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Stand With Educators Series: The Principal Paradigm

Hey y’all, and welcome to the second episode of the Stand with Educators Series. I’m back with more conversations to empower you to teach and live authentically by choosing humanity over heroism.

I’m really excited to be sharing my Stand with Educators series with you here on the podcast. You may or may not know that back in May, I did a podcast takeover for my friend Amber Harper from The Burned-IN Teacher. This takeover was something that Amber and I had planned earlier in the school year but it happened to coincide with the “Stand with Educators” collaboration we did with Kaitlin from Kind Cotton.

The three of us are classroom teachers who feel passionately about standing with - and for better - for educators. We know that better for teachers also means better for students. Our Stand With Educators movement launched with a tee-shirt sale in which $5 of the proceeds from every sale helps to sponsor an educator to join the Burned-In Teacher Mastermind. It’s a wonderful opportunity for educators who are ready to grow through burnout and overwhelm. Thus far, we have sponsored 4 educators through this initiative, and we hope to sponsor many more. Click here to order your tee and join the movement!

The episodes you will hear in this series are all about taking the next right steps to systemic change for educators. Though these episodes were recorded and released at the end of the 2021 school year, I thought that with the launch of The AfroEducator Podcast and the start of a new school year, this is the perfect time to dream and set goals that cater to your wellbeing.

True self-care is the hard work of creating boundaries, evaluating relationships, and taking steps to shift the way things are to the way things can be. These episodes are all about actualizing possibilities—moving beyond imagination to reality. I hope that as you listen to these episodes, you feel inspired and empowered to teach and live authentically. You deserve to have the best school year yet!

If you missed last week’s episode, I DEFINATELY recommend you check it out (Stand With Educators Series: The First Steps to Systemic Change). It was the first official episode in the Stand With Educators Series and I talked about how we can take steps toward systemic change for the teaching profession. Change for any system begins with the commitment of individuals to do the work. And our work, as teachers, is to challenge ourselves to break down the barriers we build around ourselves when we subscribe to harmful narratives that normalize overwork and martyrdom.

This week, we are going to talk about something that I believe is going to resonate with a lot of listeners…and that is the teacher/administrator relationship.

When we think about the teacher shortage crisis, we attribute the mass exodus to teaching, itself. The expectations. The testing. The long hours. The lack of respect from parents and students. The leadership. All of those are very real problems and all those issues could each have their own dedicated podcast episode. But, in this episode, I want to explore the importance of exercising our agency when it comes to our relationships and our perceptions of school administrators.

Let me be very clear here, administrators are the bridge between expectations and action. Their role is critical in facilitating the work we do as teachers. We NEED good administrators. We need leaders who will motivate without using fear to manipulate. We need leaders who have open doors, open ears, and a wide lens with which they view their roles.

Though I can’t speak on behalf of all teachers, I do think that many would echo my sentiments when I say that most of us - at some point or another - have viewed our administrators as more of an authoritarian figure who makes sweeping decrees that we have to carry out.

In my experience, most of us have this inferiority complex where we believe that we are our administrator’s subordinate. We wouldn’t dare dream of asking WHY or better yet, offering alternatives or solutions to scenarios that may not be in the best interest of teachers or students.

I think it’s important to establish the basis for this conversation and the 4 root causes that I believe contribute to the current status of many teacher/admin relationships:

  • The narrative around teaching specifically, and the way we (and society in general) view the status of teachers.

  • The contrast between the expectations of administrators versus reality.

  • Administrators privilege of power.

  • The space between most administrators and the classroom experience.

Now, some of you may be thinking “but I don’t necessarily need to talk with my administrator when choices are being made that may affect me” and that’s true. We can advocate in ways that don’t require direct interaction. We can subvert the system and make choices that reflect our beliefs. Quiet advocacy is important. But imagine how much greater your advocacy for the profession - and for yourself - could be when you are also able to affect change by engaging with your school leader. Agency cannot start and stop with us, we have to carry it further, and I understand it's difficult.

In the last episode, "The First Steps to Systemic Change", I talked about toxic teacher narratives and how our complicity in accepting those narratives contributes to our burnout. In this episode, I want to explore how those narratives also contribute to the stories we construct around the teacher/administrator relationship. Ultimately I hope you will feel empowered and emboldened to reimagine how you perceive and approach your administrator.

So, most people, even outside of teaching, work within structures that function via antiquated ideals. We believe that people with seemingly "superior" titles are entitled to blind deference. We immediately place ourselves on a lower rung and with that comes the mentality that whatever my “boss” or “supervisor” says I just have to find a way to get it done.

Our administrators have the privilege of power. It places them in a position to make or break school cultures that either retain teachers or run them off. Their power also leads to expectations of blind loyalty without accountability or reciprocity. Some administrators truly believe that because they are the leader, they can do what they want, say what want, and behave with impunity. Privilege, I find, is often the catalyst for less than desirable behaviors from school leaders. But I also find that that privilege is unrecognized. So, bad behavior is perpetuated because of the unawareness of how privilege impacts leadership. And teachers, being unaware and afraid of how to check that privilege, shrink to the shadows or to a teacher friend’s room across the hall and lament about our problems and our administrators instead.

It’s easy, maybe even expected for teachers to play small when it comes to our relationships with our administrators. We are quick to submit because a person in power “says so.” But this way of being - this perception - isn’t all our fault. Our beliefs are constructed from our observations of supervisory relationships in real life and in media. Couple that with the toxic teaching narratives and it’s no surprise that we give in to inferiority complexes. Many of us genuinely believe that we don’t have the right to question or challenge our administrators.

Those who do believe that we can question or challenge our administrators often don’t take advantage of that capacity because they aren’t sure how to address someone with a higher-ranking title in a way that’s respectful yet assertive. We let our nerves, our anxiety, and those ever-present toxic narratives inhibit us from advocacy.

When I was 16, I got my first part-time job in a local mom-and-pop bookstore. There was a manager there who I always felt just didn’t like me. She was an older woman who always seemed to have something negative to say about most things, including my performance. One day, I told my mom about this manager and she advised me to assert myself and express that she’d made me uncomfortable with some of her actions. While I understood my mom’s intentions, I thought “I’m only 16. She’s older than me and she’s a manager. There’s no way I could address my concerns with her without looking foolish.” Those were my thoughts. And ultimately, I never addressed her. I simply carried on in silence and I tolerated this woman’s piercing stares and negative remarks.

Some months after I first told my mom about this issue, my mom shared this piece of advice with me that, even now, I find rings true. She said, “You will continue to find that these kinds of people show up in your life until you learn whatever it is that you need to learn to grow.”

And she was right.

I encountered a similar scenario at my next part-time job years later in college. And I experienced the same feelings of inferiority and helplessness at my first two schools with my principals. Though none of the supervisors after the bookstore manager were near as negative, I felt helpless to advocate for myself because I was “just a teacher.” And if I wasn’t "just a teacher", I always found excuses for why I couldn’t exercise any agency: “I’m too young,” or “I’m too inexperienced,” or “they’ll think I’m a squeaky wheel”. These were all things I would tell myself to justify my inability to stand for myself.

It wasn’t until my current school with my current administrator that I finally experienced the growth that my mom was talking about all those years ago, and it all started because I believed in a cause so much that it overpowered the fear that held me back for so long.

Last school year, I was desperate to begin affecting change. I was already a long-time follower of Happy Teacher Revolution and I believed in what the organization was doing to impact teachers all over the world. So when the opportunity to join a Happy Teacher Revolution Certification Cohort arose, I knew that I had to try and ask my principal for professional development funds to do it. I gathered as much data as I could about Happy Teacher Revolution from Danna Thomas, the founder (and now my friend!). I placed it all in a folder and I headed to my principal’s office, hoping he’d be available to talk. I marched in with a nervous kind of confidence - I thought I could convince him, but I was nervous to assert myself and my wants.

All in all, it went smoothly and I’m happy to say that in February of 2020, I became the first certified Happy Teacher Revolutionary in my state! But that was only the beginning. Since, then I’ve spoken to my principal about the needs of our staff, creating a culture of wellness in our school, and ways that I believe we could work together to boost staff morale by creating long-term changes that put action behind the “support” that is usually lip service. I’ve even written a letter to my principal detailing my concerns about racial equity and inclusion within our school.

I was able to shift the principal paradigm to view my administrator as someone who facilitates rather than dictates my work. This helps me find the courage to exercise the agency that has been buried under dangerous myths that render teachers helpless and hopeless.

So, let’s talk about this shift and how you can be empowered to find and use YOUR agency to reimagine the principal paradigm:

  1. Consider your administrator’s level of experience in terms of total years and classroom years. Often, principals either taught a short time or are years removed from the classroom. Let this empower you to view your administrator as a colleague rather than an authority.

  2. Write or type concerns/feelings you want to discuss with your administrator before you ask for a meeting. I find that writing down my concerns helps me create a coherent message that has a clear purpose with clear requests or solutions. This also helps me frame my emails or script when I request a conference with an administrator. I do this every time I want to have a conversation with a school leader, it plays a huge role in removing my nerves about the conversation because I know that I have a clear message that includes a call to action, which leads me to my next hack.

  3. When addressing concerns, include proposed solutions or constructive strategies for improvement. Leaders are much more willing to listen if your concerns are followed by premeditated ideas. These ideas don’t have to be perfect, but they should be realistic. And if you can, indicate how your proposed solutions could benefit more staff than just you. Show your administrator how addressing your concerns could impact more teachers.

  4. Remember that your principal is there to be a facilitator regardless of how he/she perceives their role. This includes streamlining processes and supporting your professional growth. Our administrators are supposed to help us do more of what we love— which is teaching. It’s important to remember, though, that your principal or administrator is likely operating within the status quo because of traditional systems that seemingly offer no alternatives. Ever since schools in America adopted the industrial model of schooling, teachers, students, and administrators are more cogs in a machine than a living, breathing, working team.

When we consider administrators with little classroom experience or those who have been out of the classroom for a while, the expectations from the district and state level leave little to the imagination in terms of innovation. It’s easy to forget about compassion and empathy when you have 100 things you are expected to do and many outcomes to produce. But again, this is where our individual agency becomes collective advocacy. When each of us chooses to push back against the norm, we create micro-changes that - together - have macro impacts

You may be thinking, yeah but my principal won’t listen. None of this would ever work with the administrators at my school.

I get it.

Why suffer the disappointment and frustration when change isn’t going to happen anyway?

And why do I have to be the one to push back when I’m also shouldering everything else in the school environment? My answers to those questions are incomplete but here’s what I can offer:

  • Change in this country has always been instigated by the communities that are most affected by the inequities of the current systems. It’s not fair, but it’s what we have and our choices are either to learn to operate within the system to create the change we need OR to settle and wait for change from the people who are least impacted by the stagnation of the status quo.

  • We have to teach people how to treat us and that includes our administrators and school leaders. Even at the risk of being ignored or criticized or even reprimanded, when we exercise our agency with our school leaders, we establish boundaries and expectations that have the potential to make them think about their own leadership. Even in rejection, our advocacy is a means of holding ourselves and our administrators accountable for creating working relationships based on the desire to work with rather than working for or working over.

  • We must reframe our own beliefs about ourselves. We must first recognize that we are colleagues, not subordinates. We must challenge our administrators to reconnect to the trenches.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not solely up to us to “figure it out.” We cannot enable mistreatment by going along with the status quo. We must hold our administrators accountable for facilitating our work. That means that administrators must model their expectations and/or be open to different perspectives of how to achieve certain goals and outcomes.

We teach people how to treat us. When we allow expectations to be thrust on us when we “make it work” no matter what and when we acquiesce without holding our administrators accountable for modeling the leadership they expect us to show our students, we become complicit in our plight. We must resist the current narrative and write a new one - one that includes our voices and closes the space between the top and trenches.

Resources from this Episode

Burned-In Teacher

Kind Cotton

Happy Teacher Revolution

Order Your Stand With Educators Tee HERE

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