A few days ago when taking votes for my next ebook, I received a response from someone who I'll call “Rachel.” She wrote a heart-rending message that I'm guessing literally thousands of Teaching the Core readers can relate to (details changed to protect Rachel's anonymity):
Dave, I've been teaching high school for close to 25 years, and every year I see more and more good teachers, both veterans and newbies, both traditionally certified and alternately certified, leave the profession. I am at the point where I wish I too could leave. I get pretty good teaching reviews (for the past few years I've gotten the highest rating my district offers) and I constantly strive to improve my lesson plans and delivery methods. But like so many of us I feel sabotaged by my administration and ultimately ineffective. I'm expected to be too many things all at once and I feel set up for failure.
At our last faculty meeting our top administrator felt it necessary to stand up and tell all of us that just because we had a signed contract didn't mean we actually had a guaranteed job (Arizona is a “right to work” state). We've now been told that administrators will be present at every department meeting, and that our teacher evaluations will be conducted by a new administrator who has less than 5 years' classroom experience.
Other than looking for a job at a munitions factory, do you have any advice for me and others like me who try hard but feel hopeless?
First of all, Rachel, if all else fails, I hear munitions factories are wonderful places to work. And just think of the service you'll be doing the world while crafting weaponry.
But seriously — I'd like to respond to a few ideas in your letter.
1. Although your feelings are legitimate, your administrators are probably unintentionally de-motivating you
Both teachers and administrators easily fall into an “us versus them” herd mentality, and as a result, a lot of generalized, ill-thought statements are made to groups of people (e.g., your entire staff) when in fact they would be more wisely made to specific people. Just as it is foolish for me to chastise my whole class of students for not doing their homework last night when in fact it was only a percentage of them who didn't do it, it is foolish for administrators to chastise an entire staff for things that don't apply to the entire staff.
Now, far be it from me to cast the first stone on admins who make this mistake (like it seems yours did) because the above example of chastising the whole class isn't even close to made up — I've resorted to tactics like that in my career more than I care to recount. And whether it's in the classroom or the faculty meeting, generalized critiques like this are harmful in at least two ways.
Whole group critiques are highly de-motivating to both groups.
Few in a group are motivated to change by whole-group critiques.
Those who are guilty of the misdemeanor feel safer than they should because, based on the size of the group they are in, the problem seems to be widespread. In other words, when you tell an entire staff that they are messing up or that they aren't doing enough collaborative activities or aren't using essential questions correctly or what have you, those who actually have the problem will assume they can skate by with minimal action because, after all, it is unlikely that they, out of the whole group, will receive corrective actions.
On the other hand, those who are trying their hardest get the impression that their hardest is inadequate (as in your case). People who work hard tend to apply the generalized critiques they hear to themselves, so when the generalized critiques seem to come despite our best efforts, the result is high stress, high burnout, and a highly toxic educational environment in which we all must, like Boxer in Animal Farm, adopt the party motto, “I will work harder.”
The end result is exactly the opposite of what the whole-group critique was meant to create: both the low-performing and high-performing groups meld into an apathetic, survival-oriented group.
That's horrible in a classroom, and it's even more horrible in a staff.
It's also totally avoidable — admins and teachers just need to direct critiques to those who need to hear them.
Whole group critiques are also inefficient.
Not only do generalized, whole group critiques (and keep in mind that this is applicable to our work with students just as much as it's applicable to how administrators work with staffs) tend to create a de-motivated whole group. They are also wildly inefficient. Consider the purpose of the critique: it's to curb the problem behavior, correct? Whether it's worksheet-driven teaching (something a teacher might be critiqued for) or lower-casing the first-person pronoun I (something my students might be critiqued for), our goal in addressing it with the whole group is to get the people doing the wrong thing to start doing the right thing.
But, as basically explained above, the psychology of low-performing people tends to be “it's somebody else's problem,” whereas the psychology of high-performing people tends to be “it's my problem.” Thus, giving critique to the whole group that should have actually been given to the low-performing group is nearly pointless.
I don't want to keep driving this point home, but suffice it to say that, whether you're an admin or a teacher, you (and I) need to think carefully the next time we're tempted to disguise as a whole-group problem something that actually only a small group needs to hear.
2. Cultivate excellence in yourself
In general, I have found that as long as a teacher is trying her hardest and showing a reflective, professional attitude toward whatever this year's initiative list contains (notice I didn't say doing everything on the initiative list — I don't think keeping my teaching job is worth abandoning what I know is most important for my kids' long-term well-being), her job is safe.
But your desire, Rachel, is about more than being safe, isn't it? I don't get the impression you're much worried about getting fired (after all, you received highest marks on your evaluations this past year). Rather, you're worried about hating your job; you're worried about working in a lethally toxic environment.
Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind here. Atticus works hard at his job simply because it is who he is — it's this attitude I try to emulate in my work not only as a teacher, but also as a husband and a dad (I think this is a side effect of having read the work of Rafe Esquith, who also holds Atticus as a role model). I think we have to strive to be like Atticus, Rachel, if we are going to avoid going insane, especially in what sounds like the hellish year you're headed into. We have to strive for this, Rachel, because this makes us unshakeable, just as it does Atticus while he represents Tom Robinson in an unjust trial or gets mocked by the vile-mouthed Ms. Dubose.
I want to be someone who can legitimately work hard each day, know I did the best I could on that given day, know I used my time well, and then go home and be with my family. If you work for de-motivating leaders — which it sounds like you do, Rachel! — this is pretty hard. Just keep in mind that Atticus' working conditions in To Kill a Mockingbird were miserable, too; he, too, worked in an unjust, toxic, insane environment. And yet he conducted his work with excellence and dignity–even treating with dignity those who treated him with disdain.
May we become more and more like him.
3. Speak truth to power
Initially, I had written down that I would give you the pragmatic advice to “speak the language” — you know, the buzzwordy stuff like “close reading” or what-have-you. After all, many admins (and teachers) focus on external things like language and fail to seriously examine what works and what doesn't, what's fluffy and what's got substance. But then I realized that advice would completely contradict what I just said about Atticus Finch, excellence, and pursuing greatness at our job because it's who we are.
We do need to keep up as best we can on the latest research — I pray Teaching the Core helps — and that does mean we'll “speak the language” a bit with as much authenticity as we can muster.
But more important than speaking the language, I think, is speaking truth to power, a phrase my first department chair Nicole Newman taught me.
Just as it sounds, this concept means that we tell those above us, from a stance of humility and service, the truth.
Dave's Rules of Thumb for Speaking Truth to Power
- Be earnest. If there is something on your mind you feel your administrator needs to hear, for the good of the students in your school, then you should say it.
- Be picky. Keep in mind that every single gripe or insight you have into your school is not something your administrator needs to hear!
- Be mindful of time and place. If you have an earnest concern to bring to your administrator, it's wise to do it one-on-one rather than in front of the whole staff.
- Be careful about emailing. Even though I feel much safer writing about tricky things than speaking about them — especially to a boss — email is a poor medium for communicating stuff that's touchy. Instead, make an appointment with your admin and, if you need to, bring a few bullet points on a Post It note.
- Be humble. My goal when speaking to an administrator needs to be to serve the students, not to prove that I am right or to get payback for a comment that rubbed me the wrong way. I say “needs to be” because I am super fallible when it comes to acting from a place of humility — when our pride pricks up and we fail to be humble, we dust ourselves off and try again tomorrow.
- Be non-evaluative. Your goal shouldn't be to tell them they're doing a good job or a bad job. Instead, you want to tell them what you have noticed and what you think that might be doing.
- Don't generalize. It's much better to say, “This past staff meeting when you stood up and said none of us have a guaranteed job, I felt _______” than to say “You are always saying things to de-motivate the staff.”
- “Truth” doesn't always mean bad news! These same rules are helpful if you want to encourage your administrator, too.
When dealing with any administrator or superintendent, I try to put myself in his or her shoes and imagine what I would be feeling and thinking and wanting if I were them doing their job. I've learned the hard way that I am not perfect in imagining what others want or need, but I know that, if I were an admin, I would want earnest, thoughtful feedback from my staff — just as, being a teacher, I want earnest, thoughtful feedback from my students.
As crazy as it seems, administrators doing harmful things like those described in your letter often have no idea the harm they are causing, just as, every single year, I inevitably find that I have unintentionally done harm with my words and actions in the classroom.
So, Rachel, those are my thoughts on your letter. I hope that, above all, I've not minimized your feelings and concerns, as I find them wholly legitimate and brave. Please do keep in touch, and for any Teaching the Core readers who empathize with “Rachel,” feel free to leave your solutions-oriented, encouragement-minded comments below. You can also always contact me.
PS. If you know an administrator who is stolid enough to read this thoughtfully, forward it along to them. If you are an admin, spread this amongst your administrative colleagues — based on my observations of schools around the country, I genuinely think many administrators aren't aware of some of the damage they cause with whole-group critiques.