In my last post, I wrote about trying to balance the role of coach and consultant in my role. It’s one that’s inherent for anyone in a leadership role. How do you know when to offer your own thinking vs. when to step back to support as someone else wrestles with theirs? It’s a tricky balance, for sure. But perhaps more complex and delicate balancing act is when you consider that we’re juggling another role: our relationship with administration.
I think it’s important to explain here that when I talk about “our role,” I mean anyone who is a non-administrative leader. Some have the titles of coaches or consultants, while others are department heads. Still others are doing the work of instructional leadership without any formal role beyond that of a classroom teacher. And all of us are doing this same balancing act.
When I was in grad school to get my reading specialist certification, a professor told my class to always “stay out of the office.” She explained that we wouldn’t want teachers to see us as being aligned with principals because the teachers needed to trust us to support them. It didn’t take me very long to realize that this was terrible advice – well intentioned, but terrible advice.
I know that she meant that we need to foster trust in our relationships with the teachers we work with. But, as a leader and facilitator of professional learning, I don’t want to foster an us vs. them mentality between teachers and administrators. If we’re really going to grow in our practice and do better for our students, we all have to work together.
In order to do this, we need to be intentional about building trust – both with the teachers we support and with their administrators. But when you’re trying to navigate building or maintaining trust with administrators, you’ll inevitably finding yourself questioning how much to tell them about what you see in your coaching works – and how. It’s true that you can’t work with a teacher and then run to the office to tell your administrators all the details about how it went, but what can you – and should you – share?
Trends and needs: Go big picture on this one. It’s not your job to report on any one teacher. So, for example, you really don’t want to say something like, “Ms. Jones is struggling with her transitions.” Instead, you want to be able to thoughtfully plan together for how to systematically support teachers based on the data you’re collecting. Share patterns without individual names.
And when you’re doing that, a small but powerful tip is to shift the language from deficit to risk-taking. Instead of telling administrators that their teachers are “struggling” with something or “need to get better with something,” tell them what they’re working on so that you can problem solve how to support teachers in the work they’re already doing. When I do this, it might sound something like, “the middle school ELA teachers are working on getting less prescriptive in their writing instruction” or “the 9/10 team would like additional support in continuing their work on building authentic collaborative opportunities into their lessons.” This helps principals to know where to focus their feedback, and it honors the hard work and professionalism of the teachers.
Invitations to professional learning: In any given building, teachers may go to dozens of different professional development sessions and conferences throughout the year. Even the most well-intentioned principal can’t keep up and attend it all. That’s where we come in. Teacher leaders can help principals filter and prioritize the many professional learning opportunities out there so they know where they can get the most bang for their buck by attending alongside their teachers. Give them a heads-up when there’s one that they and their teachers would really benefit from going to together.
Professional learning with the principal as the intended audience: Sometimes, going to a professional learning session alongside their teachers is enough, but sometimes principals might need something more specific to their needs as instructional leaders. Whether you facilitate instructional rounds or a more formal professional learning experience, this can be an important opportunity to calibrate with your administrators on how best to support the teachers in your building.
Surefire Ways to Ruin the Balance
Maintaining a supportive communication balance between teachers and administrators is hard – even on the best of days. That’s why it’s especially important to be aware of the potential landmines that are guaranteed to throw that balance off and undo all the hard work you’ve done.
1. Feedback Tied to Evaluation: Once you’ve established a trusting relationship with an administrator, you might get asked to help with evaluations in some way or another. Whether it’s an anecdote or data collection from walk-throughs, don’t ever share information with a principal that they would use when evaluating a teacher.
Likewise, it might be tempting when trying to support teachers to help them “get a few more points on their evaluation.” This may seem innocent enough, but I’ve found that even that seemingly innocuous phrasing can let that us vs. them mentality rear its head. Plus, it’s much more powerful to let teachers’ own goals lead the direction of your work together, anyway.
2. Inconsistent Feedback: If your goal is to maintain a balanced, purposeful line of communication regarding professional learning and growth, your message has to stay clear and consistent. Practically, that means, don’t tell a team they’re doing “great!” and then go to the principal and say, “phew, we have a lot of work to do” (or vice versa).
If there are outcomes or reflections that you plan to share, be upfront about that, and work together to decide what and how to share them. This might be as simple as having an exit ticket and telling your participants, “I’m going to share these with principals so that we can plan together for our next steps. It’s up to you whether you put your name on them or not.” Or, you might wrap up your conversation by inviting, “If there were 3 things from your thinking about the learning today that you’d like to share with your principal, what would you say?” then record their responses visually so that they can see how you’ve captured their words.
This balancing act is never an easy one, but it is one that will pay off as you work in a system focused on the same goals of supporting and growing our professional practice.
How do you navigate this balancing act? What works and what doesn’t? Reach out in the comments section below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt