Q: I’m a teacher who’s training to become an administrator. I’ve become friends with directors in central office as a result. What’s a good way to stand up for them when my school administrators (a.k.a. my bosses) publicly discredit their work in meetings with colleagues? The principal and his assistant principals give off this vibe of, “Central people don’t understand us school-based people.” I don’t typically feel the criticism is warranted, and I worry about the impression it leaves on young staff members. It seems a new strategic plan is automatically deemed bad because it comes from the people who work at “the board.” This recently happened with one idea in particular that I think is pretty good. My principal was really sarcastic about it and presented it without energy or enthusiasm. Many of our staff are relatively inexperienced and impressionable, and I feel like this skews their perspective. I know this question may seem atypical — in my experience, it’s less common for teachers to be supporting a decision being handed down from central office — but this really bothers me. How can I handle this?
A: You’re correct — judging from the questions in my inbox, yours is atypical, but you make a good point. If your administrators would like their staff members to feel purposeful and motivated, they should transmit more positivity. As the leaders, they’re setting the tone and the example — and their current behavior is unprofessional. They’re not only lowering staff morale, they’re showing that it’s OK to disparage one’s supervisors. And when you’re the people in charge, that’s a foolish strategy.
My guess is that your administrators believe they’re building rapport, deflecting blame, or not thinking much at all. It’s very easy to create a culture of complaining, but it’s contagious and hurts everyone. That said, you don’t want to come off as sanctimonious, and you do report to these individuals. The fact that you’re training to be an administrator, however, gives you a natural opening. I’d treat this as a learning opportunity. When you’re a leader, you’ll likely be asked on occasion to implement programming that feels at odds with your mission. You, too, may struggle to find the right outlet for your frustration, so I’d take some good notes.
First, I’d ask for a private meeting with your principal. Explain that you’ve been observing and learning so much from him, that you’ve been reflecting on school culture, and that you’ve been thinking about your own future role as an administrator. I’d generate a list of questions in advance. Think about what you want to know, and ask yourself whether the questions are likely to make him feel defensive or awkward. You don’t want to shut down the conversation — you want to get him thinking. If you approach him with respect and curiosity, he’ll be less likely to bristle.
So what might you ask? Perhaps you’re wondering how a principal can keep staff morale high despite changing (or onerous) demands. How can you ensure that young or inexperienced teachers stay enthusiastic despite multiple pressures? Maybe you want to know about his experiences. Has he found that central office and school-based administrators often have different agendas? Has he ever been skeptical about a mandate but then been proven wrong? When he was a teacher, how did his administrators get him fired up about a new curriculum or technological innovation?
You also could share that you’ve had positive interactions with your trainers in central office, and that you’re concerned that younger staff may be getting a skewed perspective. Ask your principal about his own early experiences with central office. How has his attitude changed over time? How does he stay motivated when he feels put upon by people far removed from his school? And how does he assume positive intent when he finds himself sinking into cynicism?
Ultimately, you’d like him to reframe the message without being inauthentic. He’d then be modeling that behavior for his assistant principals. This isn’t a superficial issue; if he wants an action-oriented, upbeat staff, he can’t get mired in negativity. And perhaps that’s one of your questions. What are his thoughts on how administrators can stay positive, professional and generous of spirit when they feel their views are dismissed? As your conversation with him unfolds, you may find that you’re able to be more direct, but feel him out first. Be sensitive and adopt a beginner’s mind-set. After all, this will be you one day.
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