Administrators

I like my current principal more than any of my previous overlords—and I pretty much liked all of them as well. Of course, I never forget they are management, and like all long-term corporate survivors I consider management all-powerful, functionally (not personally) untrustworthy, and utterly irrelevant to my own job performance. They aren’t evil. It’s just baked into the job description. So this opening story isn’t a complaint, just an opening.

We were in a two hour staff meeting today and the principal wandered by. It struck me that until that moment I hadn’t even seen him for three weeks—I mean, literally seen him. I haven’t actually had a conversation with him since the first day of school. In that same period I’ve spoken to the AVP who interviewed me twice for a minute each time, just hi, how are you. I don’t even know the other two AVP’s names; they haven’t stopped by or introduced themselves. No administrator has even entered my room, much less watched me teach.

And this utter isolation from administrators is the norm, for me. I spent two years at my last job; the principal spent a grand total of 40 minutes in my classroom. 20 for evaluation, 20 with a district visitor, all 40 minutes during in the first year, although she didn’t actually give me the results of my eval until a 5-minute meeting the last day of school. She never set foot in my classroom the second year when students were present. Two AVPs spent, collectively, an hour in my room over the first year (about 30 minutes each, spread out over the year), and the AVP who did my eval the second year never spent a moment in my classroom and few even talking to me until the first observation.

My first year as a teacher, I taught at a ultra-progressive school; the principal gave me two hour long evals and a nice follow-up meeting for each. Except for those two evals, however, the administrators were never in my room and I did little more than nod hi to them periodically—it was a smaller school than the other two, so we ran into each other more frequently.

Is it like that for all new teachers? No. If a teacher’s classroom is out of control, the administrators will live there. If the teacher has highly sought after attributes (i.e., young and male) the administrators will do everything short of buying him hookers to win him over, and part of that winning over involves visiting his classroom, giving him lots of praise, extra earning opportunities, and seeking his input on everything short of buying new whiteboard erasers. No, I am not bitter, truly. That’s just how it rolls.

But if a newly hired teacher isn’t spectacularly bad or a hot commodity, he or she is ignored. This gives the administrator complete flexibility without the embarrassment of having to walk back any untoward comments, like praise or condemnation. The first evaluation can be noncommittal, leaving plenty of room to give a second bad one if the district needs to give a few extra teachers the boot, or if a new hot commodity has graduated and someone needs to be cut. (While I am not certain, tenured teachers seem to see administrators more often; maybe they have less to worry about and actively seek them out.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the hot commodity type, even though I’m a damn good teacher for just three years in. I’m not mad about this, more mildly chagrined and amused. I charge enough money per hour in my private tutoring sessions that my ego’s not at stake, and I’ve long since realized that teacher assessment is largely ideological.

So when eduformers talk about the importance of allowing administrators complete control over the hiring and firing of teachers, I’m like um, what? Are you insane? Principals are managers. They went into management because they find it appealing. That’s fine. It does not make them expert judges of teaching ability. In fact, it probably means they were entirely adequate but not stupendous teachers, because no matter how much you need the money, you don’t leave teaching if you’re stupendous. It’s a drug. And principals simply aren’t spending much time in classrooms; if they do, the other aspects of their job will suffer. PR outranks HR every time. How complicated is that?

Principals have considerable hiring autonomy; unless the district reallocates personnel, they interview and pick their own candidates. In my state they get fifteen months in which they can boot a teacher on a whim. A teacher can get sterling evaluations, be declared teacher of the year, and fired unceremoniously any time in the first two years—in some districts, it can take even longer to get tenure.

That strikes me as adequate time to give principals complete control over staff. After that, giving principals any control at all is spooky, in my view, but I guess most of the time limited firing ability works out because firing long-time teachers on a whim gets the rest of the staff pissed off. But giving them unlimited termination powers? Seriously? Why would we give government employees the autonomy of a small business owner?

If eduformers are absurd in their expectation for principals, progressives—and teachers themselves—aren’t any more realistic in their expectations. When I hear them going on and on about the importance of good leadership, I just yawn. A principal is—must be—focused on selling an image: to teachers, to parents, to the district, to the community. The extent to which he or she keeps the trains running on time is entirely dependent on which trains are carrying the most important passengers at that point in time. That’s their job.

Needless to say, I’ve stopped taking the evaluation process itself seriously. I’m interested in good feedback and suggestions—no, really! But the evaluation isn’t even remotely about me. The principal is interested in contract compliance (all teachers on the evaluation list undergo observation by October 20th. Check.) This evaluation process has nothing at all to do with whether or not the principal decides to keep me, either. It’s just cover.

And I’m fine with that. I just wish I didn’t have to go through the pretense every year that, in this observation, the administrator could suddenly discover that a teacher who has been utterly ignored for two to three months is in fact a wholly unsatisfactory teacher, one who is utterly failing to meet objectives. Really? Three months of nothing, followed by 30-40 minutes of observation, and suddenly the teacher is unsatisfactory? What sort of manager are you Sir or Madame Administrator, that you hadn’t figured that out before?

But in fact, a bad early eval that comes out of the blue is just a sign that the principal has someone else lined up for your job next year. I’d rather they do away with the extra effort, and the principal just had a form that said “Like/Don’t Like (circle one)”. But oh, well. Sorry, Sonny. Make sure the mortician fixes you up nice.

This is a good time to reiterate that at this point in time, given our current determination to delude ourselves about student ability, the existing teacher evaluation and tenure system is the best possible option. Mess with it at your peril. I’m personally certain the adjustments eduformers fantasize about will hurt low ability, low income kids. But that’s a different post.

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9 responses to “Administrators

  • maiseylou

    Great as this post was (and it was great!) I would have loved to read you expounding more on the idelogical basis behind teacher assessment. Maybe some other time?

  • Roger Sweeny

    Why are you so undesirable? From what’s written in the blog, you seem like an excellent teacher. Of course, the writer of the blog may be biased …

    • educationrealist

      I am a very good teacher. I am also a good teacher with the kind of low ability kids that principals need to do well with. However, I’m all wrong demographically. Too old, too white, and one other too that I won’t go into.

  • Curtis

    I have been reading you blog for a while and this is the first time I have ever strongly disagreed with you. My kids are in 4th and 5th grade and I love our principal. She hires good teachers and is not afraid to buck the system.

    For years, instead of using funds for capital improvements, she used the money for hiring extra teachers for math and reading. Eventually, she was told to stop and we got fancy, electronics blackboards instead of extra teachers. After one year without an extra teacher, she found another way to make it work for the upper grades. We are the only elementary school in the district which has 3 math teachers for two classes. This has allowed us to have low, medium and high math groups and reduce the math class size from 30 students to 20. My kids are excellent at math and they are challenged which would not happen at most schools.

    We were one of only two schools to have the option of full day kindergarten until the funding method was declared illegal. She also allows the kids to have two recess breaks during the day which I think helps calms the kids. I have no idea what her hiring system is but I have been very happy with 6 out of 8 teachers my kids have had. The other two were still OK and one was hired by the previous principal.

    I have met other principals in the district and have not been impressed.

    • educationrealist

      I’m glad you read the blog. I don’t know that we disagree. I like my principal, as I said. I’ve liked all my principals. I think there are many ways of being a good principal. But I think your own story shows that your principal is living dangerously; she is constantly being overridden by the district. Moreover, it sounds like she is not being forced to serve two masters. Some schools have economically and racially diverse campuses, and having “low, medium, and high” groups for math would give birth to a disparate impact lawsuit.

      Education reformers want to give all control to principals. This, I oppose, and I would oppose it every bit as much for a principal I trust and admire as one who I didn’t. That doesn’t mean your principal can’t be excellent. It just means it’s not a good enough reason to turn over complete control.

      • Curtis

        I understand where you are coming from but I disagree.

        Centralization leads to mediocrity. For some school that would be a big improvement. However, I live in a college town because I want good schools for my children. I realize this is a different situation from your schools.

        My children’s teachers know my kids well. The principal know my kids a little and the general community well. The school district know my community to some degree. The state knows my city a little bit and the US government does not even know how to spell my city. Whom should I trust to do the best for my kids? (Yes, I understand that many people rightly do not trust their teachers but should they trust their superintendent?)

        Five years ago I was thrilled with my kids’ school. Now it seems like a constant battle for the principal to overcome the obstacles placed on her. I have not seen a change started by the school district, state or federal government that has helped my kids. Our new math curriculum was written by people who have a poor grasp of English and no understanding of math. Fortunately, the teachers are allowed to supplement or ignore the stupid parts.

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