You’re a new teacher, worried about how to start? Let me tell you about the three most essential contacts to make in your earliest days. Notice that none of these people are, technically speaking, colleagues. If you can find teachers who want to help you, great. I always make sure new teachers have a mentor or at least my help if they need it. But this is about getting the support you need to do your job and other teachers aren’t really the first line of defense.
The Tech Guy
It’s usually a guy, so I will call him a “he”. Districts usually centralize technology, but each school site usually has a dedicated support guy. The first person you’ll meet is the principal’s secretary (more about her in a minute) but your first real friend must be the tech guy.
Few teachers recognize the advantages to being on first name terms with the guy with keys to the computer room, so they often won’t think to mention him. “Who’s the tech guy?” is a question that leads to other questions. Try “Is my email set up already, or will I need to request it?” or “Do you know if I have an account on the district server?” are excellent questions to elicit the tech guy’s name quickly.
I’ve been at three considerably different schools and found good tech support. But even if the guy is a lazy loafer with no real redeeming qualities, cultivate his acquaintance.
Take printers, for example. You can buy your own printer and request to set it up. This often violates several district policies, needs approval, and in some cases can’t be done at all. Alternatively, you can casually mention to the tech guy that if he has any spare printers, you’d be happy to set it up yourself, keep his workload low….and leave it dangling. Three schools, three printers set up for the asking in under three days. Old ones, sure. But they all worked, and I had them day one. And got replacements when needed.
I’ve seen teachers go two weeks without email, been forced to take attendance (shudder) manually, have no idea how to print to the main copy machine, all because they didn’t take twenty minutes to meet the tech guy. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten ten minute turnaround time when my DVD player doesn’t work on Movie Day, even though I make it clear my problem is non-critical.
Our school paid for our own tech guy for several years by giving up two class sections. He was worth every penny, and we’d still have him except the district technology director didn’t like him and reinstituted centralized control. Our current tech guy, supplied by the district, is also terrific. He likes green beans. I give him two or three bags of freshly picked beans from my garden, every year.
The Principal’s Secretary
Some schools separate actual secretarial support from the administrative tasks of running the school, but in my experience the job is usually centralized. Simply put: who does keys and subs? Who manages the missed prep list? Who runs work orders and facilities requests? If it’s not one person, you don’t need to worry. But it’s usually one person, and it’s usually the principal’s secretary. It’s almost exclusively a woman, so I will call her “she”.
She is actually the VIPest of the VIPs. You will meet her first when you start the year, but that’s the time to get out of her way. She will be tremendously busy and ferociously focused, particularly in the days leading up to the start of school. Get your early business down quickly, smile, and begone.
In my experience, the principal’s secretary has an undocumented but strictly followed communications regimen. I’ll share the one consistent to the three I’ve known; yours may be different.
- Email–only for work orders or other action items that go to someone else, something she can put in a folder for documentation.
- Phone–only used for the immediate action of Send Someone Now. There’s a wasp in your classroom. There’s a fight in your classroom. There’s someone injured in your classroom. You are about to vomit and need someone to babysit while you run to the john. Etc. You don’t call 911. You call her.
- In person–the best way to handle three or four questions at once. Stop by during prep, or 15-20 minutes after the last bell.
In person, the five most important words to start all conversations with the principal’s secretary are “I’m sorry to bother you….” Possibly add in “and it’s probably not your job, but I thought I’d check with you first.” Because in most cases, she will have sent out a document giving you the correct procedure, and in most cases you will not have bothered to read it. That’s fine, just slap your head and look apologetic, and try not to ask her two or three times in as many days for the same instructions.
Carefully restrict these in-person visits with questions in the first weeks of school. Don’t be a nag. Whatever other mistakes you might make, never ever think that your needs outweigh the importance of her job. You’re one of, what, 50? 80? If you don’t show up, a sub’s just a few minutes away. If she’s pulled away, a non-trivial chunk of school business gets put off until she gets back.
Eventually, she shares her observations with the principal. You want her report to be positive.
The All Powerful One at my second school had clearly decided long ago that most teachers were trying to make work for her. So outraged was she at the most innocuous query that I resorted to pure groveling. “I know this isn’t your responsibility, and I swear I wouldn’t ask you except I’ve tried everyone else and you always seem to know everything that’s going on. Do you know where the purchase orders are kept?”
“THAT’S NOT MY JOB!”
“Oh, ok, it’s not your job to tell people where the purchase orders are kept. Could you tell me whose job it is to tell me where they are? I’m sorry again for bothering you.”
This, she found amusing and deigned to respond with reasonably useful information. After I left, an ex-colleague got in trouble when, irritated at her reflexive outrage, he snapped at her, “I’m helping kids. Your job is to help me.” This earned him a reprimand that went into his permanent file. I advise grovelling.
My current Principal’s Secretary is excellent, properly inspiring fear, respect, and rapid learning curves for all things administrivia. We’d gotten along well for three years until I didn’t call in a sub in a timely manner. No points were granted for my heroic attempt to avoid taking a day off. I was originally somewhat nonplussed that she didn’t give a rat’s ass about my almost non-existent absentee rate. Then I realized that her job is to get coverage, which meant healthy, noble me was far more hassle than the teacher taking thirteen days a year with a properly notified sub. Humbling.
But she forgave me after a few days of grovelling. I bring her squash and cucumbers every year. Plus, she thinks I’m a pretty good teacher–she’s the mom in this story.
The Attendance Clerk
This will be less focused than the other two because in order to properly value the attendance clerk, you need to understand the importance of attendance.
On the first day at my second school, the union rep reminded us all of the two Do’s and one Don’t: do be on time, do take attendance, don’t touch the kids. These, she stressed, were the essentials of the job. We all laughed at the truth so brutally expressed: actual teaching is a secondary consideration.
I got a call from my attendance clerk one time, “Why is Darby skipping your class every day?”
I was confused. “He’s at basic training.”
“What? No, he’s not.”
“He said he was accepted to the military and had all the credits he needed to graduate, so he was starting basic training early….this sounds really stupid now that I say it out loud.”
“Yeah, he’s lying. And he’s in all his other classes.”
“Um. No. He’s not. He’s out of town. I know this because he texted another student to ask me not to mark him absent, but I told him…”
“#(S&U#*(&*QT!” and the clerk hung up the phone.
Darby was in an entirely different time zone. His parents were out of town and thought he was in school. When his parents got automatic notifications of his first block absence, he told them he was sleeping in and showing up late. I was the only one of his four teachers marking him absent. The other three thought he was in basic training, too.
At best, that’s embarrassing. At worst, it’s a lawsuit. At really worst, it’s a lawsuit and millions in settlement.
Schools are legal custodians of the children (in loco parentis) while they are in school. Taking attendance creates a legal document, one that is audited and cross-checked, establishing that the student was in the school’s custody. (Note: Many high schools, like mine, have open campuses, allowing students to leave and return. I have never known how that squares with our legal custodial responsibilities.) That’s not even getting into the fact that schools often get paid for each student in attendance, and the government likes schools to be able to prove in regular audits that they got paid for actual butts in chairs.
All sorts of caselaw abounds defining school responsibilities, where they exceed parents, what a “reasonably prudent parent” would do, but we’re all just one nasty case and a cranky judge away from utterly ridiculous strictures. Fortunately most of it is out of your purview. Except attendance. Most of the admins who’ve evaluated me have also checked with the attendance clerks to see how I’ve done. New teachers in particular want that report to be good.
But that’s all just about taking attendance on time, which you should do anyway. Why is it a good idea to be buddies with an attendance clerk? As you’ll soon observe, these ladies are at best mildly friendly, at worst complete grouches. Their job requires a great deal of nagging teachers, apprehending students in the act of cutting, and placating parents when teachers (raises hand) accidentally mark a present student absent. Never mind the daily duties of nagging teachers to take attendance, sign off on their weekly audits, and so on.
But all of this is why it behooves any new teacher to seek them out and befriend at least one clerk. You’ll screw up occasionally. Or a lot, if you’re me. Don’t hide your mistakes. Don’t hope they won’t be noticed, because they will. Acknowledging your errors and emailing them will not irritate the clerks, but win their appreciation. I once apologized to my favorite clerk for being such a screwup–on more than one occasion I’ve somehow missed taking attendance for an entire day and had to email with a deep grovel and my best recollection of who wasn’t there. She laughed. “You’re in the top 15% of all teachers here. Twenty three percent of our teachers don’t ever take attendance.” I bring them all a bag of heirloom tomatoes to great acclaim.
Pick an attendance clerk to be your “buddy”–she’ll call you up with questions instead of assuming the worst, allowing you to correct minor errors. She’ll send reminders. She won’t nag. She wants teachers to value her work, not despise her picayune corrections. Let her help you. If it ever comes to a lawsuit, you want to feel good about your attendance record.
If you teach K-5, custodial staff replaces attendance clerks. Custodial staff almost makes the cut, but honestly, you won’t need reminders to be nice to them. These are the first folks to enter your room after the last bell, when they get the trash, take a quick look around the room to plan for later. They’re often the first adult you’ll have seen in hours, so smile and take the time to talk.
Leaving administrators. Shouldn’t new teachers cultivate administrators?
Yes, but this is outside of your control. Administrators make their own choices. I’ve been at two jobs where the teachers loved me and the administrators looked through me, and one job (here) where administrators loved me from the first day, while three senior math teachers considered me a dangerous radical, best purged.
It sucks to be unpopular with your colleagues. But if you want the time to build relationships, then it sucks more to be unpopular with your administrators. I wish it were a choice. But schools are an ecosystem, and fitting in is outside simple behavior changes.
Of course, that might just be me.
In any event, you don’t need me to tell you to make nice with the boss.
Here’s to a new year.