Teachers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the work world, constantly complaining that we get no respect. We have to take second jobs to make ends meet. We work extra hours for no extra pay. The teacher wage penalty is at an all-time high. We have less autonomy than we used to in our classrooms. We must endure teacher evaluation schemes that measure our worth using the outcomes of standardized tests and the opinions of people who watch us do our thing for less than 1% of the year. And when we complain, nobody listens. Michigan State researchers studied resignation letters that teachers posted online and found that every one “attested to the lack of voice and agency that teachers felt in policymaking and implementation.”
Many teachers’ biggest complaints are out of a principal’s control (and principals are often just as victimized by stupid policies as teachers). But there is one thing every principal can do that sends an unmistakable message that they understand the demands of their teachers’ jobs and want nothing more than to make that job easier:
Value their time.
If principals want teachers to do their best work, they must protect their teachers’ time like a mother polar bear protects her cubs.
Time is every teacher’s scarcest resource. Teachers always, always need more of it. American teachers, because they spend more time in front of their students than any other developed nation, need it even more. Time is valuable to everyone. For teachers, and American teachers in particular, it is precious.
When principals protect teachers’ time they make it clear that they value their work, and they give teachers the opportunity to focus their attention where it will have the greatest impact: on the students in their classrooms. Here are six ways principals can protect their teachers’ time:
Cancel Staff Meetings
No employee in the history of employeedom has ever been upset over a cancelled staff meeting. Not one. Everyone feels like my favorite professor of education policy, Morgan Polikoff.
Having a meeting on your calendar that is subsequently canceled is so much better than never having scheduled that meeting at all.
— Morgan Polikoff (@mpolikoff) March 18, 2019
If I were a principal, I’d be tempted to overschedule staff meetings just so I could give my teachers the gift of cancelling the majority of them. There’s nothing better than found time; it’s why we all love snow days so much.
And let’s be real here: How many staff meetings have you walked out of where you felt the time was better spent than however you would have spent it had you not been required to attend? The content of most staff meetings (and I’ve attended 20 years’ worth of them) usually breaks down like this:
- Housekeeping stuff that could be shared in an email.
- Teachers bitching about things, most of which don’t apply to the majority of the people in the room.
- A timid attempt at professional development (book studies, jigsawed articles, a slick instructional video produced by some company selling something in which a teacher instructs a small group of perfectly behaved students using a technique that is obviously better than anything you do but that might not work quite as well in your classroom) that might apply to a small number of people in the room.
- The sharing of grand plans that have little chance of being implemented or pursued for longer than six months.
Principals, if you must conduct a meeting, then have a tight, relevant agenda, stick to it, and dismiss everyone as soon as the meeting is over or stops being productive. Your teachers, all of them, have better things to do.
You Don’t Need a Committee
Teachers should almost never join unpaid committees, and principals should not ask them to. This should be easy because most of the time a committee isn’t needed at all.
Principals, before you start a new committee, ask yourself this question: Is the time I’m going to ask teachers to spend on this work more valuable than the time they would spend on their own work?
— Paul Murphy (@VirtualMurph) December 8, 2018
Then, ask these questions:
Whose decision is it to make? If it’s yours and you’d like some input, then run it by a few staff members. You don’t need a committee to do that.
Are you really going to listen to dissenting views? I’ve heard so many stories from teachers who’ve served on committees that made recommendations only to see them ignored by decision makers. That’s the leaders’ prerogative, but it’s also a waste of everyone’s time.
Have you already made up your mind? If yes, then skip the dog and pony show. Teachers can see through the pretense. We can tell, usually very early on, when a committee has only been formed to give the appearance of consensus-building and hearing all sides. Skip the committee and make the decision.
If you decide that, yes, you do need a committee, then the next questions you should ask are:
What is the minimum number of teachers needed for this committee?
What is the minimum amount of time you need to meet to come to a decision or get the work done?
Rethink Professional Development
Don’t make teachers attend things that don’t apply to them. Yes, I know. There are state laws requiring x amount of PD hours. So what? Do you really think states that don’t want to fund public education are going to perform a thorough audit of teachers’ PD time? Do what’s best for your students and give teachers as much time as you possibly can to do their jobs as well as they can.
If you’re worried about compliance, then schedule your PD day and allow your teachers to develop themselves in the manner they see fit. Set some parameters, provide some resources, and allow teachers to decide how creative they’d like to be when they log their PD hours. Damn near anything can be considered professional development, and your teachers are already experts at justifying everything they do.
Lighten Their Load
Can someone other than teachers do the small things? That’s a question principals should regularly ask themselves. I changed districts this year and one of the first differences I experienced was in how many fewer small tasks I was asked to complete at my new school.
At my previous school, I had to print off and sign my own attendance reports every week. Everything related to a field trip, from scheduling the buses to creating, sending, and collecting permission slips and money was my responsibility. If I needed a sub for any reason, it was my job to put in for one.
At my new school, office staff deals with the attendance reports, every permission slip is made for me, copied, and put in my mailbox, buses are scheduled by the office, as are substitutes for anything that’s district-related. I’m going to a conference this week and the office signed me up and booked the hotel for me. All I have to do is show up.
Removing small tasks from teachers’ plates does two things. First, every minute that a teacher spends on administrative tasks is a minute not spent on things that have the potential to directly affect students, which is what teachers are there for. Second, it shows teachers how valued their time is.
Here are just five small things principals who want to give their teachers more time might consider. With some thought, you can probably come up with many more.
1. Office staff should find substitute teachers, sign teachers up for conferences, and submit extra duty hours to accounting. These administrative tasks are just better handled by people who do administrative work all day. Fewer balls will be dropped when one or two people are responsible for these tasks instead of expecting teachers to take care of them.
2. Data entry should be done by someone other than your most highly-trained professionals. Don’t ask teachers to scan tests or input numbers into a data warehouse. That’s a huge waste of time and literally anyone in a school can do it.
3. Expedite the process teachers use to request help with technology or maintenance needs. Make the online form easy to find and easy to complete and submit.
4. Consider the location of copy machines. The farther your teachers have to walk to pick up copies, the more time they’re spending doing nothing.
5. Assign recess, bus, lunch, and hall duties to non-teaching staff. It makes zero sense to have teachers stand around watching kids when they could be planning to better educate them.
These may seem like small things. It feels petty listing them. Surely, teachers can take a few minutes to print off attendance reports, sign them, and put them in a tray in the office. But all of the above adds up, and teachers already don’t have enough time.
Make Planning Time Untouchable
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again:
Teachers cannot prepare effective lessons and provide useful feedback to students without prep time. If your district doesn’t provide it, or if they regularly take it away, then they are telling you one of two things:
We don’t care how effective you are.
Or, more likely:
We expect you to be effective, but we don’t want to provide you with the time you need. Therefore, we expect you to use your personal, unpaid time to ensure effectiveness.
If you work for a district that has taken away your planning time, you either work for people who have no clue what it takes to do your job well, or who do and don’t care what it does to your well-being.
This includes scheduling meetings during planning time. It includes forcing teachers to do PLCs during planning time. If those things are important, then schedule them outside of teachers’ planning time.
One of the more inequitable practices in schools occur in those that schedule IEPs and other parent meetings during teachers’ planning time. I worked for a district that did this and you did not want to be a teacher with more than a couple of identified students because it meant hours of additional work without pay.
Pediatricians don’t work around parents’ schedules, and no one accuses them of being insensitive to the needs of their patients. If it’s important, and most meetings with parents are, then expect parents to find the time to attend, just like they do to get their kids to the doctor and themselves to the bank.
Provide planning time. Treat it as sacred. Move mountains to ensure that teachers never lose it so they may use it for its intended purpose.
Stop Requiring Time Wasters
Every minute a teacher devotes to work that doesn’t improve students’ chances of success is a minute wasted. And schools love to waste teachers’ minutes with nonsense. Here are four examples:
As I wrote here, principals don’t need lesson plans if their teachers are required to teach a board-approved program with strict fidelity. The lesson plans are done for them. If principals want to know if those scripted lessons are being followed, then they need only visit teachers’ classrooms. The only time principals should ask for lesson plans is if they have a teacher who is struggling and the principal believes part of that struggle might be her inability to effectively plan. Even then, principals should only require plans for lessons they will observe, because plans don’t actually mean anything unless they’re followed.
Requiring lesson plans does two things: It sends a message of distrust, and it wastes teachers’ time. Why any principal would want to do those two things is beyond me.
Good teachers communicate with parents; bad principals force them to. I’ve worked for a principal who required weekly newsletters that she wanted to see before they were sent home, a principal who strongly encouraged having a class website for parents to access, and a principal who expected teachers to make five positive parent phone calls per week. None of those things are bad (except asking to see the newsletters ahead of time), but there are good reasons teachers balk at being told to do them. The main reason is time.
Principals, everything single thing you require of teachers takes time that they do not have. Asking them to make five positive phone calls home is stealing 15-30 minutes from them. Either something doesn’t get done, it gets done poorly, or it gets done when your teachers should be detaching from work. Avoid mandates. Let teachers decide how to best use their time.
Posted Learning Goals
Principals should allow teachers to design their own homework policies and establish their own expectations. Since homework and grading has the potential to eat up hours of a teacher’s time, it should be up to the teacher to manage it.
Too many principals pretend as though trade-offs do not exist for their teachers. They see little problem with adding one more thing to teachers’ responsibilities. But principals who want to help their teachers do their best work don’t just avoid giving their teachers more to do. They look at the way things are done in their buildings and find ways to free up more time for their staffs. Teachers know they’ll pay for squandered time later. Principals who want the best from their teachers should recognize it, too.