Teachers Talk

I’ve often heard teachers remark of their principals, “It’s like they forgot what it’s like to be in the classroom.” School leaders who spent years as a teacher seem to lose their classroom perspective in short order as they adjust to their new administrative roles. Some seem to forget that teachers have no time. As in literally no extra minutes anywhere in their day to do anything extra.

Some develop amnesia about just how vital planning time is and they ask their teachers to give it up, even though just a few short years ago they protected that time with everything they had.

And still others eschew their previously held beliefs about what it takes for students to be successful when they feel pressure from their bosses to raise test scores. They become the no-excuses,slave-to-the-data tyrants they used to abhor.

One of the most baffling cases of principals (and other school leaders) forgetting their roots is when they assume teachers won’t talk to other teachers. There is no logic behind such an assumption, especially since these leaders can regularly witness teachers talking to each other before and after school, before and after every meeting, during most meetings (including when they should be listening), at professional development days (often during the presentations), and literally every other time teachers get together in any context.

Teachers love to talk to other teachers.

In fact, as a teacher married to a teacher who has a number of friends who are also teachers, I can tell you that if you put us in the same room, there is a 100% chance that we will talk about our jobs. This happens even when we don’t want it to. Teachers can make all the “no talking shop” rules they want. We just aren’t very good at following them.

Teachers talk, and this immutable fact is something all school leaders would do well to remember.

We talk about how you treat us.

We talk about the text message you sent us.

We talk about what’s happening in our buildings to teachers who work in other buildings.

We talk about how you handle student discipline.

We talk about new initiatives and how you rolled them out.

We talk about what went down during committee meetings.

We talk about how you dealt with that parent.

We talk about the message our grade level received and compare it to the message other teachers received.

We talk. We talk in person, on the phone, by text message, and through social media. Take those things away and we’d use smoke signals and carrier pigeons.

And because teachers talk, school leaders need to be careful about what they say and do. What principals say or do to one person is going to get around, and if they get it wrong, they could unintentionally initiate the rumor mill, lose control of the message, harm their reputation, endanger equity, and even contribute to the destruction of their building’s culture. Here’s why.

Teachers Hate An Information Vacuum

I was in a building leadership meeting last week where a new professional development opportunity was discussed. We were debating how and when to introduce this initiative to the whole staff. Leadership believed this was new information and they wanted the opportunity to frame the message and put as positive a spin on it as they could. They planned to roll out the plan in two weeks.

The problem was that it had already leaked. I’d heard about it from another teacher who had heard about it from a colleague who had caught wind of it from a small meeting the previous week. Teachers talk. And because they talk, leadership should share, as early as possible, any information they have that will directly impact teachers. When they don’t, they create an information vacuum. Teachers will not sit by and wait patiently for an explanation. Instead, they will assume that withheld information means there’s something to hide. They’ll presume bad intentions. One teacher will tell another something that starts with the words, “Well, I heard…” Now you have rumors, negative attitudes, and zero control over the message. It’s out of administration’s hands and the only thing left to do is damage control. Not the most promising way to kick off a new initiative.

Recognize that teachers are going to talk and get the information out as quickly as possible to as many people as possible. Practice aggressive transparency and you’ll gain the respect and trust of your teachers while preventing rumors.

Teachers Compare Administrators

In my previous district, I worked for a principal who was the good soldier. She did as she was told. She never indicated if a despised idea was her own or if she was merely the messenger. She took the bullets for bad policy decisions and poor implementation. If a supervisor told her to keep her lips sealed about something that was coming down the pike, she did exactly that.

Across town, the principal in the other elementary building was the exact opposite. She was a “players’ coach” and was far more worried about keeping her staff happy than she was about pleasing her bosses. She exercised her own judgment. If she thought teachers should know something, she told them, damn the consequences. If administration wanted her to make an issue out of teachers allowing kids an extra five minutes of recess, she’d tell her staff exactly where it was coming from.

As you can imagine, this put my principal in a difficult position because teachers talk. One building’s teachers regularly knew what was going on and what was coming, while the other building’s teachers were in the dark, at least until those teachers learned through the teacher-talk grapevine what their colleagues had been told by their more transparent principal.

The only thing my principal’s compliance did was lower her teachers’ opinions of her. Every teacher in that district wanted the principal who respected teachers enough to share information quickly and who ignored the old-fashioned belief that information could be controlled. Leaders shouldn’t put their principals in such a position, and principals who want the respect of their teachers should push for more transparency and the prompt dissemination of information.

Teachers Compare Buildings

We all seem to have a built-in sense of fairness; I see it in my third graders all the time. Even something like math manipulatives better be distributed close to equally if you don’t want to deal with complaints. Teachers aren’t much different than third graders in this regard. We want to be treated like our colleagues, even if those colleagues are on the other side of town. And since teachers talk, you can bet that every teacher will be keenly aware if they’re getting the raw end of the deal.

In this age of guaranteed and viable curriculums, where students in one building are expected to receive the same educational opportunities as students in other district buildings and test scores between the buildings are compared on fancy slideshow graphs, you don’t get it both ways. If leadership is expecting similar outputs, then teachers have a right to expect similar inputs. So if one building has four teaching assistants and another building has one, leadership should expect to hear about it. If one buildings’ students are allowed 30 minutes of recess and kids in another school only get 20, there are going to be complaints. If one building’s teachers are asked to do extra work relative to their colleagues across town, someone’s going to throw a fit.

Teachers talk, and leaders, knowing this, should treat teachers as equitably as possible. If they don’t, teachers will know.

Teachers Will Know What You Did To Joyce

How principals treat one teacher will become quickly known by every other teacher in the building. This presents an opportunity for principals to build their reputations. Treat teachers fairly and word will spread that you’re a just leader. Stand up to the teacher every other teacher sees as a bully and you’ll gain the respect of your staff. Defend one teacher against unfair treatment by a central office administrator and you’ll score points with every teacher.

But because teachers talk, this is a two-sided coin. Your teachers may recognize that you don’t see eye to eye with Joyce, but if word gets out that you’ve punished her over your personal differences, then every teacher will question whether you can be trusted. Break the confidence of what one teacher tells you and you’ll soon discover that no teacher will tell you anything. Act vindictively toward one teacher who privately questioned your decision, and you might as well have acted vindictively against your entire staff. Teachers talk, which means that anything a principal says or does to one teacher can spread to all of them.

The contents of every conversation a principal has with one teacher have the potential to be known by every other teacher.

Every action a principal takes with one teacher could be learned by every other teacher.

Treat one teacher differently based on educational philosophies, personal interests, age, or gender and your school culture will quickly crumble as word of your favoritism spreads.

Treat one teacher unjustly and every other teacher will wonder if they’ll be next.

Teachers talk, so principals should behave as if every staff member is observing each of their interactions. Because you can be sure they’ll be discussing them.

2 Replies to “Teachers Talk”

  1. Murph: You’ve just taken me back 35 years to exactly these scenarios – and my goodness – talk we did – about the school Principals (and a new one every two or three years – it was a pleasant coastal retIrement posting) and staff meetings and what was going in terms of the district and implementation of changes over which – teachers union position aside – we had no apparent control. But faculty staff-rooms, social occasions – talking shop – that’s what we did. “Do you know what happened?” “What did she say then?” “No??!! Really?!” “They did what!”

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