by Joanne Maino, Assistant Principal, O’Maley Innovation Middle School, Gloucester
The first time I heard the statement was in a graduate Educational Leadership class. The second time it came from the lips of a trusted colleague, a friend, when I announced that I’d be leaving my teaching job to become an assistant principal. The third time was just a few weeks ago as I sat alongside my peers at a meeting of local area assistant principals. The essence of the statement is this: If you are a school administrator, you have gone to “the dark side.”
Having worked for many years in the private sector before coming to education, I found incredible meaning and a lot of very hard work in teaching. The rewards of guiding students and families and of mentoring and helping fellow teachers were like none I had ever experienced. I so enjoyed these rewards that I chose to multiply them and broaden my influence by transitioning into administration. If I could positively impact so many from a single classroom, I thought, imagine what I could do from the vantage point of an entire school building, and I would venture to guess that many of my colleagues in the field have found a similar calling in school administration.
So, I’m left to wonder. If so many of us enter this field with the intent of doing good, of leading the charge on student learning, teacher autonomy, and positive school cultures and climates, why is the work we do so often viewed as if it evolves from a dark place? With this question in mind, I have spent some time reflecting, observing, and listening. Although it’s a complex topic, I am attempting to boil it down to two, very basic points that I think speak to the essence of this “dark side” perception.
Change: So much of the work we do requires asking people to change – new systems, new processes, new initiatives, new administration, new, new, new. Change has been the one constant in public education over the past decade, and change, for many, is uncomfortable at best. It’s likely, however, that we administrators are comfortable with change. In fact, many of us may thrive on it. Change may just be one element of the job that attracted us to this work. For us, change is exciting; it points to new opportunities, room for growth, and unmet potential. No two days look the same for administrators, and we like it this way. The challenges of uncertainty drive us forward. As teachers, most of us were likely unfazed by new initiatives. We took stock, adjusted course, and moved on. We found ways to leverage the new requirements, fold them into our routines, and improve our practice. No problem!
As building leaders, we are the inevitable vehicles by which change is brought about. Through us our faculty and staff are asked to take on new work and do things differently. Through us they are asked to change, and for many this is very uncomfortable. For many, the very thought of change can bring on tremendous stress. So, it’s important for us to remain cognizant of this and to consider the “dark side” of change as we plan our approaches.
For years, teaching was a fairly autonomous profession. No doubt, autonomy is one of the primary elements that attracted many teachers to their work. Now, constant change is threatening, if not completely abolishing, teacher autonomy. We all know teachers that react negatively to new initiatives because they’ve seen too many come and go. We’ve worked with teachers that simply keep their heads down during change because they’ve learned if they wait long enough, this new thing may go away, and they can keep doing what they’ve been doing all along. It’s not uncommon for the newest “change initiative” to fade into the horizon just in time for the next one to come along.
Author and leadership coach, Ken Blanchard, points to several speed bumps that lay across the roads of change. As school leaders, we would be wise to consider these things before attempting to implement “meaningful change.” As we know, and as Blanchard points out, change can be awkward, especially when it feels like it was born behind closed doors from a “top down” perspective. Once changes are introduced, we must realize that different people will be at different stages of readiness. Some may purposefully choose to isolate themselves from the process, while others can only handle so much at one time. The early adopters create anxiety for the outliers, which results in increased resistance.
Most importantly, Blanchard highlights that unless leaders communicate clearly, consistently, and frequently, unless we build in thoughtful, reliable systems for sustainability, change will be temporary. If we do not provide coherent, strong leadership that models what we expect to see in all, our faculty and staff will fall back into their comfort zones. In basic terms, we need to put our money where our mouths are. We must be committed to the change, methodical and organized in our efforts, and extremely patient with our staff. If we are creative with our resourcing, repetitive with our messaging, and resilient against negativity, positive change will take hold over time, but it’s a process. If the end result points towards something good and true that is ultimately better for our students, no matter the effort and hard work involved, most effective teachers will get behind it in time.
Feedback: Massachusetts educators have had nearly five years to adjust to the new requirements under the Massachusetts Educator Evaluation System. Gone are the days of the once yearly “dog and pony show,” which, frankly, could be used not only to highlight effective practices but also to distract from inconsistencies. Whether it’s announced, unannounced, or simply a walk though, teachers have gradually become more accustomed to classroom observations, and most of them welcome our presence and input.
The “dark side” of this increased focus on teacher practice is the difficult conversations that often come with it. Some teachers feel they are under a microscope. Many can recall with precise accuracy the negative comments or feedback they received from an administrator who, in their view, fixated on minor things, micro-managed, or failed to see the bigger picture. Teachers are very hard on themselves; most of them don’t need any help in that department. They long for an administrator who can effectively “read the room” and understand why they may or may not be doing a certain thing with a certain student at a certain time. They want conversations that seek to understand not just what was going on at the time of the observation, but also the journey that lead up to this point and the long, often challenging road ahead. Many teachers, especially the most effective teachers, seek connection, understanding, and true presence from building leaders.
In their book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen speak equally to the art of giving feedback as they do the art of receiving it. They categorize feedback into three categories: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. What I hear from brave teachers that are willing to open up is they feel administrators spend too much time in the evaluation phase of feedback and not enough time coaching or showing appreciation. I am reminded of a statistic that I share with teachers when I’m encouraging them to be more positive with our most challenging students. Research varies, but it generally states that an ideal praise to criticism ratio is approximately 6 to 1. Every one piece of feedback we give that may be viewed as criticism, whether we intended it or not, must be offset with six expressions of appreciation. This can become somewhat complex because, depending on the teacher, even coaching may be viewed as criticism. Some of you may read this and think, oh gosh, there’s just not enough time in the day to be counting, categorizing, and offsetting every “perceived” difficult conversation with positive praise and appreciation, and you’re right! So, what are we to do?
We need to focus on the most important, often most challenging, top down initiative there is – creating a culture of kindness and positivity. Let’s always focus on building and reinforcing strong relationships rooted in communication and mutual trust and respect. In Rick Lavoie terms, let’s give our faculty and staff so many positive “chips” that we couldn’t possibly take them all away when it’s time for the inevitable difficult conversations. I’m not suggesting we act like head in the cloud Pollyanna’s or that we “fake it till we make it.” But, I think we need to do the hard work of focusing on the positive when so much is pulling us towards the negative – to the dark side.
We need to be very present and focused when a stressed out teacher, staff member, student, or parent comes to us with a concern or worry. Rather than thinking of how we’re going to answer or how we’re going to fix things, we would be wise to simply stay calm, stop our internal dialogue and actually, truly listen. Sometimes, it’s all that’s needed in that moment. Solutions and strategies can come later. Let’s visit classrooms just to say hello or, as many of us already do so well, roll up our sleeves and explore, question, and discover with our students. Let’s take some time to openly admire and outwardly share the amazing work of our teachers. Let’s always communicate in clear, consistent, transparent ways, so there’s no question as to why we may or may not have made a certain decision. We are the leaders. Everyone is watching and deciding. They will either follow us or turn in a different direction. It’s our job to right the course, steer the ship, and show everyone that we’re headed out of darkness and into the light.
Joanne is currently the Assistant Principal of the O’Maley Innovation Middle School in Gloucester. Beginning July 1, she will be the Principal of the Manchester-Essex Regional Middle School. You can follow Joanne on Twitter @JoanneMaino1 or on Voxer @jm4045857. She also blogs at https://jbmaino.wordpress.com/
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