Dear Administrators, Can We Tear Down the Great Divide?

Dear Administrators,

I am not sure I am the right one to bring this up,in fact,  I am not sure it is my place to start this conversation.  Yet, this blog has offered me a voice that not all teachers have, a place to start a public discussion that is needed.  That doesn’t mean I am the best one to bring it up, but here goes nothing.

There has always been a divide between administration and teachers it seems.  From the poor jokes about going to the dark side to the hushed conversations behind closed doors discussing the latest admin “screw up,” it seems that there is an invisible mountain between teachers and administration that both sides don’t understand the origin of.  It is not that anyone wants to think of the other as being on another side and yet it crops up in conversation time and time again.  But I am starting to wonder why we all seem to be okay with it.  It seems to just be an accepted fact when I don’t think it should be.  After all, are we not all trying to educate the same children?

So what is it that is creating it, and more importantly what can we do?  Because I hear over and over that teachers don’t think their administration will believe in whatever idea they have, or their administration won’t give them permission, and I am always left wondering if this really is true.  Do they really know that or is it just an assumption?  In fact, how often do we assume what someone else may say or think and thus feel defeated?  How often do we blame our administrators for something when we don’t know if it is really their fault?  How often does our own fear of having a courageous conversation create unintended barriers?

Perhaps the divide has to to do with trust.  While I believe almost all administrators trust their staff, I wonder how often that is explicitly communicated.  Not just in words but in actions. I wonder how many times trust is assumed rather than discussed, how many times both sides assume that the other know their intentions.  What if we decided that the other side couldn’t read our minds and instead started asking questions?  What if we were told that administration trusted us in both words and action, would that break the divide?  What if teachers started to tell their administrators that they trusted them, what would that do?

What if we gave second chances?  What if we, every day, gave each other a new chance at doing what is best?  What if we actively tried to create a community of educators just like we work on it with our students?  What then?

I don’t know what the answer is.  I am not an administrator, just a teacher who wants to find a solution. So dear administrators and other educators reading this, what do you think?  How do we tear down the great divide?  What can I tell all those teachers who feel like their administration will never trust them?  Who feel like their administration will never understand what they do, what they are trying to do, and who feel no one has their back?  Because I don’t think it’s true but maybe I am wrong, I have been wrong so many times before.

Thank you,

Pernille

PS:  I am absolutely loving all of the great conversations that are happening due to this post.  Here are a few responses to the post on other blogs.

John Bernia wrote a great response 
So did Melissa Emler here 

And Brandon Blom here

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children.  The second edition of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is available for pre-order now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

19 thoughts on “Dear Administrators, Can We Tear Down the Great Divide?

  1. I’m not sure there is always a great divide. Maybe I have just been amazingly lucky, but I have always felt that when and if I went to one of my administrators, they were supportive and fair. Looking back, it may have been me that didn’t see the whole picture and assumed that my needs were more important. Sometimes, I think it is my age that aids in the perspective that ‘everyone is doing the best they can in their situation.’ I am totally not disagreeing with the fact that there may be many administrators that are not trusted, and that is a sad statement. On the whole, I would like to think that most of us are all on the same page, teachers or administrators. 🙂

    • I have worked for both administrators I trust, and those I don’t. When there is trust, it is a two way street. It is difficult to trust someone who makes it clear they do not trust you. It’s an important conversation to have, but equally important not to paint either teachers or administrators with too broad a brush.

  2. I agree with you, Bonnie. I’ve been fortunate in working for the administrators that I have had. I have also heard of others that are “on the dark side”. One of the biggest things I’ve noticed, while going to school for my admin license, is that I’ve tended to like the admins who are “servant styled” leaders, willing to dig in and help in any way they can. Often, you can’t find them in their office – because they’re out and about and through the school.

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  4. I agree the divide is there between teachers and administrators even when we are working towards the same goal – education of children. It is ingrained in us and the stories we have all heard or endured of administrators who just do not get what we do everyday in our classrooms. However teachers cannot get what administrators do everyday in their own work trenches. I am an elementary teacher and my husband is my principal. We are both dedicated and passionate about our students but we do have disagreements where we just do not see eye to eye. I think it comes down to his whole school perspective and my classroom perspective and our personal beliefs about what we feel is best for our students. It is not that we are on different teams but we just envision different paths towards solutions. Having my husband as my boss is not ideal but it has forced me to see an administrator’s viewpoint in a much more personal light. Speaking from this work relationship I can tell you administrators worry about students too, and parents too, and all staff members, and the building, and state mandated laws, and testing, and if we are doing the right thing for these kids. Thank you Pernille for giving voice to frustrations and helping us all to be passionate educators fighting for our students.

  5. Pernille, I respect your opinion and have followed your work. You are speaking from your experience. When I was a teacher I had administrators I trusted and could have crucial conversations, and those that I did not trust and could not speak my mind with for fear of repercussion. As an administrator I have strived to create a culture of trust. It is not as easy as said. I would say my former staff was very trusting of me, but there was always barriers. Past mental models are hard to erase. When you have been spurned, whether it be teacher to admin or admin to teacher, it is hard to get past. I don’t think it is as bad everywhere as outlined in this blog post. Some organizations have the trust and transparency you are asking for, but it takes time and both parties to let go of past experiences or outside factors like politics, and unions to just focus on kids and getting better everyday for them.

    • One important distinction here is that yes, I have encountered it but am not currently in the situation and I think it speaks volumes about the great care that is taken in my district to value relationship and respectful dissent. I wonder how many districts truly open up almost all things to open discussion?

  6. I love this blog post, Pernille. I have been on both sides of the divide. I am about to start my fourth year as principal in the building I taught at for eleven years before that. As a school, we have worked hard to erode the divide. While the divide still exists in some areas, we have built many tunnels through it. All of these tunnels started with trust. Teachers in my building know they have the freedom to fail. We have two quotes on the wall in the teachers’ lounge. One from Nanci Atwell (“A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy or marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone became a reader.”) and one from Dave Burgess (“If you haven’t failed in your classroom lately, you are probably playing it too safe.”) Trust is essential for innovation to exist. In some ways, I have an advantage being the principal of a building I taught in. I have already earned the respect of my teachers and they know my decisions are based on what is best for kids. However, you still have to continue to cultivate that trust because the divide is real. Teachers worry even the best principals will forget what it was like to be in the classroom and inch closer to the “dark side.”

    Another thing I try to do is be as involved in the classroom as possible. I visit every classroom every day, model lessons in the classroom, share book talks, and occasionally read with classes during independent reading.

    Also, I try to say yes as often as possible. When teachers are excited about a new activity and need something for the classroom, I try to find a way to say yes. A teacher wanted to do a Makerspace room last year; yes. A teacher wanted to experiment with a classroom without chairs; yes. We want to build a garden at the school; yes. As long as they can explain how their idea or practice will benefit kids, I try to say yes. We analyze at the end and evaluate if the practice/idea was effective.

    Finally, I do agree with Lee that classroom perspective vs. whole school perspective is usually the area that I see the biggest divide. In those cases, it is my job to help other staff members see how the whole school initiative relates to the goals of their individual classrooms.

    The bigger divide in my district is between the teachers/principal and central office. That is another whole blog post 🙂

  7. Pernille
    Thanks you for a thoughtful post that caused me to reflect. What strikes me is that this seems to be really an issue about relationships. Nearly all teachers realize, that healthy, positive relationships with students are key to learning success. As staffs, do we think this principle applies to the relationships between teachers and administrators. The only way to build and maintain these relationships is to be intentional and create the circumstances where all can come together to create a space where both (teachers and administrators) listen without judgement, share the stories of success and failure, disagree without being disagreeable and be confident that a request for support will be a sign of strength not weakness. As a pilot in our Board, we will be holding “voluntary” staff circles this year, once a week after school. The intention is to build and maintain the relationships amongst all staff. Further, many other commentators spoke of trust, and I agree that trust and mutual respect are key aspects. However trust is engendered among individuals and a community when we know each other. Staff and administrators must give themselves the time to create that community. Some may argue, that one more meeting is not possible. However, I would posit that if we wish to work collaboratively, and create an environment where risk and creativity are valued, how can we not create space and time to build these key relationships that are vital to a healthy, positive, inclusive school environment.

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  9. Pernille, you are wise to question the relationship each teacher and administrator might describe to you regarding their colleagues. Every context is unique, as is each person’s perspective of a work relationship.

    On the principal’s side, we need to be very intentional about celebrating teacher success, finding ways for teachers to lead, and granting permission to take risks. It also helps for administrators to use language that doesn’t try to solve their problems all the time, but to determine what exactly that person needs. Plus, funny YouTube videos to start a staff meeting are always popular. We need to laugh.

    On the teacher’s side, it helps to have a broader, more whole school point of view, to be able to take the principal’s perspective at times, and to be deliberate in one’s assumptions and actions. Also, instead of emailing, walk down to their office and talk to him or her if your message is more than a few sentences long. Okay, that’s my own idiosyncrasy, and the faculty knows it. 🙂

    Thanks for starting the discussion Pernille.

  10. Hi Pernille,

    I just visited your blog for the first time. The issue you raise here about the divide and mistrust between teachers and administrators is not unique to the teaching profession. It occurs in all industries. When I was learning to manage larger groups at Microsoft, they coached us through a simulation exercise called Tops-Middles-Bottoms. Each participants went through each of the roles and got to experience the responsibilities, constraints, powers, and frustrations that each role brings. It helped us develop empathy for people in each of the roles, and also the realization that we all occupy multiple roles at the same time. While teachers may feel at the “bottom” as regards administration, for students they are the “top”. Here is a useful link to explore further http://govleaders.org/total-system-power.htm and how one can contribute constructively in each role. I personally found the exercise quite useful in my development.

    Best,
    — Anoop.

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  12. You’ve chosen to frame the discussion so positively. I’m thankful for the posture that you (and so many other classroom teachers) have taken with regard to addressing the admin/teacher divide.

    I think that this posture, the one that is asking direct, honest questions, even ones that drive you to frustration at times, still invites a conversation that will prove to be vital to healing in the admin/teacher relationships on many campuses.

    I posted a few thoughts in response to some of the questions you posed here to my blog just now. Here’s the link if you’re interested (http://afhogan.com/2015/07/13/mind-the-gap/).

    Thanks for getting my thoughts going about how I can serve teachers well as the new year starts soon!

    aaron

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