That’s it! That sums it up for me! A huge part of a principal’s job distilled into a title. It might sound like a strange thing to say at a time when the noise outside schools includes a lot of teacher bashing and blaming. But walk into a school and it can feel like a safe cocoon for the kids and grown-ups who spend several hours a day experiencing a slice of the world within it’s walls. It can also just as easily feel like a pressure cooker! We’ve complicated the world of education with a constant push and pull between educators, politicians, business people and others with strong opinions on how schools should run and what they should accomplish. Each group is advocating for kids but the walls between them make finding common ground challenging. One group makes demands of another, perhaps with the sense that if the ‘other’ (district leaders, principals, teachers, kids, parents) would just work harder and do more, schools will ‘get better’. Sadly, many schools are turning into unhappy spaces for many as the pressure one group feels is passed on to the next – from school leaders to teachers, and teachers to kids. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
Spaces that house kids should be happy, inspiring places. When I was training to become a school leader, I was inspired by several professors who spoke of transformational leadership – a notion that leaders and followers can be connected by a shared vision to help each other and the organization grow. Yes, that is an oversimplification of an idea that many have written about, but it is also a belief I hold deeply. As I tried to make sense of it, someone simplified it even more.
“Take care of teachers, and they’ll take care of kids.” said Dr. Ray Terrell, a mentor who has influenced me with his words and ideas… guiding me with what I call ‘Terrellisms’ that dot my leadership landscape and learning experiences! Dr. Terrell, said that a decade and a half ago, and I wrote it down. It made sense – it seemed right. Today, I know that something changed for me that day. Those simple words said I needed to figure out what kind of a school leader I would be. They transformed how I started viewing interactions between big and little people in schools. They didn’t tell me that I would be wrestling with them for a dozen years, carefully sculpting something that would never be fully formed because the image was revealing itself gradually.
Take care of teachers – how do you do that? By believing in them? Caring about them? Supporting them? But how will they know you believe in them and care about them? How will they recognize that you are supporting them at a time when they feel like they are in a boxing ring with an opponent who keeps pounding away at them? When just staying on their feet seems to take every ounce of strength they have? Dr. Terrell said we had to figure things out – wrestle with our ideas and beliefs and turn them into reality. He said it with a smile in his voice and a twinkle in his eye and we were inspired to go out and make it happen!
Ah! The road has been long and hard (and I’ve been in this job only for a dozen years). It’s about people, so it’s complicated! When I take care of teachers will they recognize that I care about them? Am I doing what they need of me? It’s a simple idea and seems clear as crystal until you try to put it into action. That’s when it becomes a fuzzy – a profound Terrellism that you can’t pin down! You can name it but what does it really mean? How do you explain it? How will you make sure you do it consistently? Lots of good intentions… some that ended up as mistakes… lots of stumbling, learning and bouncing back over the years!
This summer, something clicked for me! Many people inside and outside the education arena believe there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teachers. If we could just remove the latter we wouldn’t have failing schools, they think. Being ‘tough’ with teachers is the answer, they think. Let’s measure and quantify what teachers do, they think. At some point, I started seeing parallels between the way many see teachers and kids. So many kids are seen through the lens of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. If they could only work harder they would be successful at learning, we think!
I don’t believe in the ‘good kid – bad kid’ idea. I believe they’re all good kids – sometimes they make bad choices/decisions. It seems so wrong to label kids with strong negative words like ‘bad kid’ and ‘troublemaker’ so early in their life, to label their behavior as an ‘offense’ or ‘infraction’! And, this happens at a critical stage in their lives when we still have a tremendous opportunity to influence and inspire them.
Our goal is for kids to be successful in their learning regardless of circumstances or challenges. We talk about leaders being role-models and setting the tone in organizations. We want teachers to be role-models for kids. What if school leaders would do for teachers what we want them to do for kids? What would happen within our schools? It seemed like an idea worth pursuing.
Kids walk into our doors either because they live in the neighborhood their school serves, or because their families choose to send their kids to us. They start out eager and curious but sometimes that curiosity gets snuffed out over time. Teachers were hired because at some point, someone in a leadership role saw potential in them, and welcomed them as a team member. The eager, excited teacher who is passionate about making a difference gets burnt out over the years, or fights to stave off burn out! Regardless of personal circumstance or learning challenges, we expect teachers to get every kid to the finish line each year. We want every child to have a quality education. As leaders, do we owe our team members the same commitment? Are we working to give every teacher a quality professional experience? Are we coaching them the way we want them to coach kids?
Teachers struggle to find ways to engage kids who walk through their doors unprepared for school. Are we finding ways to engage teachers who struggle to make their dreams fit the reality of meeting the complex needs of kids?
When kids struggle with learning we want teachers to be creative and use purposeful strategies to help kids learn. When teachers struggle, are principals (read any school leader here) using creative, purposeful strategies to help them become skilled and proficient teachers?
When kids work at advanced levels, we want teachers to stretch and accelerate their learning. When highly skilled teachers have honed and polished their craft, are principals stretching and accelerating their professional growth?
When students experience the stress of poverty, family circumstances and health issues, we want teachers to tune in and nurture their social-emotional growth. When ‘life happens’ or the pressures of work pull teachers down and increase their stress, are principals tuning in and supporting their social-emotional health?
When kids make poor behavior choices, we want teachers to understand, be patient, figure out what is going on and guide them towards positive behavior. We want teachers to look for something good in kids and grow it. When teachers bring a ‘negative attitude’ do principals show patience and try to see what brought this on? Do principals take the time to look for something good in every member of their team and grow it?
We need to hire people carefully and then help them be the best they can be. We talk about giving kids and teachers chances. I’d like to think that it’s less about giving them ‘another chance’ and more about not giving up on them! After all of this, some might still be unsuccessful and we can still respond compassionately.
Why? It’s the right way. That’s how I want to be treated. That’s how I’ve been treated by most of the people I’ve worked with. We all grow when we know someone cares… parents, bosses, the people we answer to. When we know someone cares, we’re willing to be risk-takers and step out of our comfort zones. And, we’re more ready to tackle challenges when we know that there’s a safety net to catch us if we fall. Kids need that safety net, and teachers do too. Principals set the tone in the school; teachers in the classroom.
“Take care of teachers and they’ll take care of kids” (Dr. Ray Terrell)
“Treat teachers the way you want them to treat kids” (Subha Balagopal)
I’m not sure if my version above is an explanation of what Dr. Terrell said, or an interpretation. Sounds idealistic to you? Sounds like something worth believing and definitely worth trying, to me! The learning and leading continues!
P.S. I wrote this three years ago and saved it as a draft. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it, but perhaps I was waiting to do it on the perfect day for this post… today! It feels just as true today as when I wrote it, and as you’ll soon see, it’s allowed me to get to my next post! 🙂 Thanks, Dr. Terrell!