Although I wasn’t quite ready to become an administrator when the world shut down in March 2020, I felt called into service to help prepare my district’s teachers. These people were my friends and colleagues for the last 15 years. Up until then, I was still in the middle school classroom; and, in fact, I continued simultaneously for the rest of that school year both in the classroom and in the district office, trying to apply my edtech-related master’s degree to reinventing education along with the rest of the country’s educators.
Once the summer came, I moved into the district office full time, and my classroom became a time capsule. When classrooms saw students again, this time I wasn’t there to greet them at the door. I was now a full-time administrator. I’m not complaining. I love advocating for an entire district of students, not just those on my roster. I’ve always been interested in adult learners and data and helping to determine the trajectory of an organization. However, I find myself continuously gutted and lonely without students around me.
I’m sure we all agree that the students are the best thing about teaching and the best thing about being in education. However, as much as I love the work I do now and the positive impact I can make on more and more students than I ever had before, I realize that I need to create opportunities for myself as a new administrator to continue to be around them. They aren’t just our “why”; they’re our fuel.
DRIFTING AWAY FROM OUR StudentS
I remember every moment as a teacher—all the joys and frustrations. But I also have to acknowledge that once you leave the classroom, you have to continually be intentional and active about engaging with students. If not, you lose a certain urgency if you aren’t confronted with the daily impact of our country’s and district’s policies on students.
The farther you get from the classroom, even when on a site, you can get a little numb putting out fires; dealing with managerial tasks; and shouldering the tasks related to parents, community members, teachers, and more. But if we give in to that numbing, even if it’s a natural occurrence, it limits access to the very thing that gives us strength: students.
So as administrators, we need to deliberately and intentionally create opportunities to engage with, and hear from, children. It’s vital for your well-being, but it’s also vital for the work you do.
We know, for instance, that principals—those administrators closest to students—can positively impact school culture and climate by forging relationships with students, and a strong school climate is one that data says tremendously impacts overall student achievement, according to a 2018 study out of the University of Chicago. If you’re a district administrator, you’re even farther away from those we serve.
HOW CAN ADMINISTRATORS STAY CONNECTED TO STUDENTS?
Here are three ways that administrators can continue to connect with students.
1. Create a student advisory committee. In my district, the Superintendent Student Advisory Committee is made up of students from third to 12th grade and tasked to meet monthly to give input directly to the superintendent. Additionally, our site administrators are starting the process of creating their own student input committees.
These committees are really wonderful ways to encourage more student agency on a site or in an organization. The students give input and share the needs as they see them, but they’re also partners in communicating what’s happening around the district or site to other students. There’s an additional benefit: Those adults helping to facilitate these advisory committees continue to connect with students and the issues most pressing to them.
Note: If you’re seeking to launch this kind of advisory team, make sure the students aren’t all the high fliers. The team can’t only be made up of our kids in student government. Make sure there’s a variety of voices at the table, from multilingual learners to AVID students, from the class president to a student or students who may struggle with attendance. They should all have a voice at the table.
2. Substitute. Answer the call to fill that classroom need somewhere on your site. Yes, the administrator job is huge, and it’s hard to do this regularly, but it brings you closer to students.
3. Walk around the classrooms. Leave your office. It’s a trap. Get into the classrooms, not to evaluate teachers, but to interact with students. Schedule time among students that is sacred. Walk around the quad, stand at the gate, and talk to different groups of students during lunch. Award-winning principal and ASCD author Baruti K. Kafele stresses that wherever students are, we should be there as well.
The management part of the job should be happening outside of those student-facing hours. Yes, it adds to the job, he notes, but the primary part of the administrator’s job is to support students. So, sit down on the carpet square during reading time. With the teacher’s permission, go ahead and pop onto the Google Doc that the small group is working on and give some feedback on the writing. Make sure you’re a part of their day as much as they’re a part of yours.
I’m grateful that there are so many pathways in education that allow for student advocates to continue contributing to the field even after they leave the classroom. I’m grateful that when I was called away from working directly with students, I could still tap into my educational muscles and find a position that used my instructional past and my passion for education’s future. I’m also grateful that whenever the politics of or the challenges to the job send me home in fear or sadness, I can find ways to get back on track just by charging my batteries again for those I fight for: the students.