“Rules without relationship leads to rebellion“ is an adage that applies to interactions between teachers and students as well as between administrators and teachers. When I stepped out of the classroom and began supervising instruction, a part of my responsibilities included holding teachers accountable to deadlines and district expectations. I try to never forget my perspective as a classroom teacher, as an administrator I have learned that strong and effective support for teachers should always take precedence over blanket accountability measures such as strongly worded emails, overtly negative performance reviews, and write-ups.
This is particularly important because of the impact of teacher retention on student achievement. Teacher mobility is on the rise even as teacher shortages exacerbate teacher vacancies, and administrators play a key role in teacher retention. School communities need administrators who remember how hard teaching is and the demands that post-pandemic education places on teachers. If you lead a faculty team in any capacity, consider the following path that balances support with accountability.
Reflect on and assess your own progress
As leaders, we are ultimately responsible for the successes and failures of our teams. The first person we must hold accountable is ourselves. In this regard, think about the following questions from a place of transparency and a space of vulnerability. It’s OK to fall short of where we would like to be—the gap between where we are and where we seek to be is “the work.”
You can start by considering questions like these:
- What does support for teachers mean to you?
- What have you done this year to support your teachers?
- More specifically, how have you lightened the load for your team, including new teachers and experienced teachers who may be struggling?
- How do you identify teachers in need of support?
Create the conditions for teachers to ask for support
Throughout my years in education, I have been fortunate enough to build relationships with many teachers, not just in my own school community but across district and even state lines.
I cannot count how many times I’ve heard people say things like these about their administrators:
- “They are not responsive.”
- “They probably won’t listen to me.”
- “They are not easy to speak to.”
- “They don’t reply to my emails.”
As an administrator, I am responsible for establishing and maintaining a professional space that is conducive for the teachers on my team to interact with transparency and, at times, vulnerability. For me, creating these conditions as a supportive administrator means being visible and communicative.
Visible: You cannot lead your team from your office. Maintaining a visible presence not only shows that we are noticeably on the job but also communicates that we see our teachers and students. Sometimes, the visibility of a supportive administrator means more than simply walking the halls.
In my first year out of the classroom, one of my primary responsibilities involved managing student discipline at our middle school. I held weekly meetings with grade-level teams to discuss disciplinary concerns and plan for solutions. As the year progressed, some teachers would get demonstrative about their frustration. Still new in my role, I began canceling these meetings from time to time in order to avoid this frustration. I incorrectly perceived conflict in this space as a ruling from the team that I was ineffective at managing student discipline. Much to my surprise, after canceling one time too many, the teachers asked that we resume our weekly meetings and affirmed the value of being seen and heard.
Communicative: Supportive administrators are responsive, proactive, and transparent in communication. We have to reply to our emails. Returning text messages is crucial. Even if you cannot respond immediately, build time into your schedule to respond to texts and emails. Coming in 15 or 20 minutes earlier in the day just to respond to emails can vastly improve how you are perceived by teachers in terms of being approachable and receptive.
Interpersonal transparency is essential. Administrators who are perceived as secretive cultivate a culture of distrust. Teachers cannot be privy to every aspect of all decision-making processes. However, when possible, be transparent in communication. A culture of transparency builds trust between teachers and administrators.
Proactive communication to assess the needs of teachers is also vital. I have learned to end my collaborative meetings with each team by asking if there are any needs or requests for support in any areas. And they’ve had a lot of requests—here are a few I’ve received:
- Requests for deadline extensions.
- Help with lesson planning.
- Requests for supplies—from pencils and markers to glue and paper.
- Requests for collaborative grading sessions to norm rubric expectations across the team.
- Requests to try a new activity and a classroom visit with feedback.
- Requests to problem-solve about why a lesson fell short.
- Requests for support with classroom management strategies.
- Requests for support on a call with a parent or in a conference.
Sometimes I wonder if the questions that bubble up to the surface would have been expressed without an open invitation.
Support means showing up
In my experience, one of the biggest disconnects between teachers and administrators involves an understanding of what exactly support is. I’ve grown to think of support for teachers as sweat equity. Simply put, supportive administrators show up.
Consider a teacher who fails to submit lesson plans on a timely basis, if at all. On the one hand, sure, you can notify the teacher and document their ongoing success or failure to meet expectations up to the point of disciplinary action. Yet I’ve come to learn that in these instances supporting teachers through the lesson planning process almost always remedies this issue.
What does this support look like? For me, it means blocking off time to meet, sit, and plan with the teacher. Sometimes the issue is time management. Other times—especially for new and novice planners—they just need a more experienced planning partner to get the ball rolling. Our reflection, assessment, and ultimate success in supporting (and retaining) our teams hinges on our understanding of teacher workload.
Either way, understanding the lesson plan example as a teacher workload issue means: (1) We can lighten the workload by easing or extending the lesson plan submission deadline for a week or two as the teacher gains their footing, or (2) we can show up to strengthen the teacher’s ability to plan effectively and efficiently. Sometimes, the teacher you feel needs to be held accountable is the very teacher you need to show up for.