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Teachers vs. Administrators: Ending the Adversarial Relationship

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by Terry Wilhelm

An administrative colleague of mine recently retired from the school where she’d worked for many years and wrote a farewell open letter to her staff. As part of a warm, positive goodbye, she said the following:

Over the years, [our school] redefined itself. Teachers began to trust and work together to accomplish great things. As more and more teachers took leadership roles in school site council, leadership team, and the restructuring team, they came to trust “the administration.” So now I am going to be a bit preachy. I have stated it to some, but now I state it to all: those words are insulting and hurtful. They imply division, us-against-them, and manipulation or coercion. At least, when I hear those words, that is generally the [implication]. Most administrators have a solid history as teachers, association reps, and advocates for children. However, once assigned to an administrative position, too often all the background experience and empathy is lost in perception. I urge you to get to know your administrative partners before casting judgment and all too easily referring to those dedicated people as “the administration.” You have reached extraordinary heights of excellence due to teachers, students, parents, staff and administrators. It is a true partnership and villainy is not helpful.

As I reflected on this section of the letter, I wished that all teachers who disparagingly refer to “the administration” at their sites could read it.

Labeling teachers as troublemakers

Similarly, another colleague of mine — a newer administrator who was the former long-standing president of her district’s teachers’ union — attended a multiday professional development series for administrators I facilitated. In one session, I was guilty of making several stereotypical remarks about unions and union reps based on years of negative experiences in two former districts where I worked as a site- and district-level administrator.

While most of the group nodded their heads, my colleague took me to task –- very appropriately and respectfully — both publicly when I made these remarks and privately later. She reminded me that too often, teachers who raise questions to their administrators about new initiatives, especially if they make reference to the contract, are quickly branded as troublemakers and treated in a very dismissive manner thereafter. This reaction is both undeserved and obstructive to positive change for students.

I was grateful for her courage and willingness to challenge my perspective. As I talked through my experiences with her, I found it ironic to also recall that as a teacher, I had been a union rep myself for several years, and an active union committee member for several more.

Towards a true partnership: Tips for teachers and administrators

Since it is imperative for the adversarial relationship between teachers and administrators to end wherever it exists if we are to reach the goal of ensuring that all students graduate from our systems fully prepared for college and the global workforce, I offer the following suggestions.

 For teachers

  • Catch yourself before stereotyping administrators in general, and yours in particular. Trust is a two-way street. To improve trust, you have to participate, and a good place to begin is to stop yourself when these reactions arise automatically.
  • Use administrators’ personal names with their titles (Mr. Smith, Dr. Jones), or better yet, their first names (Don, Donna) instead of just saying “Smith” or “Jones.” This will make the person more human, both to you and to others.
  • Presume positive intentions for students; do not presume negative intentions for staff. This is a tough one, because as my friend’s letter pointed out, we tend to malign those with whom we disagree, especially if there is a history of disagreement.
  • Realize that administrative leaders have a moral imperative to put student needs before staff preferences. Try to break out of an adversarial pattern of thinking, especially before it becomes words you speak.

For administrators

  • Catch yourself before you pigeonhole an individual teacher based on negative expectations you might have about him/her due to your past history together. People can change – you can, the teacher can. As the leader, rebuilding trust must start with you.
  • Using teachers’ personal names, either with their titles (Mr. Smith, Dr. Jones) or their first names (Don, Donna) instead of just saying “Smith” or “Jones.” This helps you connect as people rather than job titles.
  • Do not stereotype teachers who are union members. Think back to your own teaching days: teachers may feel that you have forgotten what those days were like. Consider what common ground you can find between the teachers’ concerns — whether they are citing the contract or not — and the goals of your initiative for students.
  • Do not vilify teachers who disagree with you. Offer private forums for those who may appear to be intent on derailing your agenda in public; invite them to talk with you offline. A respectful, private conversation can unearth the personal agenda behind a behavior you find problematic.

Terry Wilhelm has served as a public school teacher, principal, district office and area service agency administrator, and adjunct university instructor in educational leadership. She is a regular contributor to Leadership, the bimonthly magazine of the Association of California School Administrators.

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