? I’ve let a leader drive me down, and a student is less well-equipped emotionally and mentally to overcome that.

So, my call to you is to consider this when you are interacting with your students. They don’t need you to be their friend, don’t need to like you. They need you to respect them as individuals, to provide them with an environment that encourages learning, not challenges their self worth. And if you find that students who you “think” could be better aren’t producing that effort, maybe you’re the problem.