Thursday, October 24, 2013

Best Practices vs. Past Practices

One of my biggest challenges as a school site administrator is balancing what I feel is right, consistent contractually, and what's best for students versus what the staff's past practice has been at our school site. It's something I've faced at every school I've served as a site administrator and, based on my conversations with fellow administrators, something I suspect exists at every other school site as well.

At one of my former schools, one such situation existed that involved teacher duties outside the classroom. While our sister school in the district had a equitable teacher duty system in place, there was much resistance with our staff to implement a similar program. At the time, many of the staff members already attended the plays, athletic contests, parent nights, and meetings on their own accord. Having these extra staff members at a packed-house basketball game was a blessing and I was very thankful for their assistance. Despite discussions and a proposal to begin piloting the "teacher participation" program, conversations became contentious and eventually stalled the initiative. To this day, no "teacher participation" program exists at that school.

A more alarming situation occurred during my first few weeks as the Dean of Students at a talented yet under-performing middle school. While speaking with the principal and vice principal in the main office, I noticed a veteran teacher toasting a bagel and checking his mailbox. The reason this behavior caught my attention is that it was during 2nd period and this teacher had a class full of thirty two 8th graders across campus in his classroom. I confirmed that we weren't having a random schedule day and asked the principal if we should remind the teacher that he should be in his classroom with his students. The principal agreed that we should and encouraged me to speak with the veteran staff member. Perhaps due to my inexperience as a site administrator, I was not ready for the conversation that followed.

I calmly approached the veteran teacher and struck up a conversation. In a safe, inquisitive manner, I asked if he had students in his classroom right now. The teacher answered that he did. I asked who was supervising them if he happened to be down in the main office. He responded that a teacher from a classroom across the hall was watching his students. I paused for a moment. While I was not sitting well with the idea of our highly qualified social studies teacher not being in the classroom delivering instruction and instead having a colleague watch his class, I quickly realized that the other teacher actually had a class of his own at the same time. I politely reminded the teacher, as he munched on his bagel, that his colleague had his own class to watch. The veteran staff member looked at me, said that it was taken care because the other teacher could watch both classes from the hall. Essentially, this made the matter worse in my mind. Instead of one class not receiving instruction because this teacher was out of the classroom, we now had two classrooms not receiving instruction because of the allure of a toasted bagel and junk mail. All in all, this wasn't ok.

I looked at the veteran staff member and calmly said, "I need you to be in your classroom and with your students. I appreciate you doing so today and in the future as well." The teacher remained silent, gathered his belongings, and made his way back to his classroom. I checked in with my principal who said that I handled the situation well. Again perhaps in my inexperience, I assumed that this was the end of it and the problem was solved.

Later that day, I received a call from the district office. As a new administrator, receiving a call from the district office is rarely positive. The district office employee (from memory, I believe it was the director of HR) inquired into why the veteran teacher was calling the district office and asking for the job description for the Dean of Students, the position I held. The staff member also asked if I had the authority to instruct him to be in the classroom. Fortunately, my principal became involved and supported how I handled the situation. Still, my request to be in the classroom with your students didn't sit well with the veteran staff member, even after the call to the district office. I found out in future conversations that this teacher was out of his classroom on a daily basis and that past practice allowed for teachers at this school to watch their colleagues' classrooms from afar. Past administrators had allowed this behavior. Again, it's one of those moments where you, as an administrator, have to decide if you're going to look the other way or if you're going to do what was best for students, what the teacher's contract supported, and ultimately what was right.

During my three years at this middle school, I eventually built a strong relationship with this staff member. While he didn't curb his tendencies to leave his classroom semi-unattended (probably a story for another day...), he and I settled on a common understanding, supported by my constant presence in his classroom and the talks we had on "best teaching methods" at the middle school level. I learned a lot from him as a colleague and stayed in communication through his retirement a few years later.

Most importantly, both of these experiences helped shape my vision and core beliefs on how to best build, support, and strengthen expectations on a school campus regarding student, parent, and teacher behaviors. While it can be challenging to shift from past practices, these hard conversations can set new norms and positive outcomes for your school community.

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