In the last several entries, I laid out some of the questionable ways administrators get rid of non-tenured and tenured teachers (See New Hires, Games, Battles, and/or Undermining). Every district is different, so it would be foolish to suggest all these activities go on in every school, but my thirty-three years in two districts with dozens of administrators has convinced me we need a different system for recruiting (See Volunteering) and maintaining our educational leaders.
I can’t fully understand positions I’ve never done, nor do I have any business telling administrators how they should do their jobs. The problem, however, is that administrators were constantly telling me how I should do mine.
The mistaken belief is that since administrators were all once teachers, showed the initiative to take administrative classes, and have moved up the educational ladder; they are now equipped to tell teachers the best ways to teach their classes. I’ll concede that there is logic to the idea that administrators have learned more about how schools function, but the many holes in that logic quickly become apparent once you’ve worked more than a couple administrators.
First off, I would argue the other degrees teachers pursue which don’t lead to administrative positions are actually more valuable to school districts. Curriculum instruction, reading, counseling, and specific subject matter areas (English literature or physics, for example) are the most common Master’s degrees teachers get. I know that I benefitted from my counseling Master’s degree in class every day until I retired even though I was never a counselor. The degree required for an administrative certificate (type 75, which is necessary before a teacher can become an administrator) is hardly the only way a teacher can gain additional knowledge which will positively impact students. Administrative training is NOT the be-all, end-all to understanding how schools function best.
Then too, the experiences each administrator had in the classroom are different than mine. He might have been a rigorous sage on the stage who efficiently ran his charges through their paces on a tight schedule which allowed no time for any asides or frivolity. My classroom, in contrast, might be a chaotic circus with me as guide on the side, where we never found a topic with which we couldn’t spend fifteen minutes digressing, no matter what the supposed agenda for that day had originally been.
In both these classrooms, the overall objectives of learning are going on—it’s just that our methods differ. What happens when this guy gets in charge and starts evaluating how my circus should function? My messy but effective methods could irritate him, making me a target for the harassment of the preceding entries. And that’s not even assuming he’s got less-than-pure motives; he just might believe whole-heartedly that his approach is the only way to go.
Humans tend to idealize the past; so as each year passes where he isn’t teaching any classes, this administrator sees the way he used to teach as more wonderful than it really was. Prior teaching experience, unless the individual in question is an ardent Snowflaker, doesn’t automatically translate to brilliant insight into teaching methods.
Even more obviously, administrators’ past subject areas can be a hindrance to their understanding what I want to do. Over the years, I had a disproportionate number of administrators who began as math teachers. I’ve got nothing at all against arithmetic, but math and English (what I taught) are pretty far apart on the curricular continuum. While they do connect in some ways—the logical precision of a geometric proof parallels the meticulous consistency of grammar—in general, they don’t match up well. The creativity required to speculate on whether Hamlet is pretending or really is insane differs from the creativity in applying Euler's formula in trigonometry. Neither skill nor knowledge is better than the other, but the classrooms working on those two topics will demand different approaches from their teachers.
Although no administrator would deny the logic of that, many still have a hard time accepting the reality of what that Hamlet teacher might feel is the best way to get students to climb into the great Dane’s head. Excuse the generalization, but my experience was that the more routine and control-oriented administrators come from the left-brained disciplines (math and science) whereas the humanities (social studies and English) produce administrators who tend to be more open to a variety of teaching methods. Regardless from which discipline they originated, administrators cannot understand other subjects as fully as those who have made those areas their specialty.
For example, let’s imagine I had become an assistant principal in charge of evaluating half the teachers in a high school. Since I taught writing for three decades, I have a decent handle on basic grammatical rules. Sooner or later—via e-mail, memo, or classroom material—some of the teachers I would be evaluating would commit some horrific (by my standards) faux pas which would diminish them in my eyes. No matter how much respect I have for someone, the glow on that respect will tarnish at least a little if that person damages the wonder of grammar with a comma splice, poor capitalization, or the dreaded multiple exclamation marks. And let’s not even bring up those fiends who ruthlessly engage in punctuation trafficking, enslaving innocent commas and semi-colons to lives as facial expressions.
By the same light, as an administrator, I would have a tough time relating to some of the procedures I’ve seen in many math and foreign language classes. The necessary drill leading to laudable outcomes would seem alien to me, and I would struggle to learn how to differentiate between good and bad ways a teacher might guide her students through the various declensions of Latin nouns. Administrators have to watch themselves constantly to control their natural tendencies to think that their way of teaching—formed in the kiln of their discipline—should dominate the teaching pottery barn.
Finally and most importantly, most administrators don’t teach any classes. As we mentioned earlier, this gives them a convenient memory which idealizes their experiences, deletes their failures, and provides them with easy answers to the questions which have plagued classroom teachers forever.
We all understand this process from the advice we have given and endured over the years to and from our friends. I can glibly tell you exactly how you should handle your problems since all the assertive behaviors, self-discipline, and rationalizations that I so pompously prescribe won’t be required of ME. The hard work that YOU have to do never seems all that hard to ME, especially when compared to the infinitely harder work the world has so unfairly dished out to ME.
Seeing things from another’s perspective is challenging enough, but to “climb into his skin and walk around in it” takes extraordinary empathy skills that are beyond most human beings. We’re just not that good at understanding how tough or painful something that we haven’t experienced is.
While this might even be a self-preservation skill in some of the healing professions—surgeons must detach from their patients’ recovery pain lest they fear lifting a scalpel for the next life-saving procedure—it creates all kinds of myopia in administering a school district. This leads us to the topic advertised in the title of this entry: To make them better, every school administrator in the country (Yeah, I’m talking to you, too, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education) should be required to keep teaching.
That seems pretty simple; doesn’t it? Given all the dramatic build-up I used before getting to the point, it seems anti-climactic. “That’s it?” you’re probably thinking. “I was expecting something brilliant and insightful—in keeping with everything else I’ve read here so far, of course. This seems so…basic. Plus what good would that do?”
Actually, the simplicity of this idea is what could make it so effective. Often when education reformers take on school improvement, they attempt to reinvent how we teach children with ideas that—no matter how interesting or theoretically effective—require such radical departures from current practices that they do little beyond selling a few books and attracting a modicum of attention through the twenty-four-hour news channels desperate for something to fill time.
I’ll concede that incremental, what-can-get-done-now approaches are not as sexy as the voucher, standardized tests/teacher evaluation, or merit pay reforms some advocate (all of which are severely flawed in my view). However, they also don’t require such dramatic changes as to terrify the entrenched bureaucracy which then undermines those reforms, leading to expensive failures. We need things that are workable, build upon what is already in place, and don’t cost much, if anything. (See ”My Manifesto” for more on my philosophical foundation.)
Teachers complain constantly about how administrators don’t understand the implications, effects, and outcomes their policies have on classroom teachers. The easiest way to solve that dilemma is to make sure administrators are affected by the programs and procedures they inflict on the rest of us.
If a principal were getting frustrated by the time wasted in an empty resource room (as explained in Administrative Decision Making ), she would have a better chance of recognizing that the old system was a more efficient utilization of teacher time. Before that assistant principal went after that uncooperative veteran teacher (as outlined in the entries linked in the first sentence of this essay), he needs to face a classroom full of unresponsive, unmotivated juniors every day.
I grant you that teaching only one class—which is probably all we could make work—wouldn’t be a completely accurate representation of what other teachers have to do, but it would force a much larger dose of reality into an administrator’s head in a week than he typically gets after years of standing in the halls.
To show that they understand their teachers’ world and are constantly taking the pulse of the school, administrators will sometimes stand outside their offices during the time between classes. All this does, my administrator friends, is piss off your teachers, since inevitably this stimulates another stupid e-mail from the administration chastising teachers for failing to keep students in class after the tardy bell has rung.
Now, imagine the difference if those same administrators had to slog through our crowded halls during passing periods: They’d have to decide what the appropriate response to the displays of affection, shoving, and profanity should be; they’d wonder if that call of nature they were hearing would wait until the class period were over; and they’d experience that sinking feeling when they realized what vital piece of that day’s lesson they’d left back in their offices as the bell rang to start class.
This kind of reality should be part of every administrator’s daily diet. I guarantee that teaching one class a day would make superintendents and principals better.
And in bettering administrators, we would improve schools in other ways; all without spending any extra money, as we’ll see next time.