One of my favorite education writers, Peter Greene, recently wrote two articles about back to school PD presentations. One, titled Six Unforgivable Sins of Teacher Professional Development, describes the missteps too many speakers take, including my personal pet peeve, the reading aloud of slides to people who are going to find every grammatical error before it’s spoken. The other, a deeply satisfying romp identifying The Thirteen Presenters Who Will Ruin Your First Day Back imagines what some of the worst welcome back speakers would say if they were 100% honest.
Both articles, which have resonated with teachers to such a degree that the ubiquity of such talks are in little doubt, demonstrate the many pitfalls presenters face when welcoming the return of teachers from their summer vacations. Teachers are a tough crowd on a good day. Teachers who are forced to listen to a welcome back speech when they have a thousand other things they need to do to get ready for the school year can be especially critical.
The Worst Speech I’ve Ever Heard
The worst welcome back presentation I ever sat through occurred seven years ago. After some initial pleasantries, the thanking of the kitchen staff for the breakfast that 70% of the staff had skipped in favor of more sleep, and the annual request for teacher contributions to the district scholarship fund, our Superintendent, a Hobbit-like woman with a Napoleon complex, took the microphone and spent the next 30 minutes telling us how awful we were. There were graphs that proved it. One memorable moment was when she spat the name of a neighboring district in venomous disbelief and embarrassment over the fact that they had outscored us on some test in some grade. Our test scores weren’t good enough and it was clearly because we were slackers. She ended her talk by imploring us to become 10% better each year. Those in attendance that day have forever after called this the “Welcome Back, You Suck” speech.
It was horrible leadership. So horrible I was left wondering how in the world she had ever risen to such administrative heights (I know better now). Maybe she thought she was showing us “tough love,” or “setting high expectations,” or adopting a “no excuses” attitude. Maybe the Board had sent her the message that she needed to project strength. Maybe she saw red when the state released the test scores and waited until she had a (almost literally) captive audience to unleash her fury. Whatever the reason, her speech accomplished two things: it made her look like an ineffectual leader who refused to take any personal responsibility for the performance of the organization under her control and it made every teacher in the room want to walk out the door and never return.
It’s Not That Hard
While there are many ways to mess up a welcome back presentation, there is one thing speakers can do that will cover up a lot of sins. Simply focus on the positives.
I’m not talking about the rah-rah-teachers-are-great-I-couldn’t-do-your-job type of positivity that always comes across as disingenuous. And I’m certainly not talking about the kind of toxic positivity that denies reality and brooks no dissent.
I’m talking about the kind of positivity that chooses to focus on the good that has already happened and ignore the bad for one day.
Most teachers fall into two camps on the first day of school. Many are refreshed from the summer and enthusiastic about the new year, ready to implement new ideas and fix things that didn’t work as well as they wanted the previous year. Others feel beaten down by foolish government policies, scapegoated by the public, and unsupported by parents and administrators. Both groups need to know that their efforts are appreciated.
And that’s exactly what the Superintendent of my new school district did this past Monday. There wasn’t one negative mentioned during the hour-long presentation. When challenges were discussed, such as the construction going on in buildings that prevented teachers from getting in and setting up their classrooms, it was done by thanking teachers for their patience and highlighting the community’s support that allowed such improvements to take place. Only test scores that portrayed the district in a positive light were shared. Comparisons were made to districts we outperformed. Only those goals toward which we were progressing were included in the slideshow. We knew such data were cherry-picked. We didn’t care. It made us feel good about being back to work. It made us feel good about our employer. And I think it made the Superintendent feel good to do it. The contrast with my previous district was stark and it showed how easy it is to ignore the negative for one day and make teachers feel appreciated. It’s a shame all leaders can’t figure this out.Yesterday was the most positive welcome back day I've been a part of. The contrast with my previous district was stark and showed how easy it is to ignore the negative for one day and actually make teachers feel valued. Shame more… Click To Tweet
It’s really not that hard. The first day back to school should be ALL POSITIVE. And if you’re leading a district that is struggling academically – if the state has labeled you a priority school, if student enrollment and funding is in decline, if you were in the news for some embarrassing incident – then your welcome back talk should be EVEN MORE POSITIVE. Build your people up. There’s plenty of time to address problems on days 2 through 185.It's not hard, administrators. The first day back should be ALL POSITIVE. And if you lead a district that's struggling academically, it should be even more positive. Build your people up. There's plenty of time to address problems on… Click To Tweet
Any school leader can look at the data and find problems, and they should. But the first day should be reserved for appreciation, gratitude, and drawing attention to all the great things happening in your district. If your teachers don’t leave the room feeling valued by and proud of the district for which they work, then you’re not the leader you believe yourself to be. And if you can’t look at your district and find excellence, then you’ve got no right telling your teachers to do the same thing with each of their students. You’re also working in the wrong place, and probably in the wrong profession.
Sound off in the comments or on Facebook:
What’s the worst welcome back day you’ve been a part of?
What’s something your district does that you think all districts should do at the start of the year?