How would you know what it’s like?

How Would You Know What it’s Like?Download a printable copy of this article (PDF 1MB)

  • Make no assumptions without the full story.
  • Listen actively to your staff.
  • Advice can be overrated.
  • Teach once in a while – get dirty!
  • Commit to being a demonstrative, instructional leader.

I thought it was a pretty run of the mill conversation about teacher practice. It certainly wasn’t a formal Performance Review conversation. I was simply following up. It was about 3.45 pm and I was visiting the classroom of a teacher who had had a rough day.

I knew this to be so because three times during this particular day a separate student from her class had been sent to the office for classroom infractions of various types.

“I like to get my hands dirty. Talk is cheap.”
– Chen Guangbiao

When these conversations roll around, I usually take a deep breath and a moment for thought before I enter the room. I remind myself not to make any judgements about my colleague’s performance without hearing her/his story first. This is particularly important with neophyte teachers who are learning and honing their craft. They don’t need me coming the heavy.

However, on this day I didn’t pause. This was a reasonably experienced teacher with whom I had a good existing personal and professional relationship. I felt assured that we could discuss anything, that the conversation would need no massaging and that we could freely get to the point.

My colleague told me about her day. It comprised one pencil case thrown by a student with a tough home life, a sweary outburst over a transient boyfriend and an inexplicable room departure tantrum by a student who was usually a model of calm and ease. My colleague was flustered but maintained a mood of optimism that tomorrow would be better.

Hindsight can be a powerful thing. I now look back on what I was doing while she told me her day’s adventures with chagrin. I consider myself a strong active listener – but I was clearly not listening that day. I was picking up only snippets and spending the rest of my time deciding what I was going to say next – which pearl of wisdom to impart? And my colleague knew it.

At first, my advice was endured graciously. Then the eyes rolled a little and the arms were gently folded across her chest. By the time the pen was forcefully pinged onto the desk I knew something was wrong. But what? What was wrong with my undoubted wisdom? And then she said it “It’s ok for you to give advice, but you don’t know what it’s like down here in the classroom.”

What?! Did she think I was hoisted into a principal position following a successful career delivering newspapers? How could she not know that principals actually become principals because they were teachers first – and often exceedingly good ones!

This was an epiphany. She actually didn’t know I was a teacher. And that was because, lately, I hadn’t shown her that I was. I’d become so single-minded in my leadership advisory pursuits that I’d forgotten what it was like to get my hands dirty, or covered in whiteboard marker, or to have them tremble in anticipation of a day like the one she had just survived.

It’s critical for school leaders to remember to teach occasionally. It has three simple and fundamental outcomes:

  1. It builds credibility from which advice and coaching can be accepted.
  2. It keeps your tools sharp in the areas most closely connected to student learning.
  3. It demonstrates your commitment to instructional leadership.

It doesn’t take a lot to show your staff that you get it. They don’t need you reducing their teaching load. They simply need to know that the person who is backing them, mentoring them and supporting them is up to the job. As the amazing Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.”

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