In late 2020, educational leader Erika Garcia tweeted a simple question that caught my eye: “Teachers, what do you need from administrators. Like, right now.”
I bookmarked this tweet to follow the hundreds of insightful replies that poured in. The replies reveal the broad range of needs of educators—needs that may or may not be conveyed to administrators.
Are school leaders regularly asking these questions of their faculty and staff? If not, what can we do as educators to make our needs heard? Are we helping our school administrators help us by “managing up”?
In the business world, publications such as Forbes write often about managing up. In 2020, Caroline Castrillon wrote in her article “5 Tips to Manage Up at Work,” “Don’t let problems fester out of control. Instead, let your boss know politely and helpfully. They will appreciate your initiative and forthrightness.”
Sounds good for the business sector, but what does managing up look like in schools?
4 Ways Teachers Can Manage Up
1. Talk to your administrators, not about them. How many times has a school administrator walked into a teachers’ lounge, only to be greeted with suspicious silence? Many educators, myself included, may feel apprehensive about expressing a complaint directly to the administration because we are worried about being seen as a pesky rabble-rouser. I have, however, had the good fortune of working with outstanding administrators over the years who welcomed concerns without defensiveness or contempt.
If you get a response that doesn’t quite solve the issue, try using the expertly crafted words of Erica Jordan-Thomas, “I hear and honor your perspective, and I observed something different. Let me share my perspective with you.” Communication is a two-way street, and strong school leaders will be open to feedback. A head of school I worked with solicited feedback from faculty and staff with a survey at the end of each year and even shared all results verbatim. If a few teachers were expressing similar concerns, she spoke openly with the faculty about how she would address the concern. We felt heard and respected as a result.
2. Connect needs with your supervisor’s goals for the school. At one point in my career, I worked with an outstanding principal who deeply valued experiential learning (e.g., field trips, guest speakers, and partnerships with other schools). Each time I went to him with a request, I connected the solution back to his passion for experiential learning. For example, “There is a social and emotional learning conference coming up that will give me ideas for team-building activities for our upcoming grade-level trips. I would be happy to present what I learn at a faculty meeting when I return. Could I get approval to attend?” If I had started with, “I’d like to go to a conference that doesn’t quite align with the subject I teach, and it’s five states away,” I probably wouldn’t have gotten very far with my request.
Additionally, know your supervisor’s preferred communication mode. Do they primarily communicate via text, email, phone, scheduled meetings, or hallway happenstance? Try to match your mode of communication to their preferred mode to more effectively capture their attention.
3. Speak up early, and bring solutions if possible. Authors and podcasters Jennifer Gonzalez and Angela Watson offer a solution-oriented approach in the Cult of Pedagogy podcast episode titled “‘We’re a Family’ and Other School Norms That Can Cause Burnout.” Angela says, “If you can approach the principal directly with actual solutions, not just saying, ‘This is unacceptable, you need to fix it,’ but say, ‘Hey, we both know the situation isn’t ideal. So I’ve been trying to brainstorm some alternative approaches here, and I would love to be able to share some of them with you.’”
If you don’t have solutions, don’t let that hold you back from seeking help. Tell your administrator, “I have tried x, y, z, and I am seeking assistance with this problem.” Be proactive, and bring concerns to administrators as early as possible. An administrator once shared, “Surprises are a nightmare for school leaders,” so a heads-up is always appreciated.
4. Be clear and direct about what you need. When I was a beginner teacher, I confided with an experienced colleague about how nervous I was during my observation. She advised me to meet with our assistant principal (AP) who did the evaluations before my next observation to ask her to look for specific aspects in my teaching that I wanted to improve. My colleague assured me that this would ease my nerves for the next observation because I was taking some control of the process. I responded in disbelief, “I’m allowed to do that?” Yes! And, in fact, this pre-observation direct request probably helped the AP write up a more informative evaluation. A win-win!
Tom Oden, dean of faculty at Awty International School in Houston, offers this suggestion: “It also helps me when teachers frame for me the urgency of their need, as we might be aligned on the idea, but if we aren’t aligned on the timeline, it won’t be successful. Phrases like ‘I have something that I am frustrated by, and there is a deadline tomorrow’ or, alternatively, ‘This is not something I am wanting to do today, but I would love the chance in the future to _____’ are very valuable. In the first one, it is clear that my immediate attention is needed, while the second one can just be on the radar; however, interestingly, that simple awareness often seems to bring opportunities into existence.”
Periodically I refer back to Erika Garcia’s tweet asking, “What do you need from administrators?” One reply that stands out, in particular, is, “Restroom coverage!” With 25 likes, it seems to be a popular need among educators. I hope these strategies help you to manage up to improve communication, to benefit the teaching and learning environment, and maybe even to visit the restroom more often.