school leadership

Hey Principals, When You Lose Good Teachers, That's on You

Principals, if you lose good teachers from your school at the end of this year, then you are screwing up. Principals, if people are leaving a profession that no one enters without passion, that no one enters expecting to be easy, you are not doing your job.

Teachers Losing Jobs and Schools Losing Teachers

It’s budget time for schools, which means the beginning of a perennially awful time of year when teachers lose jobs and schools lose teachers. For whatever reason, budget time this year feels like a particularly brutal bloodbath, and it sucks. At a time of year when almost nothing feels like enough, we get told we’re somehow going to start getting by with less. After almost a year of sacrifice—just when we start to see some of our work pay off—we start to learn how different next year will be. We start to learn we won’t get to come back or that too many other people won’t be there. It sucks. So budgets and cuts are a thing, but not the thing I’m most worried about. What I’m really and truly disturbed by is the wave of teachers who have had enough—with their building, their boss, hours or the kids. What I’m worried about is all the teachers who leave. Except for all those teachers who really are sick of kids (" bye Felicia"), we are, as schools and as a system, losing teachers we need. We're losing teachers that could or would be better with more or something different. And you know what? It’s not their fault, and it matters, it  really matters when good teachers leave. Principals (and just like I use “teachers” to mean everyone who works with kids, I’ll use “principals” here to mean everyone who is supposed to be supporting teachers), the number of teachers you keep year to year says something about you. I know you’d like not to believe that, I know your job is easier if you ignore it, but teachers matter, and keeping them around is your job. When you lose good teachers, it’s on you. It’s not a bad time to mention that I think my principal is pretty awesome, and my assistant principal too, and all the other school leaders in my building. I like my building, and I believe in the work we’re doing. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t write this as a piece, I would write this as an email. Many many years, I’ve written this as an email: “Please care about your staff, please do something for them, please help them stay.”

Teachers Are Messy Because People Are Messy

Here’s what happens: Teachers are messy because people are messy. It would be easier (and also cheaper) if teachers didn’t matter that much, if implementing systems and curriculum packages mattered a lot more. So, we, schools and districts and whoever pulls the big levers levels above us, ignore teachers as much as we can. It’s a handy system, because look:
Hi everyone, we have this wonderful, innovative Whatever. Everyone has to use Whatever, and use Whatever in this way, so that everyone is the same and every classroom is the same because that is for some reason important. If Whatever works, it’s because we’re smart. If it doesn’t work, it’s because teachers didn’t implement it correctly, those damn teachers. If teachers leave, that’s ok, we’ll hire other teachers, and Whatever will still be there, so everything will be fine. Also, Whatever gives us tons of numbers and numbers and numbers that we can use to say all sorts of stuff about how great Whatever is doing. Whatever.
This model is compelling for lots of obvious reasons. You get to pretend you’re in control of what a whole bunch of messy humans do all day, and when things go wrong it is hardly ever your fault. Also, you have to do very little worrying about how anyone is feeling. It’s too bad, really, that both children and adults are both kinds of humans, and humans don’t work like that. Because really, the work we need from you is this:
Hi everyone, first of all, let me say “thank you for all that you do,” because apparently it’s, like, a required thing to say to teachers all the time, but then also let me specifically mention things you have done and how I’ve noticed you doing them and tell you why I appreciate them. Then, I will spend, I dunno…at least half the amount of time I spend looking for things you do wrong, I'll actually support and encourage the things you do well. Also, let me find time to listen to you, like actually listen, to what your day is like and what your students need, because here’s the thing I totally understand: Everything I do all day should matter to you in your classroom, because the work of any school and any district should be focused exclusively on what is best for the kids we are teaching, and should be focused on those kids, and should understand that those kids and their needs change from building to building, from room to room, from day to day. Because of this, we should value and support and encourage and inspire and recognize and push and protect the people doing the most direct version of the work. When our teachers are good, we should reward them. When our teachers speak up we should listen. When our teachers are tired we should help them. When we have teachers that connect with our students, that value our families, that have earned the respect of their colleagues, we should do everything, we should do anything, to keep them. Otherwise, we aren’t doing our jobs.
  Principals, every teacher that walks away from the kids in your building and is thinking of your face, it is your fault.
An original version of this post appeared on Mr Rad's Neighborhood as Hey Principals, You Are Screwing Up.
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."

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