Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Why Teaching Content Matters

I never allowed my son to have a toy gun. Not even a water gun. He had a water dolphin. My students are not allowed to pretend to shoot each other. They are not allowed to build weapons out of Legos. We don’t play killing. There is nothing joyful or fun about bullets.

We are not naive. We don’t pretend the world is always peaceful. We recognize the world’s ugliness and its beauty. We talk about and mourn violent acts together. And celebrate when peace and joy triumph.

And we build peace within our school walls. We learn to sign “I love you” in ASL and share love with the security guards and custodians and children all around the school. We show we care about each other by making sure every kid gets what they need: a quiet and calm room, a piece of gum, a special seat, some time to dance, a hug, a little space, some words of encouragement. We sing songs of struggle and love, freedom and friendship, redemption songs. We read about activists who work to make the world a fairer, more equitable place. We practice solving problems with our words.

In 20 years of teaching, I have taught hundreds of children. Through teaching we change the world. Our lessons may be magnified exponentially, so we must make sure we are modeling kindness, teaching children to be thoughtful and critical consumers of information, acknowledging the humanity in each of our students and insisting they recognize it in each other.

Yes, we teach children to read, but reading is not saying words. Reading is thinking and wondering and seeking evidence. We teach children to write, but writing is not mindlessly responding to insignificant prompts. Writing is sharing our important ideas, crafting and revising carefully, adding compelling examples, so their voices cannot be ignored. We must help children to become fluent mathematicians so they cannot be fooled by people who would twist numbers into lies, so they recognize the inequity around them and can produce evidence to show that it must change. We must not teach skills in isolation, but give children the tools to shape the world as they grow.





Tuesday, August 15, 2017

On Charlottesville and Classrooms

Trump is on the TV screen making excuses for the vile and violent racists who marched, with torches and clubs and guns, through Charlottesville. He refuses to use the word terrorist to describe the man who ran down over a dozen anti-racist protesters and killed Heather Heyer. 


And school is starting in a few weeks. So what do we do in our classrooms? Off the top of my head, here are some thoughts:


  • When kids say things like, "I love all the colors in the world! Except black and brown," address it, please. You don't have to call them out, because they don't see the big picture. But do something to let kids know black and brown are beautiful. In my class, my co-teacher and I tell kids brown and black are our favorite colors. And we talk about beautiful brown things all the time - sparrows, acorns, and skin.
  • Don't promote colorblindness. I'm tired of talking about why it's problematic, so go here or here if this is confusing.
  • Build a classroom library that reflects your class in many ways. Ask families what identities they'd like to see reflected in the classroom library. Some families may find it difficult to answer this question. Dig in a little to get families thinking deeper. I imagine that some families who have the hard time with this question think they're just regular/normal. That lets you know you have work to do in educating this family about the ways people might identify. I couldn't find books about Sudan that didn't reflect war and strife, so I wrote one. Writing class books is a wonderful way to make sure your library has the books you need.
  • Make your classroom a privilege-free zone. One of the teaching moments about which I harbor the most guilt had nothing to do with teaching kids. A white father approached me just before morning meeting one day and said he needed to talk to me immediately. Thinking there was an emergency, I interrupted the 5 year old on my lap telling me about the scary nightmare she'd had and went to speak to this father outside the room. Long story short, it wasn't an emergency, just a father who didn't like the way a brown girl had interacted with his daughter. He used the word bully to describe this five year old, and put his finger in my face demanding to know what I was going to do about it. I should've shut him down, but I was too stunned. Never again will I brush off a child who needs me to make an entitled parent feel that their privilege extends to my classroom. 
  • Call on girls and brown kids first and frequently and work to find ways to share air time equitably. Before someone says "that's racist/sexist," head to a classroom and record data to show how often brown kids and girls are called on and what kinds of questions they're asked. For most of kids' school lives, it's likely that air time won't be equitable. Try to make it more so for a year or two of their lives. If there are children who dominate the conversation frequently, help them to notice whether and how they are listening to their classmates.
  • Teach kids to use a calm and quiet wait signal instead of waving their hands, and then allow wait time for kids. Count to ten in your head if you need to, but teach your students to really listen, and teach them that everyone has something important to say. Coach children to use respectful language to agree, disagree, or add to the statements of others, but to listen, most importantly.
  • Teach freedom songs and songs about justice and equity. The more you sing words about community and justice, the more children will have the language to speak up on these issues as they grow. Some of my favorites include Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, We Shall Not Be MovedRedemption Song, All I Really Need, You Can't Always Get What You Want (chorus), What Can One Little Person Do, The Union Team (and everything else by Ella Jenkins) and One Love. 
  • Find ways to get more families involved in the life of your classroom. I love and appreciate the families who have helped out in various ways in our classroom over the last few years, but I recognize that it's often the same families - the ones who can take time off of work, have flexible hours, get childcare easily, etc. They're the same families who can donate and purchase things for the classroom. Find ways, even if it means changing your plan for the day/unit/year, to allow all families to be present. I know kids will remember when Serenity's mom came in and drew their names in graffiti and when Zakeriya and Zakeriya's moms came into make sambuksa during Ramadan. More importantly, Serenity and the two Zakeriya's saw their moms in our class and other brown kids saw grownups who looked like them in our classroom. This year, our school made it possible for us to do home visits. What a wealth of information we're getting that will help us connect with our families!
  • Talk about the hard things. Last year, we knew we had to talk about the election when we heard that our first graders were talking about Trump during lunch. There were so many things kids wanted to discuss about national news that we began making our closing meeting about the news of the previous 24 hours. We eventually turned those class meetings into a full unit about activists and ways people change the world through art, music, writing, research, marching, and more. (My co-teacher adds: Kids are ALREADY making meaning about race, privilege, and current events. It's just a question of whether or not grownups and educators are a part of that conversation and helping to guide it. )
  • Read books about activists so children have a menu of possibilities for how they will make the world better. Some possible subjects: Rachel Carson, Hugo Chavez, Wangari Maathai, Malcolm X, and so many others. Seek out activists in your school community to talk to kids. (Check out Paula Rogovin's book, Classroom Interviews for inspiration.)
  • Read about trauma. This is something I'm currently working on. Here's one article, but a quick Google search will turn up many more.
  • Encourage children to help themselves and help each other, to be problem solvers in ways that benefit their class and, when appropriate, the larger community. Our first graders made and distributed a book about ways to be kind after Trump took office. They took action to benefit the community. 

I'm going to stop there for now because otherwise I'll never post! What do you do in your classroom to promote equity, justice, and peace?


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Toning Down Tattling


Eighteen kindergarteners are bouncing and spinning to a fast, rhythmic song. Smiles are plentiful. I am reminding children that we are dancing, not running. We have practiced asking, “Are you okay?” so when one child falls, three others rush to check on him. Then Malak approaches me, pouting, tearful. I ask, “What happened, Malak?”

She responds emphatically, “Hamdi!” Just a name, no explanation.

I talk to her more and understand that Hamdi bumped into her while they were dancing. I have kept an eye on Hamdi because he is not the most careful of movers. He has been dancing joyfully, skipping and jumping. It is possible that he bumped into her, but he surely did not hurt Malak intentionally. And of course, with 18 children dancing in a small classroom, many children are bumping or brushing against each other, but nobody else is complaining. I remember that Malak also refused to hold Hamdi's hand when we made a circle.

I call Hamdi over. I tell him Malak needs to talk to him and I wait. Malak says, “You pushed me.” Hamdi denies it.

I say, “Hamdi, maybe you bumped into her by accident while you were dancing.”

He nods, smiles and says, “Sorry, Malak!” and hurries off to continue leaping and spinning and skipping. I tell Malak it’s finished and she should go back to dancing.

But I worry. Nobody else is tattled on as frequently as Hamdi. Every time I see this class, someone is telling on Hamdi. Hamdi wasn’t walking in the line. Hamdi touched me. Hamdi isn’t sitting properly. Hamdi is holding his stick wrong. Hamdi is talking. Hamdi wasn’t singing. Hamdi, Hamdi, Hamdi. Even teachers often roll their eyes and sigh and complain when talking about Hamdi.

And I know Hamdi is not easy in his classroom setting. He is an immature, wiggly, barely five-year-old who is not ready for the heavily academic kindergarten class he attends. He is not ready for worksheets and spelling tests and sitting in a chair for extended periods of time. (I would argue that few children benefit from such kindergartens and the research would agree.) Hamdi is almost always late for my Music lessons because, as the other children are eager to tell me, he didn’t finish his work, he was punished, and/or he wasn’t listening.

Perhaps this is why I like Hamdi so much, because I feel the need to balance out the negative attention he seems to get so often. I want to help the other children see him as an upstanding, helpful, kind member of the classroom community – which he is. Hamdi helps me hand out sticks. He helps me demonstrate partner work. He offers frequent smiles to his classmates and invites them to join him when he's dancing.

In the first grade class, it is Hamdi’s big sister, Amna who is the primary target of a constant stream of tattling. And in most classes, especially the youngest classes, there is a child who is tattled on more than any other.

I often tell children that there is no tattling allowed in my classroom.  That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, because tattling is a part of classroom and school cultures and it takes work, across the school, to diminish it. But I want children to know that tattling for the sake of getting someone “in trouble” will not be tolerated. I tell them I will help them solve problems. I will mediate conversations if they need me to. But I will not scold a child because another child tattled on him.

Why is it important to limit tattling?


We want to avoid situations were one child or a few children are constantly reaffirmed as the “bad kids.” When we entertain children telling us all the bad things they saw a child do, this can confirm for the tattler and for the subject of the tattling that the child being tattled on is not as good as other children.

We want to empower children to solve problems on their own. If they  come to an adult for every little issue that arises, they don’t learn that they are capable of effectively addressing problems independently. (Tangentially, I don't spell for children for the same reason.)

We want to help children differentiate between issues that require adult intervention, issues that can be solved independently, and non-issues.
  

What can we do to help children move away from tattling as a strategy?

Encourage children to try to solve small social issues before coming to you.

When a child approaches you and begins telling on another child, ask, “Have you spoken to him/her about it?” If the tattler says she hasn’t spoken to the other child, send her off to try. If you think it would be helpful, call the other child over and be an observer while they discuss the problem.

Encourage the upset child to be specific about the problem. Often children will say things like, “He was bothering me,” or, “She kept annoying me.” These vague statements do little to help solve a problem.

Always follow up. Ask later, “Were you able to solve the problem?” and possibly, “How did you solve it?” Compliment the child for a job well done! If the child wasn’t able to solve the problem, try to employ the help of another child.

Employ the help of a fair-minded peer.

Some children are really great problem solvers. They are diplomatic and fair and are excellent listeners. You can ask children like this to talk with two children in conflict and see if they’re able to help mediate a solution. If this doesn’t work, offer your assistance or the assistance of another adult to mediate.

Focus on solutions.

When you’re mediating, after briefly establishing what the problem is from both perspectives, try focusing the complaining child on what they need to feel better. Do they need an apology? A hug/handshake? The other child to be more careful? A new place to sit? Focus on solutions rather than rehashing the problem over and over again.

The Problem Notebook and Problem-Solving Meeting

I’ve used this strategy successfully in upper elementary classrooms. We kept a class notebook called the problem notebook. It was always available for children to write down a problem they were having with a classmate. When children came to tattle, I referred them to the Problem Notebook. If the problem was solved prior to any adult intervention, the children involved marked the problem “SOLVED” in the notebook. 

At the end of the week, at a designated time, we had a problem-solving meeting. We looked through the notebook and spent time discussing any unresolved problems as a class. Peers offered solutions to the children involved and those children agreed to try one of the solutions. After using this method for several weeks, we rarely had any unsolved problems left to address by the end of the week. Sometimes, children shared how they were able to solve a problem they’d written down earlier in the week.

This strategy should only be used if there’s already a well-established, respectful community in your classroom. Otherwise, the Problem Notebook can become a collection of mean comments and no solutions.


Of course, like anything else that happens in a classroom, you should teach children strategies for solving social problems early in the year. And children should know you'll be there to help them if they need it and that serious problems should be brought to an adult. But constant tattling doesn't help you or your students. Do your best to decrease the need for your assistance by empowering the children to do their own problem solving.

PS - As I've mentioned in previous blog entries, all children are different and have different needs. This blog post was written with most children I've taught in mind. But there are exceptional children for whom this kind of independent problem solving isn't always possible. Some children will need assistance in working out social issues for an extended period of time, well into upper elementary school, and even beyond. And some children are vulnerable, for various reasons, to being targeted and picked on. I don't wait for these particular kids to tattle or ask for assistance. I'm always watching to see if I need to step in. I check in frequently to ensure partner work and group work are going smoothly and offer frequent tips to the child and to other children about successful cooperation. While I don't like tattling, I don't tolerate bullying. But often kids who are being bullied don't tell, so our eyes have to be open all the time. We don't have to wait for them to tell.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Big Mouths, Little Ears




We are sitting in a large circle, 16 four year olds, three teaching assistants and I. Children are returning their instruments in small groups based on the colors of their shirts. Three children go to the instrument tray and to put their instruments away. Two return, as they should, empty-handed. One returns with instrument still in his one hand, a thumb in his mouth and eyes brimming with tears. I didn't notice any problem at the instrument tray. I ask him if he is okay, if something happened. He continues to look sad and says nothing. 

I ask the other two children, "Did something happen while you were returning your instruments? Do you know why he looks so sad?" I know these two children. I know it is doubtful that either will respond to my question, as neither child engages in regular, turn-taking conversation with any consistency. But I ask, because I would ask any children in the same situation. I think perhaps they will think about what happened. I hope drawing their attention to this child's sad face will help them to read this emotion on their classmates' faces in the future. 

One of the assistants shakes her head, smirks and says loudly, "Those two are the worst."

I know she probably means to inform me that it will be hard to get an answer from them. Or that they would struggle to describe any incident that might have occurred. I know she does not consider her words and how they will impact on these two children, nor how they will impact on the other 14 children sitting in the circle listening. I know (or hope) she intends to be helpful. I also know there is nothing I can say to erase these words from the memories of the children in this group.

But what messages are being given to these children? 

To the two children involved in whatever problem may or may not have occurred, she has confirmed that:
  • They are not expected to participate in solving this problem.
  • They are not good children.
  • They are, in fact, worse than all of the other children in the class (or school or world).


To the other children in the group, she has expressed that:
  • These two children are not as good as they, themselves are.
  • These two children are not expected participate in solving problems.
  • And perhaps, that children with differences (because these two children have clear behavioral and social differences) are the worst.

All in one snide remark intended for another adult.

Here are some things we should consider in our day-to-day conversations with and around children:

Children hear everything we say around them, no matter whom the words are intended for.
My little sister shocked her pre-Kindergarten teacher when, months after he'd made a brief comment to another adult in passing in the hallway, she repeated to her teacher, word-for-word, what he had said about another child. Our words are heard, and often internalized by children. When we say they are bad often enough, they may begin to feel like bad children. If we call them, "Readers," when talking to them, they may begin to feel like readers. If we tell them how kind they are when we observe kindness, we support and expand their capacity to make kind choices. We must consider what behaviors and attributes we hope to grow in children, and focus our language accordingly.

Children (mis)understand our words.
Especially when working with the youngest children in our schools, teachers assume their words will go over their heads, that they won't "get it." But they often do understand. And even if these children can't make the inferences that allow them to understand our intended meanings, they understand something. 

Adult conversations should be reserved for adult-only areas and times.
Teachers love to talk about children. We can't help it. Sometimes we share the wonderful accomplishments and activities that have occurred in our classrooms. We talk about new achievements made by children who are struggling. And we talk about our frustrations. All of these conversations about children should happen away from children unless we are talking, for a specific reason, to children about another child's wonderful work or actions.

Adults should never insult children in front of children.
I know. Seems like it shouldn't be necessary to say this. I wouldn't, except I keep hearing teachers saying negative things about children, aloud - and often in front of other children! 
"This one's been running around like the village idiot." 
"You're disgusting!" 
"Thank goodness John isn't here today. I haven't had to yell all day." 
"What grade do you think I'm going to give you?" Child responds that she'll give him a high grade. Teacher laughs hysterically.
Keep your mean thoughts to yourself. Share them in staff rooms if you must, but ideally, just don't. 

Teachers' kids 
I remember when I was eight, a principal who was not well liked by the staff at my school was finally removed. The staff sang, "Ding dong, the witch is dead," after most children had left for the day. I was a staff kid, so I was still at school. I heard them. I understood. I remember. I was shocked. Staff kids tend to be privy to much more adult conversation than other children. As hard as it is, teacher-parents should try not to have negative conversations in front of their own children. Our children have to interact with other teachers and children regularly, and our opinions of those teachers and children may impact negatively on their interactions. 

Sarcasm and jokes
I touch on the topic of sarcasm frequently because it's important. One head of section who was generally quite appropriate with children said to a second grader, jokingly, "Why don't you just go bang your head against the wall?" This child looked utterly confused and stunned. I jumped in, "He was just joking. Right, Mr. _______? You weren't serious." The head of section saw the kid's face and immediately felt terrible. He assured the child it was a joke, not a very good one, but a joke nonetheless. The child was clearly relieved.

Describe the action; don't label the child.
As often as possible, whether talking to children or about them, we should describe the specific behavior we observed. It's more productive than labeling a child as good, bad, kind, mean, smart, lazy, etc. I once said to my own child, in frustration, "Your behavior is ridiculous." (Not one of my prouder moments!) He burst into tears. "You called me ridiculous!" Oh, the drama! We talked; I focused on the specific actions I was unhappy with. The conversation was productive.

Be honest.
Tell children the truth. There's rarely a good reason to be dishonest with children. If you can't answer, tell them so.

We send unspoken messages also.
This could probably be a whole 'nother topic, and maybe it will be. We send unspoken messages constantly; by how we respond to each child; by texting and checking our phones while with children; by calling on one gender/culture/child more in certain subject areas; with angry expressions; by ignoring children or dismissing them. Everything we do and much of what we don't sends a message.

None of us is perfect. Sometimes words slip out of our mouths before we think them through. When those words impact children negatively, we should do what's necessary to repair the relationship or clarify our (hopefully positive) intention. Most importantly, we must consider the impact of our words on all children within earshot. 

A fantastic read on this topic, Power of Our Words:





Saturday, May 9, 2015

13 Principles for Principals

I was teaching my first grade class in a building that was still under construction. Between my classroom and the boys’ bathroom was one flight of stairs. On the landing was a hole large enough for a child to fall through. Danny (not his real name) was kind of kid who would want to check out that hole and would likely fall through it. And Danny needed to use the bathroom. He’d had bathroom accidents before, so I knew the situation was urgent.

I had my class of 26 kids working, my paraprofessional not in the class, and Danny wiggling next to me. And that hole on the landing. So I called down to the office and asked if someone could come up and escort this child to the bathroom. The secretary said she was too busy and connected me to the principal. The principal, sitting in her office, said she couldn’t come. I explained that the situation was urgent, asked whether she could find anyone to come escort this child, and reiterated that this child would likely wet himself soon. She replied, and I quote, “Call his mom and tell her to bring extra clothes.” I was furious. She asked, “Is there anything else?” I said, “No.” I hung up and lined up my 26 students to escort Danny to the bathroom.

Although she was too busy to come escort this six-year-old to the bathroom, to ensure his safety, she was apparently not too busy to write me up for insubordination. She didn’t like my tone on the phone and I’d hung up without saying goodbye, or something like that. The letter was prepared for my file before the end of the school day. I attached a letter of my own the next day, as was my right, describing the conversation and quoting the principal. Surprise, surprise, she ended up not putting the letter in my file.

I’ve often quipped that I love teaching, but can’t stand schools. Feeling like this has been largely a function of the principal (or other administrative staff) of a given school. Some principals go to work every day to support teachers and children. They read and do research on best practice and work to integrate these ideas into their schools in productive ways. They do whatever they can to facilitate the teaching and learning process.

I know this because my mother is an elementary school principal, one who was a teacher for many years, and then a teacher-director, before taking on the job of principal. She scours flea markets for used books to support units of study. I’ve seen her host new teachers at her home to help them with their planning. She spends some weekends at school-organized book fairs and street fairs to raise money for enrichment activities not covered by the shrinking public school budgets. When directives from above don’t make sense, she challenges those directives and does her best to protect her teachers. She said to me, while I was writing this piece, "Classroom teachers are essential to a good school. However, without a supportive, fearless leader, even the best teacher cannot function well."

Truth be told, many terrible principals won’t care about what I’ve written below. But someone should say it, don’t you think? And if you're a principal and none of this applies to you, you’re probably one of those great principals who make teaching a pleasure. Thank you.



Lead by example.

Quick story. My co-teacher and I were doing an activity in which groups of children had been given slips with descriptors of people stranded at sea – mother, young child, old woman, school principal, teenager. They had to decide which would be placed into a rescue boat that could only fit ten of the fifteen people in trouble. We went to see how one group was doing and noticed that a student had placed the school principal slip far away from the rescue boat - and he had drawn sharks around it! We managed to suppress our laughter for long enough to ask why the child had made this decision. The child responded, “I hate that man. Once, he said ‘good morning’ to me and I nodded instead of saying ‘good morning’ back. And he yelled at me. I don’t even know him!” That one interaction had created such animosity in this child that he would never trust or interact positively with this principal again. Imagine if the principal had simply greeted this child by name on a regular basis, if he had modeled greeting instead of berating him.

Be kind and open-minded. Be fair and thoughtful. Be respectful and caring. Lead by example to create a wonderful school community.

Weigh the impact of your words.

Be careful of how you speak to staff, students and families. Your words have impact - and you want that impact to be positive, I hope. We are usually aware that language matters when we talk to children. But what we say in front of children also matters. If you need to say something that's not for a child's ears, then wait until you are away from children to say it. Children pick up and understand (or misunderstand) much more than we think. Watch how you talk to staff in front of students as well. Be sure you are modeling kind, respectful interactions.

Don't be a bully/dictator.

You know these principals, don’t you? The ones who yell and slam their fists on their desks, who call teachers and other members of staff rude names? Those principals who take joy in writing disciplinary letters to put in teachers’ files, creating anger and frustration where they should be providing guidance, building effective communication, and showing support? They threaten disciplinary action whenever someone disagrees with them, or make that person’s life hell. Those principals suck. They create an atmosphere in which staff members are constantly walking on eggshells. Respect and fear are not the same thing. Good leaders don't need to threaten their staff members. If you are a school principal who bullies the folks who work under you, just know they are all waiting with bated breath for karma to come kick your ass.

Listen.

Some principals love to talk. And talk. And talk. If you’re a principal, look up every once in a while, and take note of whether people are actually listening. Are staff members avoiding making eye contact with you? Do their expressions look bored? Disinterested? Disgusted? Angry? If so, it’s probably a sign that you do more talking than listening and that nobody cares much what you’re saying. Take the time to listen to students, parents and staff – all of them. Don't just surround yourself with a small group of people who make you feel good about yourself by stroking your ego. Make sure you are accessible when people are in need of support or clarification. Stop sending out so many e-mails and dictates and memos and have a conversation instead. You might learn something. And they might be more willing to listen to you.

Get involved. Get dirty. Get to know your school community.

One evening, when parents were coming for a school open house, I was straightening up my classroom. We had two broken computers sitting on a table and I had forgotten about that area of the room, since it wasn’t used. My assistant principal came down and wasn’t happy to see the dust that had gathered behind the table, but she could see that we were working on cleaning and running short on time. She got down on her hands and knees and cleaned behind that table herself. Why does it matter? Why do I remember that? Because that simple act let us know that she was with us, part of a team trying to accomplish something. If you’re a principal, you have to be willing to get some dirt on your hands sometimes, whether by working with children or supporting staff members. Little things like this make a big difference.

Walk around your school and be aware of what’s happening. Certain principals seem never to seem to leave their offices. Good school principals actually interact with children on a daily basis. Some do this by covering recess or lunch, welcoming children in the morning, and dismissing them in the afternoons. How can you know what’s going on if you’re locked in your office? How will children know you and trust you? How can you be effective if all you ever see is your computer screen?

Some schools are larger than others and this might be a challenge in an enormous school. But do your best to know everyone by name. Get to know the teachers, students, parents/caretakers, custodians, guards – everyone who makes up your school community. Try to know more than just their names.

Support new teachers (or don't hire them!)

I once worked in a program within a school. A group of teachers and parents made school decisions, usually through discussion and consensus. The hiring committee was also made up of teachers and parents. We did a darn good job. During those years, we had a diverse, committed group of teachers who collaborated with each other and with parents to provide an excellent, responsive education to our students. Too often, these days, principals don’t consider children first when making hiring decisions. 

I notice some principals hiring new teachers as often as possible. Perhaps they’re trying to save money. Perhaps they want teachers who are easily controlled. I imagine it’s a little of both. But this doesn’t work! I mean, new teachers have to work somewhere, and it’s not that hiring young teachers is bad. It’s just that you have to be willing and able to provide the support and professional development to help those teachers grow. And that takes money and time. And no school can function well if the bulk of teachers are beginners. One principal estimated that it takes most new teachers about five years to really get a handle on management and curriculum. When new teachers enter schools in which they are not sufficiently supported, they often quit teaching before those five years are up. They've been set up to fail.


“The primary driver of the exodus of early-career teachers is a lack of administrative and professional support… Quite simply, teachers don’t think the people they work for care about them or their efforts to improve.” - Susan Headden, Beginners in the Classroom.

So if you want to hire a few new teachers, go for it, but be ready to provide the necessary supports - for their benefit and for the well being of their students.

Nix the nonsensical non-negotiables.

Principals have to be aware that directives (sometimes called non-negotiables) don’t always make sense, and (from a teacher's point of view) they might not take precedence over other work happening in classrooms. I had an assistant principal (not the same one who helped clean!) who came into my classroom one half-day, while children were still in class, and demanded that I move my Word Wall down six inches. She gave me an hour to comply. She didn’t care that kids were using the Word Wall effectively and consistently, didn’t care that I was teaching. Principals, I get that sometimes these non-negotiables are handed down by your superiors. Assuming you've taught, reflect back to how you felt and how you functioned when ridiculous demands were being piled on. Instead of harassing teachers, evaluate the value of these directives and support your teachers – either by helping them comply or by having the conviction to stand up to your own supervisors. 

Stop interrupting!

And protect classrooms from interruptions by other people. A well-functioning, productive classroom is a delicate balance, one that can be thrown off by the slightest interruption, wasting time and causing teachers to have to reset. Just because there are loudspeakers built in to classroom walls doesn't mean you have to use them. Just because some classrooms have phones, you don't have to call. We're busy working, teaching, assessing, supporting students. And protect classrooms from other unnecessary interruptions. Ask parents and family members to make appointments to talk to teachers during the day. Don't deliver supplies in the middle of lessons. If you choose to enter a classroom, which you should on occasion, do so in a manner that doesn't stop the work that's already happening.

Know child development.

Know your age groups and know the curriculum. Just like good teachers should know their age group, so should principals. You have to know your age groups so you can evaluate curricular materials and teaching practices and know whether they're appropriate.

Build buy-in by allowing for true collaboration.

The principal is ultimately responsible for all that goes on in a school, making decisions and choices about how the school functions. The extent to which teachers are allowed to contribute to making decisions directly influences how effective implementation of a new policy or curriculum will be. Allow teachers and members to weigh-in as often as possible, even if the final decisions lies in your hands. Don't pretend to allow input and do what you had always intended. Teachers know when you're really listening and when it's just for show.

Zero tolerance for zero-tolerance policies.

Zero-tolerance policies don't work. These policies tend to be applied unfairly, and push children out of school, effectively stopping their formal education. These punitive policies also erode trust, making it harder for children to reconnect when they return to their classrooms after periods of suspension. If you want to know more, just look herehere and here


Colorblindness and other lies.

Everyone has biases. Be aware of your biases and work to diminish them. When a person comes to you expressing concerns about bias in your school, don't respond that you treat everyone the same. It's not true. Pay attention to whom you listen to and whom you don't. Pay attention to whether the consequences you dole out to students are relatively similar for similar infractions. Pay attention to whom you place in other administrative positions, who receives promotions, and who doesn't. (Do they all look just like you?) You are in a position that allows you to challenge inequality or to perpetuate it. I hope you'll choose to challenge it.

When you're wrong, apologize and make amends.

Nobody expects you to be perfect. You are, after all, human. When you realize that you've made a mistake, or made a bad decision, do something to acknowledge that you recognize that. It will go a long way toward maintaining the all-important rapport that allows effective communication to happen.



I've seen principals build and support wonderful schools, and I've seen principals destroy schools. I've seen principals recruit, hire and keep phenomenal educators, and I've seen schools where any good teacher who could, left as soon as they were able. I've seen principals build strong collaborative communities, and principals who operated dictatorships that they called "collaborative" for show. The job of a principal is tough. It's not a job I'd ever want. But if you take this job on, please, use your power for good.