Monday, April 25, 2016

How to Leave with Grace

March 15.

It's one of the most important dates within education. It's the date where non-tenured teachers must be notified that they're not returning for the upcoming school year. It's also the date where non-tenured staff (principals, directors, and other district administrators) can be told they're not coming back in the Fall. Often, if you're the individual on the receiving end of this conversation, you'll be given the chance to resign from your position.

After these decisions have been made, it can make for a tense three months until the end of the school year. After all, there is still a third of the school year left. This means that there's a lot of learning that still needs to take place for the remainder of your days together with the staff you're about to separate from. It's incredibly awkward; often, it goes horribly wrong.

One of my first memories of the March 15th date was during my teaching days. There was an assistant principal who struggled a bit in getting along with our principal. It was obvious in our staff meetings. The entire staff would watch as they bantered back and forth in the middle of a math adoption textbook conversation. A few days after the March 15th deadline, the assistant principal stopped by my classroom to talk. They were not in a good space. Given the various stages of grief, they were spending a lot of time on anger. In these ten minutes, I learned more about what it was like to be an administrator than the years I spent in my administrative credential program. This assistant principal felt betrayed. They were worried about their career and their family. They threw about half of the front office under multiple buses. I just stood on the ramp to my portable and listened to their words, offering support where I could. It was an example of how not to leave your job.

A second memory comes from my first few years as an administrator. As the assistant principal, I was tasked with evaluating our new teachers, determining within a 6 month period if they're suitable to return for the upcoming school year. It was late within the previous summer where we struggled to find a teacher for a position. In the end, we made a last minute hire and hoped for the best. Sadly, we experienced the worst.

When I evaluate my staff, I look at a myriad of elements to see if they're a good fit for our classrooms, our students, our staff, and our community. Do they positively participate in team meetings? Can they get along with the other staff members, no matter how challenging they might be? Do you get positive feedback from the students? How many angry parent emails do you receive? How often do they update their grade book? What do I see when I visit their classroom unannounced? While I don't rely too heavily on one of these qualifications, it is possible that a new teacher won't be asked back if there's something alarming therein.

For this one late-hired teacher, it wasn't just one thing. It was a bit messy throughout the first 6 months of the school year and it was very apparent that they weren't a good fit for our school. The meeting went fine. Very little was said. The next three months weren't too awkward. They continued to perform at their previous levels, only with a slight increase in unhappy students and parents. However, things changed one random day in May. I was stopped by the first floor classroom and happened to see a student halfway out of the top window. It was about 10-12 feet off of the ground, The student climbed onto a shaky bookcase and then propelled themselves out the window. Outside the window was the same 10-12 foot drop.

I immediately called for the student to come down from the window. I looked around for the teacher. She was sitting at her desk, grading papers. After the student was safely back in the classroom, I asked the teacher if she knew what was going on just a few yards from her desk. She replied that she did know that the students were jumping out of the window and that she didn't see anything wrong with it. I was floored. Not only was she not using instructional time wisely, but she was actively putting her students' health at risk by allowing these behaviors. I immediately spoke with my principal and the district office. I ended up spending most of the last 3-4 weeks in their classroom. These were this teacher's final days in the classroom, as they've since left the profession.

My third memory was my own experience. It had been a rough 18 months as an administrator in a very challenging district. I knew I wasn't going to return for a third year. My health wouldn't allow it. After a conversation with the superintendent, it became official: I'd be elsewhere for the upcoming school year. It felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. It was very clear to those close to me that it was a change for the better. Looking back, they were absolutely right.

The next three months as a "dead admin walking" were, without exception, my most effective days in this position. Even with the hospitalization of one of the other assistant principals, the work load seemed to ease. The dozens of angry parent emails we'd received weekly didn't sting as much. I felt it was easier to say "yes" to student requests. Most of my days were spent in classrooms, watching the talented staff work their craft.

This isn't to say there weren't some challenging days. With things going so well, these positive days sometimes made it a bit hard in knowing that I'd be departing shortly. There were awkward moments where current colleagues asked for advice on their application for the job I was leaving from. I had bonded with a few leadership and journalism students who I wasn't going to be able to support during their upcoming Senior year. I really enjoyed working with my administrative and front office team. But in the end, it was a good thing to leave. I'm not sure I would have survived another year in this position without significant life changes.

There have been countless other examples over my past fifteen years in education. Every individual has had a very different reaction to departing their educational home. Some leave mid April; others just don't show up the first day of school. In the end, it would be my suggestion to always run through the finish line and not let one's impending departure color the job they were hired to do. After all, the legacy you leave is often formed from the first impression you've made coupled with the final impression as you depart.

I know I myself didn't do everything right as I was departing each of my prior positions. It's a difficult place to be in as you're transitioning to somewhere different for the upcoming school year. That said, I tried my best to support my colleagues and, of course, our students. It's not always the easiest thing to do... but often the hardest thing to do and the right thing to do are the same thing to do. After all, it will be our students who suffer if we don't leave with grace... and leaving with grace and dignity is very important, no matter the impetus for the change. Our students deserve our very best.





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