Building trusting relationships with our teachers and staff is essential to the general health and success of our schools. All principals know this—most work hard at it.
But what about the staff many of us consider to be “peripheral members?” Custodians, for example…how do we interact with them? And why is this even worth considering?
First, it’s just common courtesy! Second, custodians (like bus drivers) are often one of the first contact points students have with the school every day. They are cutting grass, clearing snow, salting walkways and moving through the halls when students arrive each morning. They are also around when students transition from one classroom to the next; they help maintain the sports facilities and often partner with student-athletes to prep the baseball diamond, the football field and the volley ball court. Third, custodians are not in the classroom or the main office; they are not dressed in formal attire. As a result, students often perceive them as “outsiders”—folks they can confide in because they do not pose an authoritarian threat.
As you consider your relationships with your school custodians, you might consider a few of these questions John C. Daresh asks us in his book, Beginning the Principalship: A Practical Guide for New School Leaders
Do I see custodians as janitors or care takers?
A custodian is much more than the guy (or gal) who walks around the building, picking up after everyone. To be sure, keeping a school clean is an important duty for the custodian, but as Daresh points out in his book, custodians are not simply janitors; they contribute to the overall well-being of the school. They are, as Daresh puts it, “school caretakers.”
Something to ponder: Have you ever talked with a custodian to learn what responsibilities of his or her job are most interesting?
Do school caretakers know that no job is beneath me?
When my family vacationed, we rarely stayed in hotels, but when we did, my parents always stripped the beds and folded the sheets, wiped water spots off of the mirrors, and gathered all of our dirty towels and put them in a neat pile on the floor before we checked out. I thought this was strange and used to get after them for “doing the maid’s job.” But now that I’m older, I appreciate this gesture. Why did they do it? They simply wanted to show the maids—who were probably overworked and underpaid—that they were appreciated. They didn’t receive praise for their gesture; they simply wanted to make someone else’s life a little bit easier.
I think this example is applicable to how we interact with our school caretakers.
Let’s say that you’re walking down the hallway and notice a few pieces of stray scrap paper on the floor. The custodian is only a few feet away and is already sweeping, but you stop, pick up the papers, and toss them in the trash can. Why? Because it sends an explicit message to the custodian: No job is beneath you.
Do I rely on the school caretakers’ expertise?
You know a great deal about curriculum and instruction, staff evaluation, school site budgeting, and many other technical aspects of managing an educational organization. But you probably don’t know as much about fixing electrical and plumbing problems as your school caretakers do. Learn to rely on the expertise of your custodians and remember that, in addition to having these skills, they also know the idiosyncrasies of teachers and staff members. They know the neighborhood around the school. They may know the local politics and power groups. They also know the students and may even have experience working with students as helpers or part-time employees.
Gang members may not stop in to visit in the principal’s office, but theey are often quite open with people not necessarily viewed as a part of the authority structure of a school. You may be surprised at what you can learn from a few short conversations with custodians who see and hear a lot.
Photo credit: JSmith Photo / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
In their book, Motivating & Inspiring Teachers, Dale Lumpa and Todd and Beth Whitaker describe a study they conducted of more than 300 elementary schools in Indiana.
In it, they identified four schools with “more effective” climates and four others with “less effective” climates. Teachers at each of these schools were interviewed and asked to complete surveys about their school climate.
From this study, Whitaker noticed several key differences between the principals of effective and less effective schools, but one specific difference was this:
More effective principals had regular, positive interactions with faculty and staff—and they did this simply by putting together faculty memos every week. It is worth nothing that none of the less-effective principals produced positive faculty memos on a regular basis.
Interesting, isn’t it? If something so simple can play a role in improving the culture of our schools, perhaps we should take faculty memos a bit more seriously.
5 Reasons Principals Should Create Positive Faculty Memos
They’ll get you and your teachers organized
Principals must be many things to many people, but above all, they must be organizers. Putting together a weekly memo is one way to keep both you and your teachers on the same page.
In your weekly memo, include a calendar for the following week. List every sporting event, play, band concert, field trip, and meeting on this calendar. This will help you organize your own thoughts for the next week and give you the chance to think through the logistics of the events before they happen.
It will keep you from eating up unnecessary time in your faculty meetings
Teachers are busy people and nothing frustrates them more than having their time wasted. Rather than using faculty meetings to discuss policies and procedures, put them in your weekly memo instead.
Say, for example, that you’re having a guest speaker the following week. Instead of eating up valuable time during staff meetings, simply issue specific instructions—what time students should assemble in the gymnasium, what they should bring, where each class should sit, etc.—in your weekly memo. If there are any questions about these procedures, you can quickly clarify and move on to more important things.
It can be a place to share your own stories and experiences
As a principal, you may have spent years, perhaps even decades, in the classroom as a teacher. But because you’re not in the classroom every day, teachers may see you as an outsider who has no idea what it’s like to live and work “in the trenches.” Sharing your own teaching experiences in a weekly memo is one way to remind teachers that you do relate to their challenges, that you haven’t forgotten what it’s like to stand in front of thirty five students every day!
The weekly memo is also a good place to attach helpful articles. So that your teachers don’t have to read the entire article, provide a short summary that highlights the key points. Doing this accomplishes several things:
First, it reminds everyone in the school about educational research in a positive, practical way. People who do not have time to read the letter can still get the gist of it because of the summary. It also allows someone else’s view—someone other than you!—to be shared with the staff.
We may have good ideas, but the less of a role teachers play in helping us come up with ideas, the less of a chance they’re going to adopt them. Use your weekly memos to brainstorm ideas or share your observations. You might, for example, write something like:
I happened to be in someone’s classroom the other day and I saw the most wonderful cooperative-learning activity taking place. The students were so engaged in the activity that…
Do you notice what happened in the statement above? Teachers who use cooperative learning feel reinforced and probably think you are talking about them. Teachers who have never heard of cooperative learning now at least have a seed planted regarding the terminology.
It’s a way to get your brag on
We all like to be recognized for our efforts. Why not use the weekly memo as a space to highlight your teachers’ accomplishments?
To do this, you might say something like:
I saw something neat in so and so’s class yesterday. I happened to be in the classroom, and she was using something …
The students in her classroom were so excited and engaged in learning. WOW! Are any of you familiar with this approach? If not, I highly recommend that you speak to so and so about it. I know she would be more than happy to tell you about the activity.
Principals have many talents, but when it comes to creating student-friendly spaces, it’s probably safe to say that teachers are leagues ahead of us. I’m speaking generally here, but just for the heck of it, walk into a teacher’s classroom. Look around for a minute. What do you see? Odds are that you’re going to see walls plastered with student art work, posters, a classroom library, games, listening stations, bean bag chairs, and the list goes on and on.
Now that you’ve done that, take a gander at the main office—and be honest with yourself: Is it warm and inviting? Is it a space that children want to be in? If it’s not, elementary principal Ross Cooper recently posted a blog that offers 5 very convincing reasons for principals to think about giving their main office a makeover.
I’ll give you the abridged version of his article here, but I think it’s worth revisiting Cooper’s original post.
Student-friendly offices are great conversation starters
Student friendly themes can be used to help start up conversation with students, which is especially helpful when working with learners who are more reluctant to open up. Students often believe that principals’ lives entirely contrast with those of their own— we want to do what we can to counteract this misconception.
They can also be a place to “escape”
While we want to do what we can to maximize classroom time for our children, an administrator’s office can help in providing them with a calm escape in times of need.
They can help us get in touch with our youthful side
Sometimes it can be difficult for teachers to view administrators as one of them. A student- friendly office shows teachers that you have not lost sight of the fact that the students are everyone’s most valuable asset, and that everyone is working together for their benefit.
They show that we are leading by example
No matter what form of change an administrator is attempting to inspire, it is always important to lead by example. Schools (particularly at the primary level) should contain classrooms and workplaces that promote student-centered learning, risk taking, and creativity.
They are more comfortable for administrators, too
Whether they want to or not, principals spend a good deal of time in the main office. Why not create an environment that is inspiring and comfortable for you and your students?
Faculty meetings can easily become a drag to our teachers—and to us, too! While we can make the most of our time by preplanning, coming with a positive attitude, and respecting the clock, we’d like to share 27 fun and unconventional ways “spice up” your next faculty meeting.
We always make it a point to honor our teachers during National Teacher Appreciation Day, but we know that trying to cram all of our appreciation into a single day just won’t do! Rather than wait for May to roll around again, we’d like to share five pun-tastic ways for principals to show teachers a little appreciation throughout the year.
This idea comes courtesy of Sara over at Confetti Sunshine. Simply download the small “Donut I’d do Without a Teacher like You” printable (or the large version here), print it onto white paper bags, or 6 inch by 8 1/2 inch white paper glassine bags, and stuff with your teacher’s favorite donut!
Nothing compliments a well-deserved break like “breaking off a piece of that Kit Kat bar!” Grab some Kit Kats, download Jodie’s tag sheet here, print, trim, glue, and present to your most “break-worthy” teacher.
Our teachers, especially those who work with younger students, go through glue sticks like nobody’s business. Although there is no template for the label, Rachel walks you through the simple process of making your own here.
Jamie, Jodie, and Jennifer’s APPreciated gift is perfect for your tech-savvy teachers! Inside the matchbook is an App Store gift card. For step-by-step instructions on how to put this project together, click here.
“You’ve Been the Highlight of My Year” is a teacher appreciation project created by Lindi Haws. All you need is a mason jar, some yarn, highlighters, and Lindi’s free printable.
I recently asked a veteran principal if there was one indispensable piece of advice that he could give to new principals, what would it be? His answer: “Learn to say no.”
“No” is a simple word. It’s easy to pronounce, but ironically, it’s also one of the most difficult words to get out of our mouths! Why? Because “no” can disappoint, hurt, and anger those that we care about and sincerely want to help.
“No” is a powerful tool…it’s also one of the hardest to wield. The next time you find yourself having to say “no,” consider three of Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch’s principles for saying no.
· First, saying no without guilt is much easier when it’s done in the context of generosity. This means being helpful and available to parents, students and teachers whenever you possibly can—in other words, when it won’t cause significant stress or inconvenience and when you can say yes without resentment. Recognizing the many things you do for others with a willing spirit, you’ll feel more confident and less guilty at times when you really do want to say no to them.
· The second principal of saying no: Less is more. The most powerful and effective “no’s” are the least complicated, but most of us have a great deal of difficulty saying no politely and leaving it at that. Many of us feel obligated to justify our “no” with a detailed—and often fictitious—reason. Yet elaborating is seldom necessary, and it leaves you on shaky ground. The more specific information you supply, the more likely the other person will be to:
a) try to figure out a way to “solve the problem” so that you can (and will) fulfill the request,
b) decide that your reason for saying no isn’t good enough and be miffed about it, or
c) call you out on your fabricated story!
On the other hand, when you make a statement like, “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to do that right now,” or, “I’m afraid I can’t give that the proper attention until after the New Year,” you sound clear and decisive. If the other person insists on knowing why, the burden of prying will be on him or her. When that happens, don’t fall into the trap of trying to come up with new, more creative excuses to satisfy someone who can’t take no for an answer.
·The third principle of saying “no”: not right now. If you know that you need time to make a well-informed decision, fall back on saying “not right now.” This will take the pressure off when you can’t figure out how to say no diplomatically or simply need more time to decide. If you want to defer the conversation or think on your answer, give one of these approaches a shot:
-I really appreciate your confidence in me, but from what I’m hearing you say, this will require my full attention. Could we revisit this topic once we get through Back-to-School Night?
-I’ll need to think about this some more. Give me some time to consider this and we can meet again and discuss this in more depth. So that I don’t forget, would you please send me a reminder email?
Photo credit: splorp / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
“I’m teaching as well as I know how to . . . so why aren’t these students learning?”
I’m guessing we’ve all asked ourselves that question in our courses at one time or another (or over and over again, as the unfortunate case may be). As faculty, we are experts in our disciplines so we not only want our students to learn what we teach them, but we also want them to share the love we have for our fields. So why don’t they?
Of course, this is an enormously complicated question, with a number of different answers. Often there are bottlenecks to student learning that neither we nor our students might be aware of. Researchers at Indiana University have been exploring ways to break through these bottlenecks through a process called Decoding the Disciplines. Today’s tip explores that.
Researchers identify three types of bottlenecks, or obstacles to learning:
o Procedural bottlenecks. These occur when students do not master one or more steps in a learning activity, and that impedes progress (e.g., the steps involved in formulating a hypothesis).
o Epistemological bottlenecks. These occur when students do not understand essential aspects of how knowledge is constructed within a discipline (e.g., the nature of what “counts” as evidence to support an argument).
o Emotional bottlenecks. These occur when students have emotional or experiential responses to the discipline or subject matter that hinders learning (e.g., when students feel that their religious beliefs are threatened if they study or accept the concept of evolution in biology, or when students have learned that they have always “been bad at writing”).
The Decoding the Disciplines process can help professors discover ways to increase student learning. The process involves seven steps, designed as a general framework within which to think about increasing learning in a course.
The first step is to identify bottlenecks. This involves discovering where in a course many students consistently fail to master basic material. This involves not just identifying the type of bottleneck, but the specific obstacle to learning. For example, in a history course, students might have problems interpreting primary sources the way historians do (an epistemological bottleneck), as well as maintaining emotional distance from the subject (an emotional bottleneck) (Middendorf et al., 2008).
The second step is to define the processes that students need to master to get past the specific bottleneck . . . how does an expert do these things?
The third step is to explicitly model for the students the processes, operations, steps, or perspectives necessary to get past the bottleneck.
The fourth step is to create opportunities to practice these processes, operations, etc., in specific assignments or exercises, and give feedback on them.
The fifth step is to motivate students to move through these processes . . . what emotional obstacles interfere with this learning and how can they be minimized?
The sixth step is to assess student mastery of these processes to evaluate whether your intervention has been successful.
The seventh step is to reflect on what you’ve discovered in this process, and share with others what you have learned.
In the final analysis, the “curse of expertise” sometimes prevents content experts from accurately anticipating the obstacles that impair the learning of novices (Hinds, 1999). The steps outlined here can help turn that curse into a boon.
If you’re interested, you can learn more about Decoding the Disciplines and read about specific disciplinary examples by visiting the Decoding the Disciplines web site: http://decodingthedisciplines.org/index.html
Diaz, A., Middendorf, J., Pace, D., & Shopkow, L. (2008). The History Learning Project: A department “decodes” its students. The Journal of American History, 94, 1211-1224. doi: 10.2307/25095328
Hinds, P. J. (1999). The curse of expertise: The effects of expertise and debiasing methods on predictions of novice performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 5, 205-221. doi: 10.1037/1076-898X.5.2.205
Hinds, P. J., Patterson, M., & Pfeffer, J. (2001). Bothered by abstraction: The effect of expertise on knowledge transfer and subsequent novice performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 1232-1243. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.86.6.1232
Middendorf, J., & Pace, D. (2004). Decoding the disciplines: A model for helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004, 1-12. doi: 10.1002/tl.142
Nickerson, R. S. (1999). How we know – and sometimes misjudge – what others know: Imputing one’s own knowledge to others. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 737-759. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.125.6.737
[Adapted from Dr. Claudia J. Stanny, Director, Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, University of West Florida; and Dr. Judith Ableser, director of the Oakland University Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.]
Photo credit: Will Montague / Foter / CC BY-NC
As much as we want to maintain a visible presence in our schools, getting out of the office to wander around and interact with students and faculty can be challenging.
In the past, I’ve resorted to setting up what I call a “satellite office,” whenever and wherever I can. Sometimes I’ll stop by the computer lab and answer emails while students work on their own assignments next to me. Other times I’ll grab my laptop and take a seat in the gymnasium bleachers while students shoot hoops, or snag an empty desk and move it out into the hallway so that I can get work done and say hello to random passersby.
While these “satellite offices” work, I dislike the fact that I have to carry my laptop, notebooks, and random file folders with me everywhere I go. But I recently found a $50 solution on Amazon: a mobile laptop cart.
Not only does this give me a cubby to store all of my work, it gives me mobility and allows me to work standing up! And if I leave the cart unattended for a moment, it also let’s teachers and students know that if they need me, I’m only a few feet away!
According to figures gathered by Utah State University’s Substitute Teaching Institute (STI), every day there are roughly 274,000 classrooms in the country that are staffed by substitute teachers. That’s certainly a lot of subs—and that figure doesn’t even take into account unstaffed classrooms covered by administrators, parapros, and when necessary, parent volunteers.
While this figure may hint at a larger and much more complicated issue, one thing is clear: Substitute teachers play an integral role in our students’ classroom experience. Considering that, it’s probably time that schools take a good look at not only how they treat substitute teachers, but also how well they prepare them to take over classrooms.
Below you will find three golden rules to keep your best substitute teachers coming back. These tips have been adapted from Linda Starr’s article originally published in Practical Strategies for School Principals.
Many districts now require substitute teachers to have a valid teaching certificate. Others only require a four-year degree, which introduces a critical issue: lack of training, especially in classroom management techniques.
Although most systems say that they do train substitute teachers, Starr points out that in 91.5 percent of schools, “training” lasts for under two hours! To be frank, a two-hour “training” session is really the equivalent to a glorified meet-and-greet or employee orientation session.
So what can we do to properly prepare our substitute teachers, even if we don’t have the resources to provide lengthy classroom training sessions?
Perhaps we might do well to follow in the footsteps of STI who arms every substitute teacher with a “Sub Success Kit,” consisting of a training handbook, a CD with more than 80 instructional video clips, an association membership that allows subs to network with their peers, and WebCT, a Web-based assessment package.
Treat Them Right
It’s not an easy thing to walk into a new school and take over someone else’s classroom. What can make this experience even more challenging, though, is when substitute teachers are ignored, belittled, or left to their own devices.
Substitute teachers may only be with us temporarily, but they are still a vital part of our team and should be treated as such.
School personnel should always welcome subs when they arrive. Invite substitute teachers to eat lunch with you and emphasize professionalism by visiting classrooms, evaluating substitute teachers’ work, and making sure that students are aware that they are to treat subs with courtesy and respect.
Prepare the Substitute Teacher and the Students
The substitute teacher is the proverbial Daniel who is being thrown into the lions’ den. Even the best-behaved students often cannot avoid the temptation to “stick it” the sub! Why? Think about it this way:
Substitute teachers live outside the comfortable and predictable culture of trust that has already been established between teachers and students. A substitute may be the most intelligent and capable instructor in the world, but to students his or her credibility is immediately under scrutiny. This is only compounded when the sub is not equipped with the tools—rubrics, instructions, lesson plans—s/he needs to effectively do the job.
Before teachers hand over the keys to a substitute, they should leave substantive instructions and detailed lesson plans. If the sub and teacher can speak over the phone to flesh out the details, all the better. In addition to this, the teacher should also prepare his/her students by discussing etiquette and setting clear expectations.
Why is it so difficult to ask for what we want? Perhaps it’s the fear of being patronized, or watching our dreams and aspirations go up in flames when our principal says no.
So instead of asking, we ruminate and think about asking. While the old adage, “you’ll never know until you ask” may be true, there are a few preemptive measures you can take to increase the odds of getting what you want from your principal.
Know the what, why, and how of the matter
Duh, right? As obvious as this seems, many of us have a much better sense of what we don’t, as opposed do, want. Approach getting what you want like you would a thesis statement.
Strong essays hinge on a variety of things, but a cogent, well-articulated thesis statement is the basis for a successful piece of academic writing. Without a strong thesis statement, essays flounder, beat around the bush, lack an overarching purpose, and leave the reader confused and frustrated.
Whatever you want—a school garden, a SMART classroom, longer recess time—you’ll have a much better chance of getting it if you get your thesis statement in order. Your principal doesn’t need another project, so it’s up to you to determine what you want, why you want it, and how you can get it.
Don’t miss the lifeboat because you are stubborn
There’s an old joke: A man is drowning and cries out to God for help. A minute later, a man in a rowboat paddles by and offers to help the drowning man. But the drowning man rejects the boater and says, “No, God will save me.” The same thing happens when the coastguard shows up, and again when a scuba diver swims by and offers the man his oxygen mask. When the man finally drowns, he finds himself at the pearly gates and asks God, “Why didn’t you save me? I waited for you.” God replies, “I did, you fool. I sent a rowboat, the coastguard, and a scuba diver!”
We laugh at the drowning man’s foolishness, but many of us do the same thing. We’re so fixated on what we want that we completely ignore alternatives that may give us the same—and often better—results.
Be open. You may not get funding for that school garden, but you might get enough for a classroom garden. You might not get a SMART classroom, but you might get a document camera. You might not get longer recess time, but your principal may open up the gym during lunch. While the alternatives may not be what you ultimately want, they will give you similar results. Don’t reject them because you are stubborn or fixated.
Recruit your biggest allies—your students
There’s strength in numbers. Getting what you want is going to be a heck of a lot easier if your students want it too. Encourage students to write persuasive letters, create videos, and talk to the principal about your big idea whenever they see him or her.
Look for help elsewhere
In an era of shrinking school budgets, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for schools to purchase even the most basic student supplies, let alone create SMART classrooms and fund what might be deemed “superfluous pet projects.”
Rather than despair, find creative ways to fund your classroom projects. Although car washes and bake-offs work, they’re time consuming and take teachers away from what they do best: teach. That’s one reason many of us have started using online fundraising sites.
Here are a few of our favorite crowd funding sites:
Don’t forget about your local community businesses either! It may surprise you how many of them will gladly lend a hand and offer free resources just because you asked.