“I miss the administrator who will hammer the table and say, ‘Everything’s been organized: we want to disorganize it. We want intense people who can teach’”

Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke

As anyone who has spent any time in a teachers’ lounge will know, complaining is one of the besetting sins of the educator. Teaching is not an easy job, and there are many reasons on any given day to bemoan the system, the pupils, and the administration. Administrations (principals, heads of departments, specialists, etc.) tend to receive a hardy share of this fault-finding; it’s a post for another day as to how and why our educational system pits teachers against administrations and increasingly widens the gap between the staff offices and the classrooms. But, today, I want to remind myself (and other educators, aspiring educators, and administrators) of the power of educational leadership done well.

I’ve had a tough first semester of teaching in Scotland and have struggled in seemingly every area of the job: planning curriculum, marking papers, engaging and managing students, etc. Although my school has been quite welcoming, I hadn’t been able to find the solutions to the problems I was facing in the classroom. Nearly three months of this had left me exhausted.

Somehow, she had communicated in the brief time I’d known her that what she cared about was not pretense, but quality education.

So, when, after the first two days of teaching post-holidays, I again found myself in tears at the end of the day, I finally traipsed down the hall to my principal teacher (head of department), slumped into a chair and confessed. “I can’t do this anymore. Nothing is working. I need help.” Despite having only known my PT for a month or so (she recently returned from medical leave), I felt safe. I knew I could tell her that things weren’t working, that I was stuck, and not worry about the immediate security of my job or my educational reputation.

Somehow, she had communicated in the brief time I’d known her that what she cared about was not pretense, but quality education.

In the next thirty seconds, while she set up a meeting with me for the following day, she conveyed two things: validation and hope. First, she took my frustration seriously, not using the pat comfort of, “I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think it is,” which merely would’ve negated my experience as an educator. She trusted that if I said what was going on in my classroom was bad, than it was. Second, she met my eyes and said, “We’re going to make a plan; we’ll talk through it and figure it out.”

I know that I was deeply encouraged because I immediately went home and spent several hours analyzing the classes that weren’t going well, making lists of the things I still didn’t understand, noting my trouble spots during the day, and making notes about particular students with whom I’d been struggling.

I had been invigorated by both the seriousness with which my problems had been taken and the knowledge that I would get concrete assistance in solving them.

And, I wasn’t disappointed. At my meeting the following day, we poured over my notes and discussed my strengths and weaknesses in specific and concrete terms. My PT didn’t hand me a list of solutions, but rather, she walked with me as I came up with a new management plan and troubleshot the lessons I’d been writing and teaching. She showed in her analysis that she’d already observed me carefully even from the brief moments of my teaching she’d seen; she spoke confidently about my style of teaching. She was careful to let me know that she could be as hands-on or hands-off as I wanted, but I could tell that she understood how hard it was to be consistent in this job. She offered clear follow-up plans, from a couple days of co-teaching to a couple weeks of regular observation.

Her suggestions weren’t there to make life easy for me, but to assist me in actually following through in the changes I wanted to make.

This is coaching at its finest. As Roethke notes, she made it clear that she wanted people who cared, “intense people,” and was quick to acknowledge that the natural talents of educators don’t always fit into organized boxes. But, at the same time, she communicated that the “how to teach” bit needed constant and targeted work to be excellent.

I’ve always thought that the word “empowered” was a bit of a silly, modern nod to our need for too many pats on the back, but it really is the perfect word for what an effective and thoughtful leader can do. Two weeks later, I’m still in the thick of the changes I needed to make and still getting the support of observations and feedback, but I have agency. I’m not ending my days teary and hopeless, but encouraged and forward-looking. The mixture of empathetic listening, educational expertise, and keen action has renewed my commitment to my students and their needs.

So, a quick January thank you to all the principals, heads of departments, and other leaders who bring wisdom, experience, and action to their schools. The work of discussion, questioning, and learning that goes on daily in the classroom wouldn’t be possible without your care and your coaching.

Her suggestions weren’t there to make life easy for me, but to assist me in actually following through in the changes I wanted to make.

Her suggestions weren’t there to make life easy for me, but to assist me in actually following through in the changes I wanted to make.

This is coaching at its finest. As Roethke notes, she made it clear that she wanted people who cared, “intense people,” and was quick to acknowledge that the natural talents of educators don’t always fit into organized boxes. But, at the same time, she communicated that the “how to teach” bit needed constant and targeted work to be excellent.

I’ve always thought that the word “empowered” was a bit of a silly, modern nod to our need for too many pats on the back, but it really is the perfect word for what an effective and thoughtful leader can do. Two weeks later, I’m still in the thick of the changes I needed to make and still getting the support of observations and feedback, but I have agency. I’m not ending my days teary and hopeless, but encouraged and forward-looking. The mixture of empathetic listening, educational expertise, and keen action has renewed my commitment to my students and their needs.

So, a quick January thank you to all the principals, heads of departments, and other leaders who bring wisdom, experience, and action to their schools. The work of discussion, questioning, and learning that goes on daily in the classroom wouldn’t be possible without your care and your coaching.

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