This week are honored to have Nathaniel Day, an English teacher in Washington. His thoughts on leaders follow.
A friend of mine once had a job that required him to do some research on education policy in New York City. In the course of this, he met up with a principal who described his primary responsibility along the following brief lines: “My job is to make it possible for our teachers to do their jobs to the best of their ability.”
My own experience as a teacher is simultaneously broad and limited: eleven years in the classroom, spread across independent schools, public schools, and charters. I have not taught in one of the enormous suburban schools whose students I competed against in soccer and forensics when I was in high school. I have not taught in a KIPP-style, “education reform” movement school that emphasized behavioral rigor among students and the generation of quantitative data among teachers (in fact, I left a school that looked as though it was on the verge of becoming such an institution).
In the course of my medium-length career (longer than most teachers, but not as long as many others’), I’ve had many administrators who focused on the ways teachers might improve their teaching abilities. There were often forms involved, and plans made, and reflections written, and observations de-briefed. I won’t say that these weren’t helpful; I think focusing one’s attention on particular areas in which one wishes to improve can in fact lead to improvement. But I think a lot of administrators (in my personal experience, especially those who spent very little time teaching before going into administration) overlook the ways they can help teachers by freeing up our minds and work time to enable us to focus on doing well in the classroom and with our students. In my present position, in the high school English faculty of a successful charter school — successful by dint of a mission that is highly valued by administrators who carefully hire teachers who fit that mission, and by families who self-select very well to fit with the mission of the school — teachers benefit from a minimum of paperwork and “data”, a full-time colleague who helps plan major field trips and collaboration with community groups, and administrators who pick up many of the small, yet time-consuming tasks that are often assumed to be the duty of teachers in other schools.
The result is an environment in which administrators work very long hours (upwards of sixty hours per week) so that teachers only have to work long hours (forty to fifty hours for experienced teachers who have streamlined planning processes) during the school year. Not feeling constantly sleep-deprived, having the time to plan and grade thoughtfully, and feeling as though my administration has my back rather than constantly looks over my shoulder have made me happier and healthier now than at every school where I’ve taught since the high-end private K-12 institution where I began as a teaching apprentice fifteen years ago. This is because I am able to do my work to the best of my ability, because our school has good leaders.