Dear Dr. Kem,
I’ve been an elementary school teacher for 15 years. I know a lot of teachers feel underappreciated right now, but what’s bothering me is the lack of appreciation from those who should be supporting us most: our administrators.
I’m taking care of the mental health of all my kids. I’m covering my colleagues’ classes due to a lack of substitutes. I’m adopting new textbooks and websites before I’ve had time to fully digest them. And I’m acting as tech support for my colleagues who don’t know how to access the myriad of virtual tools we’ve implemented over the last two years. Meanwhile, we often hear discouraging messages from administrators like “you should be doing more” and “don’t complain, you have a job.” It’s taking a toll on me.
I’d like your help with a difficult dynamic in my school. If I reach out to someone in the district who is more knowledgeable than my administrator, or who would quickly answer my question, it creates tension with my admin. Administration expects us to know answers that they should be able to help us with (e.g. what is the passing i-Ready score for a third-grader this year?), and when they don’t know, they get upset with us for reaching out to the district for help. Instead of dealing with this, I usually try to solve my problems on my own.
Another point of tension is the monthly award our administrators hand out to staff to honor their efforts at school. In the two years since this started, only two teachers have been recognized. The rest of the recipients have been staff members, like custodians, office personnel, or school security. While I know they work hard, too, it’s disappointing to see teachers who will never be recognized for their dedication to their students. I wish administrators saw how much we actively manage in the classroom each day.
Dr. Kem, I know my colleagues and I deserve to be recognized by our administrators, but how can we voice these issues and concerns when I worry they will just get upset with us? Is there a way we can communicate our needs and be heard by our admin? — Annoyed with Administration
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Dear Annoyed with Administration,
When my children were small and had birthday parties, I limited the party size to five children. We would head to the nearest event space with a paid hostess. Inevitably, things would get wild for the children who consumed too much sugar and were overstimulated by arcade games. More than one child’s behavior would have to be redirected; others needed parental intervention because they would no longer listen to me. By the end of the night, I would be exhausted.
For my non-teaching friends, imagine that birthday party with 30+ children, every day. That’s six times the above-mentioned number of partygoers, and there’s no event planner or fun venue. You are the hostess, and every adult at the party at the same time. And, you have to consistently plan, execute, and deliver an engaging event.
That is what we do as teachers. We deliver exciting lessons to a variety of learning styles without enough resources and supplies for each student. Then, the only person who should be assisting you instead comes to observe your teaching on random days of their choosing. In many cases, they are paid more than you to critique you. Whoever created this dynamic clearly had no idea how terribly these things could devolve.
Teachers all over the world can identify with your annoyance.
The tension between building administration and teachers is built into this system. We, the teachers and administrators, need to partner to alleviate this “us” vs “them” dynamic. We need to model a cooperative working environment to benefit our students.
The best administrators get us resources to better do our jobs. They give us relief from extra duties, help us find money to fund our projects, and keep snacks handy. They recognize our hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual efforts. The book, “If You Don’t Feed Teachers, They Will Eat The Students,” serves as a reminder for school leaders to nurture teachers.
Yet, not everyone automatically has the insight and ability to create effective high-quality administrator-teacher relationships.
Here’s how to communicate your needs to the administration
Annoyed with Administration, you can maintain a professional relationship with your administrator even if there are challenges. I have outlined some steps to help you communicate your needs in a way that will get them to listen:
- Align yourself with teacher colleagues to create an open communication plan between administration and staff. In our building, we have an Organizational Leadership Team (OLT) that meets monthly to discuss general concerns about the building as an organization. The OLT was created by the district when we adopted the Professional Learning Community format. The team got buy-in from fellow teachers by creating a vision plan for our building, and got admin involved because they could see the benefits of the committee. The committee members are volunteers, and all teachers can submit agenda items to the committee for open discussion. An administrator is required to attend and reply to agenda items.
If you decide to create something similar, know it will take time and hard work to do, but the investment will be worth it and will help get everyone on the same page. The power of partnership and participation eliminates the back and forth between teachers and administrators or the need to seek outside help. I know that some days as a teacher are more difficult than others. Use your teacher support system to create change.
- Begin to document the one to three most urgent matters that need action. If you are feeling overwhelmed, identify the areas where you need the most support. Explain in writing the type of assistance that would most help. For example, you mentioned you have been helping colleagues access new technologies. Is it possible to get release time or compensation for creating virtual tutorials for your co-workers?
A teacher in our district assisted so many teachers with the new learning platform that she created a job for herself and was promoted. She had been one of the first teachers trained and received a certification from the company. We were all so impressed by her knowledge but her promotion didn’t just happen. She advocated for herself and leadership responded.
- If you are in the union, involve your representatives in conversations about covering classes for teachers and implementing new curriculums while learning new software and programs. Ensure that labor laws are followed. Be sure to consider your relationship with administrators when involving the union. The representative may ask, as they should, have you spoken with your administrator first? The union is there to protect you and amplify your needs. Often policy changes need to be made and the union is critical in that process. However, there are certain situations that are specific to administration.
- If the administrators are unable to provide a positive climate, the student council along with the parent-teacher association can help change the atmosphere in the building. One year, our student council wrote positive messages like “I am grateful for what you have taught us this year” on sticky notes and placed them where the teachers could see them. In elementary school, students can draw themselves with their favorite teachers. Those drawings can be posted in various places throughout the school.
Teacher burnout is real and it’s also avoidable with help from those who have the ability and leadership to ensure you are getting support. Administrators are under pressure from the district, parents, teachers, students, and the community. Be gracious while advocating for yourself. Your work is valuable and you and your co-workers are stronger together.
Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your question to Dr. Kem via this submission form, and subscribe to How I Teach to receive her column in your inbox.
If you have a rebuttal or additional advice you’d like to share with Annoyed with Administration, please email firstname.lastname@example.org