I know my teacher friends are still enjoying their summer vacations (unless they are working summer school or their summer job in order to make ends meet) and thoughts of school are at least temporarily on the back burner. Having said that, I think it is time to write a post that offers some advice for my administrator friends and colleagues who are gearing up getting ready for the return of their teachers in just a few weeks. I hope you will read and know that this advice is offered with good intentions and good will.
I offer a workshop on stress management for teachers, and when I am preparing to go into a specific area to offer this workshop, I do a little homework and contact some of the teachers from the area to see if there are any specific issues of which I need to be aware. While teachers everywhere are subject to high levels of stress these days while also dealing with historically low levels of morale, it is foolish to think that all teachers in all locations are dealing with the same stressors. So, I ask, and I learn. That might be one good piece of advice for administrators. Ask how things are going. You might learn some things that you hadn’t considered.
During my investigation this summer, I have talked to a number of teachers and inquired about what was going on in their school and their district. Three themes have emerged, and I thought it might be helpful to administrators to offer what I have learned in case you haven’t yet taken the time to ask these questions yourself.
In answer to what are the top two or three things that create the most stress for you, here are the things that emerged, and in this order:
1. Lack of time.
2. Too much paperwork.
3. Inconsistent administration of district policies from school to school.
I know that time is a problem for everyone. We never seem to have enough to do all of the things that need to be done. As a result, too many of us are depriving ourselves of sleep in an effort to get everything done, and in the end, we wind up exhausted and unable to do our best work because we are, well…seriously sleep deprived. This is truly a problem, and it is a growing problem that people need to stop and consider. I just wrote another article entitled, “Are You Sleep Deprived?” in which I point out that sleep is as essential to our health and wellness as food and water. Yet too many of us think that sleep can be delayed, put off, and minimized in our effort to accomplish all of the things on our to-do lists.
For teachers, time becomes an issue because, in addition to face-to-face time with their students, they need planning time. They need time to collaborate with their colleagues. They need time to sort through the mounds of data with which they are presented, and they need time to sort out how they are going to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of the children who are coming to them every year with more needs and fewer resources with which to meet those needs.
As a Superintendent, you should consider how you can provide your teachers throughout the district with the time that they need in order to do the job they have been hired to do. This does not mean cramming in extra professional development programs that may or may not meet the needs of the teachers in your district. It also does not mean sending the message to your principals that they can impose meetings on their individual faculties that may wind up being a waste of the teachers’ time. Forget the idea that a cookie cutter approach to staff development works. It works no better for teachers than a cookie cutter approach to teaching students works for the students.
As a principal, you will be forever loved and appreciated if you can figure out a way to respect your teachers’ time and give them as much as you can for planning, for collaborating, and for keeping up with their mounds of paperwork. Indeed, the paperwork seems to increase exponentially every year because the people in charge “at the top” of the education pyramid have no idea what teaching in the classroom looks like anymore.
As for the complaint about too much paperwork, an effort to control that would be greatly appreciated, and it would help with the complaint about time. Teachers are feeling more and more overwhelmed with paperwork that feels like “busy work” rather than work that is truly helpful or meaningful either to them or to their students. Cut out some of the reports that no one ever checks. In fact, I heard from more than one teacher this summer while I was doing my background research that many teachers feel that they are being asked to keep up with reports that no one ever checks and the only rationale for the reports is that it helps justify a job of someone in the central office. If that is the case, it is time to take a serious look at the work that is being required by the central office administrators. Busy work isn’t recommended for students…it should not be required of teachers.
Finally, with regard to inconsistent administration of district policies from school to school, it is up to the Superintendent to provide training for school administrators so that this is minimized. It is not okay for some school principals to be sticklers for every letter of a policy while others let some policies slide. And when it comes to disciplinary policies for students, it is critically important that principals strive to be on the same page with other principals about how they handle certain incidents just as it is important for administrators within the same building to be consistent. Teachers, like students, are hyper-sensitive to anything that smacks of unfair, inconsistent, or arbitrary treatment. Be aware. Be consistent. Communicate with each other, so you know what you are all doing and be consistent.
In my general research about teacher burnout, I have read numerous articles that point to the fact that teachers who feel truly appreciated and who are recognized for their contributions are much happier in their jobs. Job satisfaction is key to those who want to avoid feeling the burnout that comes with feeling that no one cares about how hard they are working or the efforts that they are making. The current craze around testing and accountability has put the focus on arbitrary test scores instead of the authentic teaching and learning that is taking place in every classroom every day. Paying lip service to how much you appreciate everyone’s efforts to get the school’s test scores up is not what I mean when I talk about teacher appreciation. Giving awards is not what I am talking about either. A teacher knows when his/her administrator truly knows what they are doing and cares enough to check in to see how they are doing and what the administrator can do to help and support their efforts. A genuine “thank you” for everything you are doing and a “What can I do to help?” goes a long way toward ensuring the loyalty and appreciation that you as an administrator yearn to have.
These are definitely difficult times for educators everywhere regardless of whether they wear the hat of teacher or administrator. At the end of the day, however, regardless of which hat you wear, you are–or at least you should be–about making sure that children learn in a nurturing and safe environment. Period. That is what we are about. That is why we do this job.
Happy New School Year.