The bulk of the responsibility.

I recently read a post by Sue King, a principal in Pennsylvania, which I found through Dangerously Irrelevant, in which Sue discusses what she says versus how it is perceived by some of the teachers listening.

As we're having some of the same conversations at my school with some of the same results, I thought I’d add my perspective on why her comments may have been misinterpreted to some extent by part of her audience (like all those qualifiers there? Nice, right?).

Sue says in her post that she accepts “the bulk of the responsibility for how things have gone” at her school in the time she has been principal – I wonder if she has said that to the teachers? At my school, we’ve been told that if we improve our instruction, everything will change.


Yes, there are certainly instructional improvements that could (should...must...might) happen (oh, I could spend hours on THAT subject), but, um, that's not the whole story. And to imply that it is, which is what I took from the quotes with which she opened the article as they all address teaching practices, is disingenuous, short-sighted, or both.

Sue says that her school is “blessed with plentiful resources, very involved and supportive parents, and a student population that is extremely compliant and very well-behaved.” My school’s not. We have decent resources, but the other two….not so much. Which is okay, because I believe that the school’s impact can be tremendous no matter what, but it’d be easier if we had more involved parents and better behavior. The lack of those two things, though linked to the high poverty at my school, I believe is due primarily to administrative failure to promote those.

If we don’t offer parents opportunities to be involved, they won’t be. Many of our parents weren’t successful in the school system when they were students – they want to help their kids, but they don’t necessarily know what to do. They aren’t made to feel welcome, that their help is needed or even desired. We don’t have any kind of parent group, like a PTA or PTO. Just doesn’t exist. The last round of parent/teacher conferences, we used an auto-dialer to remind parents about the event – which is great, but they didn’t do it till day of, and some parents didn’t even get the message until the next day. Helpful. Over half our kids don’t speak English at home; though other languages are spoken, the vast majority speak Spanish. Some of the materials we send home are translated, but not most of them. I’d love to be part of starting a parent group, but I’m on three committees already that I believe are also important, and I just don’t have any more time to give right now.

Behavior….the behavior stuff really pisses me off, not just because it's such a waste of time, but because I feel like it could be dealt with so much more effectively. I am known as a pretty strict teacher, and I don’t have a lot of behavior problems within my classroom. The problems I do have I try to take care of myself, because I don’t want to give up my authority, but some issues have to be sent to the office (physical contact, sexual harassment, truancy). We have a whole matrix of consequences that administrators are supposed to follow – it doesn’t happen. One administrator does, but the others seem to frequently ignore what they agreed to do, and just dole out whatever consequences (or lack thereof) that they feel like. One time it actually led to a student who should have already been suspended starting another fight with another student. Kids know this, and they hate it. When you talk to them, they talk about how inconsistent the consequences are (though they tend to say that things are unfair or that the admin don’t care what happens to students). And then they buy out, and they don’t try as hard as they should or could, and they don’t demonstrate growth, and they don’t even make as much growth as they could, and the test scores look bad, and the school gets in trouble, and it gets dumped on the teachers. Some of the behavioral issues could be taken care of by changes in instructional practices, absolutely, but by no means all. No one seems to want to address that.

When we were being told about the trouble we’re in (because we are, a significant amount), the focus of the conversation was on instruction. No acknowledgment of the other issues. No responsibility taken by anyone higher up.
Responsibility for gaps must be shared. If it's not, teachers feel like they're being told they're not doing a good job, even if that wasn't what was meant.

Maybe Sue’s school doesn’t have these other issues that my school does, so maybe their conversations really need to be about teaching exclusively, but I have a hard time believing that’s all they need to consider.


Tom Roth said...

Really enjoy your posts. You are obviously very passionate about working with kids. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

Melinda Miller said...

Now that you've go that off your chest...where would you start if you were the Admin.? I would be interested in hearing a plan for your situation. It would help me as a principal. My school is a lot like Sues but I could learn from your situation.

Sue King said...

that's not the whole story. And to imply that it is, which is what I took from the quotes with which she opened the article as they all address teaching practices, is disingenuous, short-sighted, or both.

Good morning! I appreciated reading your (and other) response to my post. It is exaclty this kind of discussion I have been needing!

I am sorry, though, that you took from my opening what you did - as indicated above. My main point was, in fact, that what I had thought I had been communicating - and I was saying "we" - I DO realize was not what was needed or what was heard. I have been reflecting on that and on how - in a district where I am held accountable for implementing district and state initiatives and for increasing student achievement for all students - we can work TOGETHER as a learning community and not in an "us against them" atmosphere to have a system where we are all learning together about what works and what contributes to ALL feeling valued.

We do not, as a district, deal with much of what you describe. We have very few discipline issues, very few students who are not successful, and we have not had to worry about any sanctions. This is a building in which I taught. It was not an easy district to come into - having come from a system where there was a good bit of collaboraion and professional learning among the teachers along with the administration. Yet, there are many excellent and hard-working people - teachers and administrators alike who are - like you seem to be - passionate about what they do.

My challenge remains, however, how to get 75 people all rowing in the same direction and all willing to set differences aside and have open, honest conversations about students and learning and education.

tft said...

Principals should teach, get us supplies, or shut up! All this responsibility and reflecting is pure nonsense. Do your job, and let teachers do theirs.

Jeebus! Principals are so full of themselves!

Allison said...

Hi Melinda. Yeah, that’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s easy to say what the problems are…harder to say how to fix them. :)

And hi Sue – thanks for reading. I believe that you do consider yourself a part of the process, but you have to remember that some people do see a big gap between admin and teachers. You said that your district wasn’t easy to come to because of “having come from a system where there was a good bit of collaboraion and professional learning among the teachers along with the administration.” If your district / school previously had that mentality, whether from admin or teachers, it’d take a while to change.

Here’s where I’d start (because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it – and this applies to my school specifically, not to either of yours). First I’d start acknowledging teachers who do things well – not just a general statement about the talented staff, but individuals who are doing interesting things in the classroom that fit in with the school’s overall goals/needs. That way, these new practices/requirements don’t feel like such a top down thing if teachers are already doing them in their own way.

I’d also ask teachers and other adults in the school for ideas on how to fix problems. A suggestion box, one-on-one interviews, a survey…maybe all three, but open it up to the talent in the school to figure out how to address concerns. The principal would have to actually be willing to listen and try some of the suggestions, but I’d bet a lot of people would have interesting ideas that hadn’t been considered.

The biggest thing that needs to happen at my school is accountability for the adults in the building. If someone says they’re going to do something, they need to be held responsible for that. That includes admin. We’re supposed to have administrators in our classrooms weekly, not for formal observations, just to be aware of what’s going on – I haven’t seen one in over two months. We’re supposed to have a behavior matrix – it’s been completely thrown out the window. We have teachers who apparently give up to ten minutes of free time a class period – nothing happens. I get that it would take time and organization and commitment to address those issues, but without doing so, any other changes we make will fail because we don’t have wide enough buy in. The people who really don’t want to buy in, if they were pressed, if they were shown that they HAD to do it or things would become very unpleasant for them, they’d either do it or leave. Right now, we have a lot of teachers (and other adults in the building) who are allowed to get away with all kinds of crap because no one wants to put the effort in to change that. Even with tenure, you can get rid of bad teachers, and you can certainly create an environment that won’t stand for laziness and incompetency. You might not be able to get everyone on your side, but you could get most of them.

For the parent involvement issue at my school, I’d start by having everything translated into Spanish, including autodialer calls (with a quick announcement at the beginning that it would be in Spanish at the end). I’d rearrange parent-teacher conferences. Right now, we have two weekday evenings of them. I’d drop one of those and add a weekend morning one. I’d do a parent survey to find out what they think about the school and where they’d like to see improvements, and if they’re willing to be part of making those improvements, and how they’d like to help. My bet is that if we gave them the opportunity, they’d get involved. It might only be a few at first, but that would give the basis for a PTO that could then grow.

Behavior’s the killer, but I kind of believe that if we did the other stuff, a lot of the behavior issues would vanish. And the ones that didn’t, then we could focus on designing more significant and intensive interventions.

I am apparently incapable of writing only a comment. Ah well.

"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
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