TGIF, Victor thinks as he opens his laptop and gets ready for the day.
Suddenly, the classroom door opens and Victor’s assistant principal pokes her head in. Gina already has an apologetic look on her face, and Victor braces himself. Sure enough, the words that come out of her mouth are among his least favorite: “I need you to cover a class today. I’m so sorry, but we’re short on substitutes again.”
This has become an all-too-common feature of Victor’s week. He is so tired of using his planning time to cover for absent colleagues—especially without being asked or given an option. Sighing, he steadies himself for another long end to the week.
School leaders and coaches are often overwhelmed with the number of tasks on their to-do lists each day. It’s all too easy for emails or comments to inadvertently alienate teachers—their most important audience for collaboration. To create a space where mutual expertise is valued between teachers and leaders, here are a few key phrases that increase constructive conversations between teachers and administrators.
Facilitating Constructive Conversations
1. “It’s been a little while since I’ve been in the classroom. Can you help me put this in perspective?” Administrators or coaches may try to point to their years in the classroom as a basis for giving advice or directives about instruction by saying something like “I was a teacher, too.” While this reminder of credibility is meant to build rapport, it usually misses the mark. The reality is, time and physical proximity to classrooms can separate school leaders from a constantly shifting teaching reality.
Appreciating the skill sets of everyone in the room by embracing different vantage points is key to creating effective partnerships. Suppose a teacher asserts that she can determine what students know through using a game-show-style quiz app, but her assistant principal is concerned that this method does not provide students with clear formative assessment measures. Rather than use prior teaching experience as grounds for an authoritarian approach, the assistant principal can take a more collaborative stance by first seeing the practice in action without preconceived bias, and then offering to collaborate to develop additional formative measures if needed.
2. “We both want the same thing—to do what is best for the kids.” When people in the same school building do jobs that appear so different on the surface, it can be easy to forget that everyone is there for the same reason: to help students achieve growth. Sometimes, using the word “I” too much (as in “I just want to help kids”) causes people to get defensive. Instead, by keeping the focus on mutual goals rather than getting mired in the minutiae of who does what, leaders build a climate of shared responsibility.
When conflict occurs, it is important to remember the “we” above the “I” in any statements or phrasing. For example, let’s say that a teacher and an instructional coach are engaged in a debate around how many assignments should be in the gradebook because students are struggling to complete the number of expected tasks.
Rather than get locked in an endless loop about what number of assignments qualifies as too many, focus on solutions. The coach might say, “Can we talk about which assignments are there to determine student progress toward a specific learning outcome and which are completion grades?” As a collaborative conversation continues with both parties examining gradebook specifics, it is easier for the focus to remain where it belongs: on student learning.
3. “New initiatives feel frustrating, but I trust everyone here to make this work meaningful." When the next new thing (whatever it may be) is launched, leaders must stand behind the work of their organization or school regardless of personal feelings. Responding to pushback by placing blame on higher-ups’ shoulders or saying something like “Well, I don’t like it either, but they told us to do this” only serves to undercut both the leader’s credibility and the potential of the work that lies ahead.
To think about what this behavior looks like in action, let’s consider a common change that occurs in school districts regularly: the implementation of a new curriculum. Rather than introduce the curriculum as an unwelcome change beyond anyone’s control, a better leadership move is to dig into the curriculum before presenting it to staff members. That way, when teachers push back about how difficult it is to devote so much time to something unfamiliar (a justifiable concern), school leaders or coaches can immediately point to features or aspects that make it a positive shift for students (and teachers, too).
Whatever the initiative in question may be, the best thing anyone can do is become knowledgeable about what they’re looking at, which in turn brings everyone up to speed with more buy-in.
4. “I would love to come visit your classroom.” Brenda is exhausted. Not only is this the last day of the quarter, but Dr. Landon, her assistant principal, also visited her third-period class for an unannounced observation and stayed the entire time, taking notes without smiling. Now, there is an email marked urgent from Dr. Landon in Brenda’s inbox with the subject line “YOUR CLASS TODAY.” Instead of opening the email, Brenda thinks about the unfairness of the situation. Dr. Landon had plenty of time to come see my class, and she picked today of all days, when kids are making up work before the quarter ends. I don’t care how “urgent” she thinks her message is. I’m done.
Many teachers don’t mind being observed, and everyone understands that some visits must be unannounced, but having repeated unannounced visits can be disruptive for teachers and students. Developing organizational systems that heighten the importance of classroom observation prevents teachers from feeling as though observations are about being ambushed. Even better, focusing on teacher excellence by asking to see short snippets of skillful instruction can prevent more typical feelings of resentment about the process from cropping up.
Wherever possible with more formal visits, prioritize observations by asking a fellow administrator or coach to be on call as a backup. That way, when emergencies arise (as they almost always do), that individual can attend to the problem while scheduled observations continue as planned.
Let’s imagine another outcome for Brenda. Instead of observing her on that final day of the marking period, Dr. Landon stops by the classroom before the day begins and says, “I owe you a huge apology. I know I was supposed to observe you during this quarter, and I became overwhelmed. Would it be all right if I sent you some possible dates for the second week of the next marking period? This will be a top priority for me.”
“That should work,” Brenda says. “Thanks for letting me know.”
5. “I need your help.” Thinking back to the scenario at the beginning, what if the conversation went a little differently at Victor’s school? Rather than being “voluntold” to cover classes, what if he became an active part of the solution? Better collaboration can be achieved when leaders shift language from “I need you to cover a class” to phrasing such as “We’re developing a rotation plan for class coverage to ensure the lightest and fairest load possible. I would love some help.” Treating teachers as partners in solving problems goes a long way toward creating a place of respect.