How to Handle Principal Observations

I know a lot of teachers who get nervous about being observed by their principal. With only a couple of observations each year, teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform. They worry how a poor observation will impact their overall evaluation. Some are simply uncomfortable being observed and judged. The irony, of course–and it’s one recognized by even those teachers who feel this way–is that worrying about an observation is likely to lead to a worse performance.

So how do you not stress over a principal’s observation? 

Any time you worry, it means you’re nervous. Nervousness comes from fear.   So what exactly are you afraid of? If you wrote out a list, I think you’d find that every single item on it comes back to this: You’re afraid of your principal’s opinion of your abilities. If you didn’t care about that, you would no longer be worried. So how do you convince yourself to not care, or at least care a lot less?

Try telling yourself these four things:

My Opinion Matters Most

You have reasons for everything you do in the classroom and no one knows all of them except you. Anyone judging you lacks the necessary facts to make an informed assessment. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but you have the right, and usually the duty, to ignore it. As Eleanor Roosevelt said:

So don’t give your consent. Set your own standards for professional success and judge yourself against them. Simply care less what your principal thinks about you. It’s nothing personal, you just shouldn’t give anyone that kind of power over you.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Observations are subjective. The truth is, nearly all of your evaluation is based on the opinions of a single person who watches you do your job for a total of maybe three hours out of the more than one-thousand you will spend on it. While you might be able to watch a single Nicolas Cage scene and feel pretty safe concluding that he’s a terrible actor,  I’d want a little larger sample size for most professionals.

Consider whether your school district would ever do the following:

To prove to teachers how valid their administrators’ observations are, they put all of their principals in a room. On a screen, they show a forty-five-minute video of a lesson. Each principal uses the evaluation tool to rate the teacher across the zillion or so items they’re required to assess. And then, after they’re done, they all compare scores.

How similar do you think those scores would be?

How many principals would feel comfortable sharing their numbers?

How many districts would dare reveal the results of such an experiment to its teachers?

I have a guess and it’s very, very small.

You Own the Moral High Ground

How many meetings have you attended where you were reminded that you, the classroom teacher, has the greatest in-school impact on student achievement? Eric Hanushek has even attempted to tie teacher effectiveness to future earnings for students. (Which I guess is what really matters???)

Every time I hear this fact, I internally roll my eyes. What other in-school factor would impact students more? The quality of the food in the cafeteria? The size of the rooms? The cleanliness of the hallways? Of course the person with whom kids spend six hours a day has the most impact.

But you can also use this finding to feel superior to your principal whenever you worry about her opinion of you.

It is the teacher, not the principal, who has the greatest impact on student learning.

That means that the person who is sitting in the back of your room evaluating your performance opted to take a job that has less impact on the only people who really matter in a school than the one you have chosen. Their reasons don’t matter.

Maybe they wanted to make more money. Perhaps they were frustrated by administrators when they were teaching and felt they could do better. Their talents could simply be better suited to leading adults than children. Or maybe they decided they didn’t want to teach anymore and there weren’t too many other jobs they were qualified to do.

Who cares. Choose whichever reason you like for them. It doesn’t matter if it’s accurate. Remember, you’re doing this to relieve your stress. So if it helps to imagine your principal as a completely ineffectual former teacher who got fed up, quit, and then decided to take out her frustrations on other teachers, go ahead and do it. Feeling superior does wonders for one’s self-confidence.

If All Else Fails

Remind yourself of this reality: the only thing that really matters about your evaluation is that it’s good enough for your employer to invite you back next year. Don’t get caught up worrying about your final score or whether you’re “effective” or “developing.” Who cares? Because guess what? Next year, you get to be evaluated all over again.

How to Act

Once you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t really care what your principal thinks of you,  you can relax and perform. Make it a goal to appear even calmer than you normally are in front of your students. The biggest thing you want to convey during an observed lesson is self-confidence. Here’s why:

Confidence inspires confidence. During the 2017 Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons were trouncing the New England Patriots. Atlanta had a 28-3 lead in the third quarter, but the Patriots had the most confident player on the field. Even though it looked hopeless for the Pats, there wasn’t a fan who watched that game that didn’t believe Tom Brady could bring them back. Tom Brady exudes confidence, and his self-belief rubs off on those observing him.

When the principal walks into your room, project confidence. Keep your voice calm and even. Don’t gesture much. Resist the urge to put on a show. It will come off as inauthentic and overcompensatory. Respond calmly to students, including any misbehavior. The message you want to send is: I do this every day. It’s no big deal. I can handle whatever comes my way. Smile, tell a joke, move leisurely throughout the room.

And don’t look at your principal.

If you keep looking back at the principal, you are signaling a lack of confidence. It shows that you care what the principal thinks. Every time you look, it’s like asking, “So what did you think of that? Was that okay?”

When a principal sees you looking at him, he thinks two things:

  1. You lack confidence.
  2. Your focus isn’t on the students, which is where it should be.

If a principal starts to think you lack confidence, his next logical thought is why? Followed quickly by: If the teacher isn’t confident in her abilities, then why should I be confident in them?

The principal won’t fear marking you down because you’ve already signaled self-doubt. You’re almost asking for it. It would be inconsistent of you to later stand up for yourself when you meet with him to discuss the lesson. People rarely act inconsistently.

Most people avoid conflict. Confident people send an unspoken message that if you jerk them around, they’re not going to accept it. That conversation will not be pleasant. Principals are far less likely to ding a confident teacher than a nervous, insecure one because they don’t want to deal with a possible future conflict. So even if you don’t feel confident, pretend that you do!

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What do you tell yourself before an observation? What mental tricks do you use to stay calm and confident? Tell us in the comments!

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Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm

 

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Like most Americans, I associate success with passion and intensity. The Detroit Pistons of my youth would have never won back-to-back championships without the intensity of Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. Indiana basketball would have never been Indiana basketball without the passion of coach Bobby Knight. Fiery speeches never cease to motivate me, whether delivered in person or on the silver screen. I admire outward displays of passion.

This belief shaped my early years of teaching. I enthusiastically presented a lesson one moment, snapped angrily at misbehaving students the next, and passionately motivated my students to do their best on even mundane tasks. To be any good, I reasoned, I had to be intense. I had to bring it every day! Every lesson! I needed to be, as Anton Chekhov said, “an actor, an artist, passionately in love” with my work.

I have since come to believe that I was wrong. I now believe it is far better to spend nearly all of my teaching day in a consistent state of CALM. In fact, I try to be calm 90% of the time.

Here’s why:

In my article Why Teachers Are So Tired, I talked about four things that exhaust us: making too many decisions, using willpower, experiencing high-intensity emotions, and worrying.

High-intensity emotions wear you out because they activate your body’s fight-or-flight response system. Your heart rate rises, your sweat glands activate, you startle easier. This happens regardless of whether your high-intensity emotions are positive or negative. So getting angry at Billy for sticking a straw up his nose for the third time is just as draining as passionately introducing a lesson on fractions.

There are many teachers (and non-teachers like Chekhov) who believe that the only way to be a good teacher is to be intensely passionate, to put on a show! If I suggested to Dave Burgess that it’s better to be calm than intense, he’d likely throw his book, Teach Like a Pirate, at me.  Certainly, there are some teachers who can maintain a high amount of energy class after class, day after day. The rest of us are tired just thinking about it.

A calm teacher benefits herself and her students in many ways. First, students tend to reflect their teachers. Calm teachers lead to calm classes, and calm classes allow for more focused work. When was the last time you tried to concentrate while feeling intense emotion? It’s not easy. In fact, brain-imaging research shows that when we are feeling intense emotions, our amygdalas activate. We need to then use other parts of our brain to calm ourselves enough to get our work done.  Think of the last time you learned something new. Did you pump yourself up with some AC/DC? Did you do fifty jumping jacks to elevate your heart rate first? I doubt it. Those kinds of activities might be good before a football game, but they’re not very helpful if you’re trying to learn Portuguese.

Second, staying calm will allow you better self control. People who are calm have the ability to choose their actions instead of reacting emotionally. If you think of the worst decisions of your life, I bet they were made when you were experiencing high-intensity emotions–both good and bad. By staying calm, we can react to anything that happens in our classroom in a way we won’t regret later. So when Billy shoves that straw up his nostril, you’ll be calm enough to smile at Billy and say, “Throw the straw away,” and not “For shit’s sake, Billy, how many times do I have to tell you to stop sticking straws up your stupid nose!?”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that we’re role models. When we seesaw back and forth between high-intensity emotions and when we react emotionally to events around us, we are modeling to students that it is acceptable to do the same. How many times have you told a student to think before they acted? Take your own advice.

Third, your emotional moments will have more impact. I’m not suggesting that teachers never show emotion. I am suggesting that we deploy emotions strategically for maximum effect. There are times when we need to be intense to get students’ attention or to get them excited about an upcoming lesson or unit. Go for it! That’s one of the joys of teaching! But there are other times–most times–when calm is the better choice. When you intentionally use emotion you’re still in control, and because you’re not always emotional, you’ll have more impact when you are.

The biggest reason to stay calm is your own energy. Remember, high-intensity emotions drain our bodies. When teachers get tired they do stupid things. They say things they regret. They damage relationships with students and colleagues. They fire off curt emails that they later wish they could retrieve from cyberspace. One study even demonstrated that, as the day goes on, people are more likely to engage in unethical behavior. They also burn out, and burned out teachers are far, far worse than calm ones.

So how do you stay calm? I use three strategies:

1-–Self-Awareness–I regularly check my own emotions at work. How am I feeling right now? How’s my heart rate? Am I calm? Do I feel edgy? I make it a challenge and see how calm I can be. When a student misbehaves, that’s when I really force myself to remain calm. A lot of the time, my seeming lack of interest has the effect of deescalating the situation.

2—Deep Breaths and Perspective–When I feel myself feeling anything other than calm, I take some deep breaths and engage in self-talk. I like to use perspective, so I might say something like, “Is it worth getting upset about?” or “In the grand scheme of things, does this really matter?” or “Just three more hours and I’ll be home with a beer in my hand.”

3—Classroom Management Plan–the best thing I can do for my own emotions is have a classroom management plan that I consistently follow. When students misbehave, my plan tells me what to do. I don’t need to make decisions, and there’s no reason to be emotional. I just institute the predetermined consequence and move on.

I also remind myself that while Bob Knight had 902 career wins, John Wooden, a much calmer person, won 10 championships. He also lived to the ripe old age of 99.

What tricks do you have for staying calm in the classroom? Share in the comments so we can steal your ideas!

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How Teachers Can Use Less Willpower

In a previous post, I listed four things that contribute to teacher fatigue: making decisions, using willpower, experiences high-intensity emotions, and worrying. In this post, I addressed how teachers can make fewer decisions. Today, I will share how teachers can use less willpower so they have the energy to make good decisions, even after a long day at work.

First, it’s important to understand that willpower is like a muscle: it can be strengthened with use, but it can also be overworked, leaving you unable to use it without recovery time.

Teachers, of course, use willpower all the time. Recalling last Friday, here’s a partial list of times I needed willpower:

  • Garbage truck in front of me on the way to work. I wanted to pass, but it wasn’t safe.
  • Arriving at work, I had a bunch of tasks to accomplish, most of which were tedious. I didn’t want to do them.
  • Resisted the temptation to snarkily respond to an email.
  • Donuts in the lounge at lunch.
  • Students playing with something in their desks instead of paying attention. Wanted to publicly scold.
  • Wanted to just sit and relax during my planning time, but forced myself to plan for the following week and prepare materials.
  • Lesson interrupted by the office PA system. Wanted to swear.
  • A student walked in late to class and interrupted. Wanted to lecture.
  • A student was on a game website instead of doing research. I wanted to take his Chromebook and throw it through a window, since this is the 100th time it’s happened with him.

You get the point. I’m sure you’re already mentally making your own list. In every one of those instances, willpower was required. By using it, I depleted my store of it, making it less likely I would have any left at the end of the day and also seriously taxing my body. No wonder teachers are pooped.

So how can we use less willpower at work?

Plan Ahead

Most of the time, we can anticipate those things that will require us to use willpower. I know that certain students are going to press my buttons. I know that if I don’t work now, I’ll be stressed later and have to use even more willpower to accomplish things. I know that when I get on the highway at 5 pm, I am going to get frustrated with traffic and have to use willpower to remain calm at the wheel and avoid bad decisions. (Fun fact: most car accidents occur between 3 pm and 9 pm. You might attribute this to the high number of commuters, but those people drive to work in the morning too. Might it be depleted willpower that contributes to poor driving decisions?)

If we can anticipate these events, then we can plan for them. This is exactly what Starbucks did when they introduced their LATTE training system to improve customer service. Starbucks gave their baristas very detailed systems to use when dealing with stressful situations, especially for when their willpower was low.

You can do this too.  Prepare ahead of time for how you will handle behavior problems. Implement your classroom management plan with strict fidelity and calmness instead of anger. Leave work 15 minutes later or take a different route home if you know your normal path will frustrate you. Emails from your principal usually piss you off? Don’t read them until dismissal.  Do you snack at night? Quit buying snacks and having them in your house. Does Kathy the science teacher annoy the hell out of you? Don’t go where Kathy goes. Identify your likely triggers, and plan ways to avoid or deal with them.

Distract Yourself

If you’re a teacher you’ve likely heard of Mischel’s  famous Marshmallow experiment. The “high delayers” resisted eating the marshmallow by distracting themselves, such as covering their eyes with their hands or turning around in their chairs so they couldn’t see the enticing object, or singing to themselves.

It might not be in many teacher training courses, but sometimes you just have to walk away or direct your attention to something else. Elementary teachers are masters at this. Instead of saying, “Steven, get your hands out of your desk! I’ve told you ten times already!” they will turn to angelic Sarah and say, “Sarah, I really like the way you have your hands folded in front of you.” If you make this a habit, you’ll use less willpower.

You could also distract yourself by thinking about all the beer you’ll drink after work, but that might not be as healthy.

Delay

Postponing can be effective if you’re trying to break a bad habit. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister explains that people who tell themselves “not now, but later,” are generally less tormented by the temptation of something they are trying to avoid. So if you find yourself using willpower to not check your email throughout the day because it usually stresses you out, then simply tell yourself you will check it at the end of the day.

Vent

It takes a lot of willpower to suppress your personality, beliefs, and natural inclinations. Psychologist Mark Muraven and his team found that people who exert this kind of self-control to please others were more depleted than people who held true to their own internal goals and desires. When it comes to willpower, people-pleasers are at a disadvantage.

Instead of suppressing your desires, you need to get them out. But you can’t go around telling off Kathy and you can’t respond to the principal’s email with your honest opinion because that would get you fired. Here’s a method I’ve used:

I sometimes receive an email from a parent or supervisor that angers me. My instinct is to fire back. That’s a bad instinct, but that doesn’t mean I have to hold in those feelings. It also doesn’t mean I should vent to other teachers or my wife because they’ve got their own problems and nobody really wants to hear about mine. What I do instead is write my honest, no-holds-barred response into a Google Doc and put it in a file. It gets my anger out and it’s there for me to revisit. On those few occasions where I have reread it, my anger is gone and I wondered why I was so pissed off at the time. If you do this a few times, you begin to realize that your initial feelings are likely an overreaction and it becomes easier to avoid indulging them.

Other Ideas

Other recommendations I have seen are getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and meditating. All of these things can help in any number of ways, but they’ve also been shown to help people manage willpower.

What about you? What do you do to avoid using up your willpower? Tell us in the comments!

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Why Teachers Are So Tired

tired teachers.

Are you tired after teaching?

Better question: When was the last time you weren’t tired after teaching?

If you’re like most teachers I know, including me and my wife, being tired at the end of the day is a way of life. We’ve become so used to it that it’s hard to imagine how it could be any different.

Our non-teacher friends have a hard time understanding how we could be so exhausted. After all, we’re not building houses, or working under tight deadlines, or competing with co-workers to sell the most widgets, or working in some ultra-competitive office with an unreasonable boss breathing down our necks. We work with kids! We work seven-hour days! We have a lot of control over our own schedules. We have summer vacation!  Some teachers have these thoughts themselves and wonder what’s wrong with them. How in the world can we be so tired?

There are three reasons.

Decision Fatigue and Willpower

Psychologist Roy Baumeister coined the term “ego depletion” after he found that humans have a limited supply of willpower.  He compares willpower to a muscle, which can strengthen but also wear out with use. Ego depletion has a general effect, meaning that using self-control in one area of your life erodes your ability to self-regulate in other parts of your life. Baumeister found that exerting self-control results in a significant drop in blood-sugar levels.  Low blood sugar leads to physical fatigue, which is why you’re so tired, even though the heaviest thing you lifted was a textbook.

As a teacher, think of how often you use willpower.  We censor ourselves all day.  We hold back a sarcastic remark, walk away from a lazy student when we what we really want to do is lecture her, keep our honest thoughts about the principal’s latest idea to ourselves, respond professionally to a disrespectful email from a parent, work with a student when we want to do anything but, plan the next day when we’d rather check Facebook, hold it in when we’d like to drop an F-bomb. Teachers use willpower constantly.

But here’s the real kicker: making decisions uses willpower.  Researchers call this decision fatigue. The more decisions you make over the course of the day, the more willpower you use. There’s strong research that shows criminals are far better off going before a parole board early in the day than near the end of the day. Similarly, there is research that suggests the student’s paper that gets graded first gets a fairer score than the one graded last. After a day of making decisions, we don’t have the energy left to make good ones.

It’s estimated that teachers make about 1,500 decisions every school day. When you combine those decisions with all the necessary self-regulation involved with teaching kids, it’s no wonder our willpower is gone by five o’clock. We are exhausted.

High-intensity emotions

A second reason teachers are tired is the effect of high-intensity emotions. High-intensity emotions like anger, frustration, excitement, and elation are physiologically taxing. Positive emotions arouse the same physiological response as negative ones: our heart rate increases, our sweat glands activate, and we startle easily. Since it activates our body’s stress response, high-intensity emotions–whether positive or negative–wear us out.

Teachers are instructed to be enthusiastic in their lessons. Many teachers believe that to be their most effective, they must be energetic. They have to bring it! That might be true, but just know that your excitement, combined with your moments of anger, frustration, and even elation, will tire you out.

Worry

Not surprisingly, worrying is linked to fatigue. When we worry, we imagine and anticipate negative events. Our stress levels elevate and our bodies activate their fight-or-flight responses. Our hearts beat faster, we sweat, and our immune systems prepare to fend off threats. As a result, we get physically tired.

Teachers worry for all sorts of reasons:

  • students aren’t learning
  • behavior problems
  • a lesson is bombing
  • there’s a sub tomorrow
  • a parent is angry
  • the principal is coming for an observation
  • the copy machine is down and what am I going to do now?
  • my colleague is mad at me
  • I showed a movie and a character said “hell” and now the kids might go home and tell mom and dad and they’ll call the principal and I never even filled out the stupid form I’m supposed to fill out for the movie and…I’m sure you can think of many more.

So that’s why we’re tired all the time: we make a ton of decisions, we cycle between high-intensity emotions, and we worry too much.

There’s a lot more to it, and there are steps you can take to be less tired. I write about them in my books, Exhausted and Leave School At School. Check them out on Amazon.

What do you do to feel less tired at the end of the day? Leave your ideas in the comments so other teachers may benefit!

Related Content:

Fewer Decisions = More Energy

How Teachers Can Use Less Willpower

Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm

 

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