The Best Way to Kill a Good Idea

When I was in middle school I set out to read Stephen King’s complete body of work. I was inspired by my uncle, Pat, who was only five years older than me and owned many of King’s books. I read them throughout high school. Although I hadn’t finished by the time I went off to college, I abruptly stopped reading much of anything a week after setting foot on campus. The reason? I had too much required reading to do.

I rarely read any of it, and of what I did read, I remember almost nothing. Feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing the work my father was paying a fair amount for the opportunity to do, I read nothing at all. How could I read novels for enjoyment when I had neglected hundreds of pages of required text for class?

Reading is good. Requiring it is far less good.

This is the major problem with most education initiatives. Many of them are wonderful ideas that have the potential to positively impact students. But their effectiveness is neutered when legislatures, school boards, and school leaders force teachers to implement them. There’s a very simple reason:

People hate being told to do things.

Time for teachers to collaborate is good.
Requiring teachers to collaborate is not.

Professional development for teachers is good.
Requiring all teachers to attend the same professional development is not.

Having student learning goals is good.
Requiring every teacher to write learning goals on the board every day is not.

Lesson plans are good.
Requiring teachers to submit lesson plans is not.

Reading professional articles about teaching is good.
Requiring teachers to read specific articles is not.

Calling parents with good news is good.
Requiring teachers to call parents with good news is not.

Using humor in the classroom is good.
Putting humor on a checklist that principals use to evaluate teachers is not (and let’s hope such a thing never happens).

Reading books about teaching is good. Book studies are not.

Having a classroom management system is good. Forcing all teachers to use the same system is not.

 

The best way to kill a good idea is to force people to do it.

But that’s just what too many educational leaders do. There’s a tendency in education to take anything with evidence to support its effectiveness and try to force all teachers to do that thing.

Which of course has the effect of teachers not wanting to do that thing and results in it being done less than optimally. Force me to do something and sure, I might do it (unless I think I can get away with not doing it), but I won’t put much effort into it.

Enter the work of Robert Marzano (among others). Like many teachers, I’ve read Marzano’s book, The Highly-Engaged Classroom (and, notably, I read it on my own, not because my school did a book study and required its reading). I read it because it’s really good information for a teacher that I knew could make me better at my job.

However, it’s potentially really bad information for administrators. Leaders, pressured to improve student test scores, look at Marzano’s book as a comprehensive checklist of things great teachers do. But that’s not what it is or was ever meant to me. The book offers guidance. It provides the research to aid in decision making. You’re not supposed to read it and think, “Well, if one of these strategies is good, doing all of them would be even better!”

An analogy:

I have, at different times in my life, been overweight (like, for instance, at this particular time in my life). There are many ways to lose weight. Here are some:

Get more sleep
Stop drinking soda
Join a fitness class
Walk
Run on a treadmill
Lift weights
Weight Watchers
Pole dancing
Atkins Diet
South Beach Diet
Keto-something, or whatever the current dieting trend is
Read my book, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss and then do what it says!

Those strategies will all work. If you do even one or two of them with any regularity, you’ll likely have success. But try to do them all and you’ll burn out pretty quickly. You’ll become exhausted. You’ll give up altogether. And if someone else, say, your personal trainer, tried to force you to do all of those things, you’d think she was crazy. But that’s what we do in education.

Instead of forcing teachers to eat their vegetables, let’s treat them like professionals. Inform teachers of the research and allow them to do what works with their students. If you must, require evidence that what they’re doing is working, but stop treating teachers like machines who, if they just did everything you told them to do, would produce better test scores.

That’s not how it works, and trying to force the matter is making it less likely that teachers will do the things you think will work anyway.

Stop jamming even the best ideas down teachers’ throats. They’ll die of suffocation, and the teachers will either reluctantly choke them down or, more likely, barf them out when you’re not looking.

How to Be a Great Principal Without Spending a Dime

I know two excellent mid-career teachers who left their districts this summer to teach in more affluent communities next year.  They weren’t looking for raises, “easier” kids to teach, or newer buildings and flashier technology. They weren’t even especially attracted to their new districts as much as they were repelled by their old ones. Both teachers resigned because administrators in their districts didn’t do the simple things that cost absolutely nothing to keep good teachers happy.

Here’s a colorful and relevant graphic:

The bottom left corner didn’t apply in the instances of the two teachers I know. They were mid-career professionals who were willing to take a pay cut to get out of their current districts. They had also managed a reasonable work-life balance and had taken advantage of opportunities to grow professionally. The work was obviously challenging; I don’t know any teacher who thinks it isn’t.

It’s said that people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. That was certainly the case for the two teachers I know. Without getting into specifics about what drove each teacher from her job, I can say that had their bosses done a few simple things, these teachers would be returning to their buildings and classrooms next year.

Some administrators who work in schools that serve students of low socioeconomic status like to blame their lack of money or the challenges that come with teaching students in poverty for their trouble in finding and keeping talented educators. And while there are teachers who will avoid working in certain districts because of those factors, those who have already been doing it for a while are unlikely to leave if they’re treated with respect. Leaving mid-career is risky. You lose your tenure. You’ll likely make less money. It’s a pain in the ass to pack up your stuff. You have to meet all new people and learn all new processes, curriculum, and online platforms. You have to rebuild your reputation. You trade in knowns, however unpalatable, for unknowns. Veteran teachers don’t make the decision to change districts lightly. So if you’re losing teachers like this, someone or a small group of someones is screwing up.

Principals do not need to spend a dime to keep their best teachers. They just have to do the following 9 things.

Get to Know Your Teachers

A story I was recently told: A newly hired principal was talking to a local preacher about how he should go about building relationships with his staff. The preacher recommended that the principal get a stack of index cards and give one to each teacher. On the card, each teacher was to write her name, the names of her spouse and children, a few personal interests, and one thing the principal could do that would help the teacher in the coming year. Then, the preacher explained, the principal should study the cards so that when he passed a teacher in the hall he could ask about her kids, or casually use her husband’s name in conversation, or pass on something he saw relating to her hobby. He would also have a list of things he could do that his teachers would value.

It’s is a simple activity that costs nothing but a little bit of time. And the real genius of it is that just asking teachers for this information shows the principal cares. Even if he never looks at the cards, he’s built some goodwill by caring enough to ask.

(Incidentally, the principal didn’t take the preacher’s advice. He never passed out the cards or asked the questions. He came back four months later, frustrated that teachers didn’t seem to like him much. The preacher offered no further advice.)

Differentiate

If you’re treating your best teachers the same as you’re treating your rookies, you’re doing it wrong. If there is one clear lesson to be learned from the failed experiment of teacher evaluation reform it is this: Treating every teacher the same will lead to resentment from your best teachers. We get that the state or district requires you to observe us x amount of times. Fine. But you don’t need to be in a 20-year veteran’s classroom as often as you need to be in a second-year teachers’ classroom. Also, not all of your teachers need an email reminding them about the dress code or what time they are to be in their classrooms in the morning if only two teachers are having a problem meeting those expectations.

Use Their Passions and Expertise

I work with a teacher who does all of the district’s specials scheduling for two elementary schools. Every summer, I get the schedule emailed to me and I can’t imagine the number of hours it takes to put together given all the different things that must be accounted for. The task seems impossible. But this teacher does it for free because she’s really good at it. Her brain just works that way. And somewhere along the way, an administrator noticed how good she was at it and asked her to do this work.

I know another teacher who will spend hours coming up with creative ideas for March is Reading Month. She’s not paid. She does it becomes she’s a creative person and creativity is a reward in and of itself. Another teacher I work with is a talented artist. She donated hours of her summer one year to repaint the cafeteria because her principal knew she would do an excellent job and gave her the freedom to paint what she wanted. I have a number of times on this blog advocated that teachers not donate hours to their employers. However, if my principal sends me a document, I can’t help but revise it. I like writing, so I’m willing to do it for nothing because it’s fun. Smart principals learn their staff’s talents and passions and they utilize them. They are often rewarded with free labor and excellent work because their teachers appreciate that their bosses know them well enough to use their passions and talents.

Ask Teachers’ Opinions and Then Listen

I know a lot of administrators who will pay lip service to the idea of teachers as experts. When they don’t feel like spending money on PD, they’ll butter teachers up with the old, “We have experts right here in this district” line. When they feel the need to form a curricular committee, their pitch will convey the respect they have for our professionalism and expertise. But when big decisions need to be made, the kinds of decisions that impact large numbers of teachers and students, many administrators don’t ask their teachers’ opinions.

If you’re going to revamp your school’s entire schedule, ask teachers what they think about that. Then listen to what they have to say. It might save you some headaches in the future. If you want to change how your Title I people intervene with at-risk readers, run that by staff first. If you don’t like the behavior system, let teachers tell you what they think of it before making wholesale changes. A lot of teachers have been around for awhile. They have reasons for doing what they’re doing and they may have already tried it your way in the past and can tell you the challenges you can expect. You don’t have to do what your teachers want you to do, but if you ask and listen you’ll at least be aware of some potential pitfalls.

Tell the Truth

We get that you’re a middle manager. You have the sometimes monumental task of keeping both your bosses and your teachers happy (to say nothing of parents and students). We understand that not every decision you make is yours. You are sometimes told to do or say things that go against your beliefs. When this happens, tell us. Respect your teachers enough to explain the complexities and external pressures. Tell them who is actually making the decision.

I had a principal one year who was quite obviously told by a higher-up that he had to focus on student contact time. Admin didn’t want a second wasted. Because this principal was normally pretty laid back and had in the past commented on how impressed he was by teachers teaching right up to the final bell, it was incongruent when he sent a curt email to the whole staff reminding us that recess was 20 minutes and that we had to be faster getting students out and bringing them back in. Some of us suspected he was just passing along the concerns of his boss. Others thought he was becoming a bit of a nitpicking doofus and nobody wants to work for a nitpicking doofus. It’s not that hard to say, “Hey, everyone. Central office has asked me to remind you that recess is 20 minutes inclusive of transition time.” Don’t own stupid policies and decisions unless you made them. You don’t have to throw your boss under a bus to tell teachers where decisions originated.

Trust Your Teachers

I can’t say it any better than Alice Trosclair did in an article published by The Educator’s Room:

“Trust, pure and simple.  Trust that we want the best for our students and society. Trust that 95 percent of us are here for our students and want the best for them, so in turn we give them our best every day. Trust that we study pedagogy and spend our “off hours” searching for fresh perspective or a new way of doing something. Only teachers would spend their meager paycheck on classroom supplies to make a lesson more exciting. Only a teacher would go back for a masters degree (which only increases our pay check by a few hundred dollars a month if we stay in the classroom) to improve our teaching and understanding of content. Most of us will always keep learning because we want the best for our students.”

Give your teachers the benefit of the doubt, and if you want to know why they're doing what they're doing, ask. Click To Tweet

Bonus Read: A Letter to Principals Regarding Walkthroughs

Write Thank-You Notes

Teachers are rarely thanked, so it means a lot when we are. Show some gratitude and acknowledge your teachers’ hard work. Emails are nice, but actual cards can be tucked away in a folder and saved for years. They can be hung on bulletin boards as reminders that the work we do is noticed and appreciated by someone. Although we are surrounded by students, teaching is a solitary job. Hardly anyone knows what it is we do all day and we can go weeks wondering if anyone other than our students is even aware of our hard work. Writing a thank-you note is a two-minute task that can pay big dividends.

Respect Teachers’ Time

Cancel the meeting. Don’t take advantage of your best teachers and their willingness to pitch in by asking the same ones to join committees, attend after-school events, and help you with some silly report the state needs. Be very selective about asking your teachers to do anything extra because doing so pulls them away from their most important job of educating the students in front of them. Leave them alone on weekends. The emails can wait until Monday (or least late Sunday night). Teachers never have enough time. Anything you ask your teachers to do better be more important than the things they would do on their own.

Anything you ask your teachers to do better be more important than the things they would do on their own. Click To Tweet

Don’t Forget What It’s Like to Teach

Part of respecting teachers’ time is remembering what it’s like to be one. I know you think you’ll never forget the challenges of the classroom. You did it for years. You’ll remember.

No, you won’t. I know you won’t because after two months of summer vacation, I forget what it’s like every single year. Our memories are faulty. They pick and choose. They highlight. When you’re not stressed out, it’s hard to recall the actual feeling of being stressed out. When you’re not constantly pressed for time, you can’t recreate the feeling of being constantly pressed for time. When you aren’t incessantly needed by your students, you don’t remember how it feels to be pulled in six directions.

There is only one way to remember what it's like to teach and it is to teach. Click To Tweet

There is only one way to remember what it’s like to teach and it is to teach. Observing teachers won’t cut it. Sitting in your office won’t work. Only teaching is teaching. Fortunately, there is a simple way for you to do this: substitute in your teachers’ classrooms. The sub shortage provides ample opportunity and even if you’re in a district without that infuriating problem, every teacher I know would be happy to check papers in the staff lounge for 45 minutes while you refresh your memory on just what teachers experience day in and day out.

You’ll be a better principal and your teachers will love you for it. With a leader like you, the best ones will come back year after year and keep giving their all for their students. You don’t need to spend a dime to keep your best teachers. You don’t really need to spend all that much time, either. But you do need to treat them like the professionals they are.

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6 Ways Principals Can Show Teachers They Care

care

In March of 2017, Education Post published an article by teacher Tom Rademacher titled, “Hey, Principals, When You Lose Good Teachers, That’s On You.” The whole thing is worth a read, but this paragraph sums it up well:

“Principals (and just like I use “teachers’ to mean everyone who works with kids, I’ll use “principals’ here to mean everyone who is supposed to be supporting teachers), the number of teachers you keep year to year says something about you. I know you’d like not to believe that, I know your job is easier if you ignore it, but teachers matter, and keeping them around is your job. When you lose good teachers, it’s on you.”

Well, it’s that time of year again. Teachers are right now deciding whether to polish up their résumés in search of greener pastures or to return to their buildings and, maybe more accurately, their bosses. Because for many of them, it’s not the pay, the kids, the parents, the curricular materials, their colleagues, the amount of technology, or the physical condition of the schools in which they work that will drive this decision. It’s their principal.

There are a number of reasons why principals should want to keep their teachers (or at least, the vast majority of them):

  • Teachers who leave take with them all their expertise and the training their districts have paid for and provided.
  • The search for replacements is time-consuming.
  • New teachers need to be trained.
  • There’s no guarantee (especially in these days of teacher shortages and lower enrollment in teacher education programs) that you will find anyone better.
  • Frequent turnover is unattractive and can harm the reputation of a school.
  • A lack of stability is a continuation of the fragmented lives our neediest students already experience outside of school.
  • New relationships must be built.
  • Staff morale may suffer as teachers lose valued colleagues and friends.

Nothing good comes from losing good teachers.

So it’s odd when some principals act as though they could not care less if their teachers return. Some don’t even take the simple step of saying, “Hey, I really hope you’ll come back next year. We need you. You’re important.”

Perhaps that’s because, as Rademacher suggests, they don’t believe teacher attrition is their fault. When you’re the boss, it’s easier to blame other factors than it is to accept that most people quit because of you.

But if we’re going to give principals the benefit of the doubt — and I’m inclined to, if for no other reason than they have a REALLY difficult job — maybe it’s because they just don’t know how to show teachers they care.

So here are six easy ways principals can show their teachers that they care about them.

1. Focus on Their Happiness

Most people believe that to be happy you must first find success. They have it backward. Research from the field of positive psychology clearly shows that happiness comes first. Success doesn’t lead to happiness (just ask Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Heath Ledger, Robin Williams, or any number of other successful people whom you can’t actually ask). Happiness makes success more likely.

Richard Branson, who knows a few things about running successful organizations, puts it this way:

If you focus on your teachers’ happiness, you’ll not only get happier teachers who will treat students the way you want them treated and will come back year after year, but you’ll also get more effective teaching. Don’t give your teachers more PD, or hand them another program, or offer instructional advice. None of that will help if they’re miserable. Focus instead on creating an environment where your teachers are happy.

2. Show Appreciation

79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving. According to a recent survey, 82 percent of employed Americans don’t feel that their supervisors recognize them enough for their contributions. 65% of North Americans report that they weren’t recognized even once last year.

Appreciation is the number one thing employees say their boss could do that would inspire them to produce great work. O.C Tanner, a recognition and rewards company, surveyed 2,363 office workers and found that 89% of those who felt appreciated by their supervisors were satisfied with their jobs.

Principals who show gratitude experience a win-win because their teachers will feel more appreciated and the principals themselves will be happier at work.  Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the “father of positive psychology,” tested the impact of different interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked, participants immediately reported a huge increase in happiness. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

Principals who want to make everyone in their schools happier should take the simple step of showing appreciation for others’ efforts. Take 30 seconds to write a thank-you card.  One survey found that 76 percent of people save them.

3. Tell Them To Have a Life

Most teachers are agreeable and conscientious. The job attracts these personality types. As a principal, you can use those traits for good or evil. If you ask teachers to stay after school to help out with family math night, or to attend the PTO meeting, or to chaperone a dance, most of them will because they won’t want to disappoint you and because they will worry about the success of the event if they don’t show up.

Asking too often is a good way to burn out your teachers, but you can also use teachers’ agreeableness for good. Tell them to go home. Direct them to not check their email over the weekend. Order them to not even think about school over Christmas break. Tell them to do things that will help them be happier, better rested, and ultimately more effective. Most teachers, if you tell them what to do, will do it. Telling them to take care of themselves and detach from work will be a refreshing message because teachers are rarely told to put themselves first, and it will show you care about their well-being.

4. Take Things Off Their Plates

School districts love to load teachers with an ever-growing heap of responsibilities without removing anything. Just last week, teachers in my school were told that next year we will be implementing a new social skills program. We are to teach these lessons once per week. But guess what we weren’t told? What not to teach.

Keep teaching everything you’ve always taught, just add this one more thing on top of it. Sound familiar?

I can count on a whole lot of hands how many teachers complain that their principals, mostly former teachers, have forgotten what the job is like. Ensconced in their offices with the freedom to choose what to work on and how much time to devote to it, they seem amnesic about how overwhelming and hectic teachers’ days are. A principal who explicitly takes things off teachers’ plates shows understanding and empathy. Give your teachers less to do. They’ll be grateful for it, and they’ll be more likely to do the most important things well.

5. Encourage Socializing

Some principals see off-task chatting as a problem, a deviation from their meeting agendas. But social connectedness is a major cause of happiness and good health. Don’t merely abide teachers’ socializing, encourage it. Instead of promptly starting your staff meeting at 7:30, require attendance at that time but don’t actually start on the agenda until 7:40. Send the message that you value your teachers enough to know that they need time to just talk to each other. Teachers spend most of their work hours isolated from other adults. They crave connectedness. Give it to them.

6. Spend Money on Their Well-Being

We spend money on things that are important to us. I buy expensive beer because I like to drink it. I don’t spend money on new clothes because I don’t care about clothes. A district that spends thousands on a reading program but provides their librarians (if they still have them) with a $100 annual budget for books sends a clear message about what matters.

Most principals have a discretionary budget. How they spend that money matters.

A cottage industry has grown up around teacher stress and burnout. You can now find many resources that aim to improve teachers’ well-being. I’ve written three books on the topic: Exhausted, Happy Teacher, and Leave School At School.

The master class for teacher well-being is Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Teachers get weekly materials for an entire calendar year on topics such as Grading and Assessment, Sustainable Systems, Maximizing Your Summer, and Work/Life Balance. They get weekly emails, audio files, printables, planning forms, and an abundance of great advice on how to optimize their classroom practices so they can still have a life when they get home at night. If you want your teachers to know you care about them, consider signing a few up for the club.

Read reviews from club members here.

Instead of spending money on PD, which, according to research, doesn’t help your teachers, spend it on something that will show you care and will be of practical use to them. Order them some books on managing stress. Purchase a few subscriptions to the 40-Hour Workweek Club for those teachers who seem overwhelmed, or go all in and get a school license so all of your teachers can benefit.

Good principals take care of their teachers. They know that teachers impact student achievement more than any other in-school factor. Smart principals focus more on their teachers’ well-being than they do on student discipline, instructional practices, or meeting agendas. Take some simple steps to show your teachers that you care, and they will return year after year, contribute to a more positive environment, and be more effective in the classroom.

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Links to the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club are of the affiliate variety.

Whole-Grain Pancakes and Courageous Teachers

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The headline jumped at me from my Facebook feed.

Middle School teacher says he was suspended for making pancakes during PSSAs

My first reaction was, “Clickbait. There must be more to the story.” So I read it. And there was more to the story. By the time I got to the end of it, I said, “You have to be (expletive) kidding me.” I had to repress a very strong impulse to fire off a fusillade of emails to the many moronic adults involved in this, um… incident(?).

Here’s what happened: It was testing day. An eighth-grade social studies teacher in Pennsylvania named Kyle Byler decided to make whole-grain pancakes for his students so they could eat during the test. The assistant principal, a woman with the perfectly villainous surname of Grill, walked in, and, according to an article on Lancaster Online, “questioned why he was making breakfast for his students.”

(Because, how dare he…?)

Within 24 hours, Byler was pulled into a meeting with administrators. He left that meeting convinced he was going to be fired.

Byler is, of course, exactly the kind of teacher who always seems to pop up in stories like these. He’s effective, dedicated, selfless, and popular. Parents call him “the eighth-grade dad.” Students call him, “an awesome teacher.” He helps out with student council and coaches basketball. So it’s probably not surprising that 30 students spent two hours protesting outside the middle school when Byler wasn’t at work the following day and 100 people showed up at the next school board meeting.

Byler wasn’t sure what he did wrong. Neither is any other thinking person. But Nicole Reigelman, who has the thankless job of being the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania DOE, had an idea. While serving food is not actually a violation of any testing rule, tending to a griddle, according to Reigelman, “would have likely interfered with ‘actively monitoring’ the assessment.”

Let’s think about that. The state tells teachers that they have to “actively monitor” students during a test that teachers don’t want to give in the first place, that will be used to label their schools as failures, that will feed the bullshit narrative that American schools are failing, and that can result in a low evaluation and possibly even their own dismissal.

And the reason teachers have to “actively monitor” students is to ensure that the results are valid. Except that, regardless of how well students are actively monitored, the test results aren’t valid. They’re taken over the course of just a few days out of the whole year and there are no stakes for the students, which means there’s really no reason for students to even try on them.

So, really, teachers are supposed to actively monitor their students to ensure the appearance of validity, so that when the state — results now clutched firmly in its punitive fist — comes back and says, “You guys suck,” everyone can nod their heads and say, “Well, those teachers were really watching those kids. We know they didn’t cheat, so I guess they really do suck.” (And since 95% of students at Byler’s school come from low-income households, you can be pretty sure that’s exactly what the state will say.)

The reason the teacher is asked to ensure this veneer of validity for a test that is likely to be used to harm both teachers and students is because, even though the state claims these tests are so important that they have to pass rules to ensure students are actively monitored, they’re not quite important enough for the state to hire its own proctors to administer the exams. That would cost money, so they dump the job on teachers.

The ones who better not serve any damn whole-grain pancakes during their precious tests.

But if the surreal stupidity ended with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, that wouldn’t be so egregious. We expect Kafkaesque bureaucracies. Let’s talk about the assistant principal, Marian Grill.

One of Byler’s students is quoted in the article as saying, “The moment she walked in, everybody turned. She was the distraction. Not pancakes. Not Byler.”

Grill is an educator. Or at least, that’s what she’s supposed to be. And the ball was totally in her court in this situation. Not only did she drop that ball, she jammed a screwdriver through it. Here is what Grill should have done upon entering Byler’s room:

–Noticed students quietly working on their tests while eating whole-grain pancakes.
–Thought to herself, “What a dedicated teacher these students have. Not only is he trying to ensure they do their best on this important test by doing exactly what the research says schools should do (feed kids), he’s doing it out of his own pocket.”
–Smiled at Mr. Byler. Gave him a thumbs-up. Maybe asked for a pancake. Left the room.

I don’t know Marian Grill, but I think I know her type. She seems like the kind of administrator who watches you teach a flawless lesson, then criticizes you because the floor was messy or Joey was leaning in his chair. She’s the member of the Homeowner’s Association who has a problem with you flying an Easter flag. She’s the kind of person who, intoxicated by even the smallest amount of power, abuses the hell out of it. And I guarantee you that Marian Grill has no problem with pancakes. She has a problem with teachers doing things without clearing it with her first.

This should have ended with her, if only her ego had allowed it to.

Fortunately, petty tyrants like Marian Grill can be quickly exposed in today’s world. Just ten years ago, assistant principals like Grill could act with impunity. With an obvious imbalance of power and an awful economy, teachers wouldn’t take the risk of antagonizing their bosses. Times have changed, and social media is mistreated teachers’ strongest weapon. It can do what your feckless union can’t or won’t.

You don’t need strength in numbers.

You don’t need t-shirts.

You don’t need a vote.

All you need is a compelling story and to be in the right.

You see the influence of social media across the country, from the West Virginia and Oklahoma walk-outs, organized without union leadership by teachers who put out the call on Facebook and Twitter, to individual teachers like Kyle Byler, who, instead of keeping his mouth shut out of a fear of sabotaging his chances at finding another job after losing this one, had the courage to fight back by simply telling his story and letting the indignant masses do what indignant masses do in the digital age.

Byler kept his job, and the school district, as districts often do when caught with their pants around their ankles, claimed that no, no, no his job was never in any jeopardy at all.

You can believe the embarrassed school district officials who didn’t want this thing getting any bigger than it had, or you can believe the teacher.

Regardless, his district owes him more than his job. He should have never feared for that to start with. They owe him an apology because they’re the ones that lost sight of the purpose of education.  They owe him the money they withheld during his suspension. They might owe him a new assistant principal.

The lessons here are many.

First, state tests make people act like fools. It’s the unintended consequences of these tests that are always the problem. Well-meaning people lose focus on what really matters in their quest to tack a couple of percentage points onto last year’s scores.

Second, we need administrators to rise above misguided state priorities. Just because the state tells them to care about the test, doesn’t mean they have to. Just because the state wants third-graders “college and career-ready,” doesn’t mean educators have to buy into that standard. Policies aren’t made by people in schools. That’s why so many of them stink. But administrators and teachers are in schools. They are the experts. They know better. And sometimes, they need whole-grain pancakes more than they need to be actively monitored.

Third, we need more courageous teachers like Kyle Byler. As he and the teachers who walked-out across this country have proven, courageous teachers — those who stand up and speak out, who call attention to exploitation, unfairness, and plain old human stupidity — improve their own circumstances, but they also make things better for teachers everywhere.

So serve the whole-grain pancakes. Do what’s right for kids. And if someone tries to stop you, plaster their name all over the Internet. They deserve what they get.

Does Your District Really Care About Student Achievement?

If you asked any employee of nearly any school district whether their focus was on student achievement, I’m confident most would say that it was. That is, after all, kind of the point. Why else would we spend countless hours planning lessons and checking papers? Why form committees to investigate curricular options and then spend thousands on new programs if we didn’t think they would improve student performance? Why would district leaders spend limited funds on professional development and other teacher training? Why stress over standardized tests scores to the point that we all but bribe students to try their best, and why spend hours analyzing the results of those tests if we didn’t care about what those tests said about how we were serving the educational needs of kids?

It certainly seems like everyone involved in a school system is trying his or her best to improve student achievement. And yet I remain unconvinced. Consider this:

Does your district do anything to identify and attract the best teachers from your area to come work for it?

I ask because we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the largest in-school influence on student performance is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. I’ve been told this so many times during my teaching career that I’ve lost count. It’s not the principal, or class sizes, or the condition of the building, or the curriculum, or student access to technology.

It’s the teacher.

Which means that schools that are serious about improving student achievement ought to do everything within their ability to find, hire, and retain the best teachers they can afford.

Most don’t.

Here’s how most districts go about hiring a new teacher:

First, they wait until they have an opening. In poor districts, this often happens because fed up teachers head for greener pastures. In more affluent districts, openings usually occur after a retirement.

Once there’s an opening, the school district posts the job. They then sit back and wait to see who sends them résumés. They go through the résumés and try to guess who might be a good teacher. They interview some applicants, pick the one they want, and usually offer to start them somewhere near the bottom of the district salary schedule. Then they sit back and hope they chose wisely.

But if school districts really cared about student achievement, their hiring process would look nothing like what is described above. Districts that really cared about student achievement would:

Be constantly scouting teachers in surrounding school districts in an attempt to identify the best ones at each level. They would know, just like NFL or Major League Baseball general managers know, who the top five kindergarten teachers were. They would know the best chemistry teachers. They’d make phone calls to people in their professional networks. They’d interview students who transferred into their districts about the educational experiences those students had with different teachers in their previous districts. They might even get their hands on teachers’ year-end ratings, which are a matter of public record. They’d keep files on teachers they would love to put in front of their students, and they’d check in with them periodically, perhaps inquiring about how happy they are at their current place of employment and whether they might be persuaded to leave it.

When these achievement-driven districts had an opening, administrators wouldn’t sit around and wait for applicants. They would immediately reach out to the top teachers on their scouting reports. They’d find out what it would take to get those teachers to leave their positions to come work for them. They’d offer to pay them more than they were currently making, instead of insulting them by offering to start them at the bottom of the pay scale.

Once they hired these all-stars, they’d do what they could to keep them around. Great teachers might be more expensive, but districts would get more bang for their buck than they would spending that money on textbooks, PD, or fancy new tablets and SmartBoards. The research on that is crystal clear.

So why don’t districts operate this way? Because there’s a greater incentive for district leaders to save money than there is to improve educational outcomes. (And maybe because there’s an unspoken agreement among superintendents to not poach each other’s best teachers.)

Regardless of the reasons, it’s clear that if your school district doesn’t know who the best teachers are in the area, then they have no intention of hiring those teachers. And if they aren’t willing to pay effective teachers what they’re worth, then they’re not really serious about improving student performance, no matter how much they may protest to the contrary.