To make administrators better, we found, it’s crucial they teach at least one class every day for a perspective-altering dose of reality. Those of you who teach might have reservations about this. “Wait a minute,” you interject. “My department chair already teaches a class every day, and that hasn’t made him any less of a jerk!”
Absolutely right, my brothers and sisters, but all those administrators above your chair don’t teach, and they are the ones your chair keeps trying to please. In order to keep their positions, department chairs have to carry the water for all those top-down initiatives that waste so much time and energy. One of the most infuriating things I’d hear from my chairs regularly was the “Given” rationalization: “Well Jim, given that you have to teach with your finger up your nose and your left eye closed…” I exaggerate, of course—the finger-up-your-nose initiative and the left-eye-closed proposal were two separate programs—but teachers habitually get this shoulder-shrugging, eye-rolling, I-know-it’s-stupid-but-what’re-ya-gonna-do behavior from their immediate supervisors.
They imply they agree with the objection you’re raising, but there’s nothing they can do. While this can be mealy-mouthed cowardice, often there is little they can do. Were they to raise your protests at the meetings where all the building administrators get together to go over things, the principal would simply give them an icy glare and state, “The new procedure is a given, so let’s move on.”
Now, were that principal a user of that procedure as well as a dealer, she would have the chance to learn as soon as she had seen that foolishness in action that maybe, just maybe, there might be a better way. I have found the “given” rationale comes from administrators who don’t have to use the new methods and/or are powerless to impact decisions. If your department chair is still a jerk after the “Everybody Teaches” Initiative, then he’s just a jerk—the ideas here can’t magically alter people’s basic personalities. A significant number of department chairs who act as administrative apologists, however, will be freed to impact top-down decisions more (thus, “better”) once their bosses have to teach just like everybody else.
The next teacher objection illustrates one of the key problems with administrator/teacher relationships as they exist right now—teachers would be uncomfortable with administrators working alongside them. “If the superintendent has his certification in English and he’s teaching the same prep as I am, he might work with me on units and I might have to share some of my material with him. Ewww!”
Well, yeah, this would happen. That some teachers would see this as horrible speaks volumes on what is wrong with the hierarchal system we now have. Every teacher should have more teaching interaction with his/her administrators, period. Right now, the relationship between teachers and administrators is way too distant and adversarial; working together toward a common goal, like teaching the same class, might help defuse some of the hostility that’s built up over the years.
Of course, the administration would blame the unions for that confrontational climate; just as union activists (as I was) place responsibility for the problems on administrators. But, really, finger pointing won’t get much accomplished. The truth is that most teachers see administrators as scary evaluators, out-of-touch bureaucrats, and/or loutish sycophants; and we should change that.
For all of us to cooperate, we have to work together on the most important work of the district—teaching. It’s pathetic that, “We all share the common goal of educating children,” is seen as a hopelessly idealistic cliché. Who knows? Teachers might even find the assistant superintendent they’ve always despised is really a decent person after all. He’s not? Well, at least they’ll get to see him take a stack of papers home over the weekend, just like them.
If nothing else, teachers would benefit from seeing the superintendent curse out the jammed copy machine, the principal carrying a precarious pile of books through crowded halls, and the curriculum director struggling to settle students down after an unscheduled fire drill has wound them up. Teachers who dread the sight of their administrators should welcome this idea as a way to improve their working environments by reducing that debilitating fear.
The key problem with this idea will be setting it up; the logistics of getting administrators in classrooms might cause some to abandon this idea before even trying it out. Those problems can be worked out, but it will take looking at school organization differently than we do right now.
The most significant problem would be how to do this without increasing costs. If an administrator is teaching one fifty-minute period a day, he’s going to lose between 10-20% of his work day. Plus, if five building administrators are each teaching one class, that would mean we would need one less teacher. And since each administrator would be 10-20% less productive, we might have to hire more administrators.
So, at first glance, this could have the disastrous impact of teachers losing their jobs as we add more administrative positions. Not only would that be a foolish systemic modification, but it would be expensive as well—administrators are paid more than teachers. So the number-one issue to resolve would be how to pick up the slack caused by administrators having less time to administrate.
Assuming that administrators need all the time they have to do their jobs, we’d have to shift some of their responsibilities and duties elsewhere. Guess what? We’ve got teachers who need something to do. That’s right—we could take selected duties of administrators and pass them on to teachers. Most teachers get Master’s degrees in a variety of areas, with Administration being one of the most common choices. In the English Department where I worked with roughly twenty-two people, for example, at least eight had a Master’s in administration. Since there was only one department chair, that left seven teachers with degrees for which they had little use.
With this new administrative need, we could put these degrees to work. As it is, many administrators are assigned tasks that, to put it kindly, do not match up well with their talents. Scheduling is an example of something where involving more teachers would be a good thing.
Every spring, as numbers come in when students sign up for classes, the pressure mounts on a single assistant principal as he consults his way through the arduous process of determining how many sections of each class will be needed, how those sections will fall throughout the school day, and in which room each class will be held. Despite computer programs and secretarial help, inevitably there are many glitches in the master schedule that seem obvious to everybody else. If we used those administrative teaching periods to put a couple of teachers on scheduling, the results would be significantly better for all involved: Teachers simply understand these working conditions best since they live with those conditions.
Maybe the bland writing in school newsletters could benefit from an English teacher’s acting as its editor for part of her administrative assignment. Wouldn’t it make sense to have teachers from the various departments helping with the “capital requests” (things that cost money) list to be presented to the school board? Tech upgrade research, hallway aesthetics and traffic patterns, make-up test center logistics, new textbook comparisons, discipline approaches—from the far-reaching to the mundane, teachers could provide fresh approaches which would improve many administrative functions. We’d also be able to tap the talent of some of our best teachers who made the decision not to go after administrative positions.
Basically, what I’m suggesting is blurring the line between administrator and teacher. There’s no question that this would take years, much experimentation, and clear-eyed evaluation in order to work.
Step one, phase it in. Every school district has X number of administrative positions: Select a percentage of them—say 10% for the first year—and get those administrators in the classroom with teachers picking up 10-20% of those administrators’ duties. Use institute and release time to make sure that these two groups are interacting and adjusting throughout the school year.
Assign another group of administrators and teachers impacted by the new arrangements to evaluate the effectiveness of the deployments, making adjustments as the year progresses. Be frank about things that aren’t going well in addition to publicizing successes.
While this process is going on, organize another group of administrators and teachers to figure out which classes next year’s crop of administrators will teach and what duties of theirs can be picked up by teachers. At the end of the year, the first group would present an analysis of how the process went, warts and all. After studying that report, the second committee would issue its recommendations for the next batch of switches for the next year.
Periodically, have open forums at which all teachers and administrators could question, complain, and suggest. Within a few years, every administrator (there aren’t that many) would be teaching at least one class with teachers performing some of the district’s administrative tasks. There you have it—the way to improve every administrator and school in America—AT NO COST!
My “Administrator Substitution System” (What acronym could we use for this program?) would make any school better. Administrators would be more astute once they were teaching again. Their initiatives would reflect the realities experienced with actual students. They’d have a much better feel for how programs and curricula were functioning, thus more willing to revise or abandon poorly functioning systems. They’d be more compassionate and understanding in their evaluations of teachers.
But they’d also be more aware of the mediocrities that slither around every school, and therefore better able to document these problems with an eye toward getting those teachers to improve or get out. They’d interact with a ton more kids than they do now, enhancing their profile in the school as well as the community. They’d conceivably improve the quality of teaching, since (theoretically) they were promoted to administrative positions because somebody thought they were the best teachers. Virtually no administrator got into education because of his desire to become an assistant principal in charge of building maintenance, so remaining in classrooms would keep administrators more in touch with their first love—teaching.
And the administrative end of my kick-ASS program would benefit from talented, creative teachers who would pick up administrative tasks. Each administrator would have to break down his responsibilities in order to determine what parts could be handed over to someone else. This alone would be a great exercise for everybody: Administrators would document their duties, and teachers would better understand what administrators do.
Once everybody knew what the various tasks of each administrator were, the process of matching teachers’ skills to tasks could begin. Of course, we’d need the right person with the right responsibility, and everybody would need to go into this with a spirit of experimentation as the kinks got worked out. Maybe something we all thought would take one period to do would need two periods in order to be done correctly. Conversely, that seemingly huge job might not need a full period when in a teacher’s hands. (My prediction: We’ll need fewer release periods for teachers than the number of administrators would seem to require.)
Regardless, we’d have to expect some confusion, overlapping responsibilities, turf wars, false steps, and revisions as we figured this out. Remember—we’ve got the hard-ASS evaluation process that would ferret out inefficiency in the system as it went along. Eventually, however, the school would be a much better place for having administrators and teachers gaining a better understanding of each other.
Maybe, just maybe, the sum of the whole would be greater than the parts. It could happen.