What Teachers Need From Administrators While Shifting to Remote Learning

Editors Features April 20 / April 30, 2020

-Jon Harper and Mandy Froehlich with Phyllis Fagell and Joe Mazza-

We are all trying to figure out how to handle this unprecedented disruption of the school year and many are offering to help us navigate the rapid transition to online learning. But what do we need and want from school administrators during these stressful and demanding times?  More importantly, how do we tell administrators what we need and how do we communicate when what they are providing isn’t helping? Listen to the 12-minute panel discussion or read the transcript below.

 


Guest:

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. and a therapist at The Chrysalis Group. Phyllis frequently writes columns on counseling, parenting and education for The Washington Post, and she’s the author of “Middle School Matters” (Hachette, 2019). Phyllis blogs at phyllisfagell.com. Joe Mazza, Ed.D. is Principal at Seven Brides Middle School in the Chappaqua Central School District (NY). He is a strong advocate for middle-level ed, family and community partnerships and connected learning while embracing the idea of today’s educators serving as the lead learners in their schools. Joe’s innovative work has been featured in 17 books dating back to 2005.

 

Transcript

Jon:

In many districts across the country, the principal of the building is one of the few if only people who’s actually been in the building. They are the ones that have the power to set the tone for the teachers. Teachers often look to them during difficult times such as these.

Mandy:

That’s true Jon. But what if the principal or the leaders in a district with even the best intentions are just pushing too hard? They are in positions of authority, and they often are just kind of relaying directives that they have been given. Well today on Teacher’s Aid, we will be speaking with Phyllis Fagell, the school counselor for the Sheridan School in Washington, DC and the author of Middle School Matters. Also Dr Joe Mazza, the principal at Seven Bridges Middle School in New York. Joe and Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us today on Teacher’s Aid.

Jon:

Phyllis, she recently wrote a piece for Phi Delta Kappan titled Principal Seems Tone Deaf During This Difficult Time. I mean why did you feel it was important to write that piece?

Phyllis:

So that is an education advice column. and I was responding to a question from a teacher. I chose to respond to that one, because I had gotten a few that fell into the same category. It was so clear to me that that principal meant well. This was somebody who was going overboard to what I’m sure he thought was support his faculty. He was sending them jokes. He was sending them opportunities for them to post their curriculum and share their content online with one another, and to share trivia and answer trivia together. This teacher was, and they were meeting every single day as a group, so he wanted them to feel connected. But this teacher just felt like it was too much. It was missing her reality, which is that she was at home with very small children who were running around. She was on the verge of tears, and this approach just wasn’t working for her at all. She was trying to figure out how to talk to him about it in a way that was productive.

Jon:

I’m glad they asked that and I’m glad you put that out there. So Joe, how have you tried to keep your teachers’ needs in mind as you lead your building during these difficult times?

Joe:

So as a school leader, I don’t think that there’s ever been a more important time to serve as a leader, to be surgical about our plans, to value the social-emotional wellbeing of our teachers, just as much as we value that in our students. It’s about putting the oxygen mask on yourself before you help the people in your care. I think there’s certainly room for humor. There’s certainly room for we’re all in this together and none of us have kind of planned for this, have taught or led during this. But I think we’ve got to provide ongoing opportunities to listen, listen in different ways. When I get done speaking with you all, I have a staff meeting that’s by Zoom. But it’s an opportunity, a daily opportunity to check in. I’m in team meetings, so to speak. I’m checking in with people individually. Every way that you check in during the school day as a visible principal, you’ve got to find creative and innovative ways to do that on a day to day basis, and acknowledge, I don’t know all the answers. But guess what? We’re relying on our relationships that we’ve built together. You’re all relying on the relationships you’ve built with your students. So I think it’s about listening. It’s about understanding what’s going on, what people are hearing. Everyone is in a different situation. There could be people that are sick in the home, in the family, and there’s just so many things that we don’t know. Just keeping that communication line open and making sure that we’re there for them. We’re telling them what an amazing job that they’re doing because this is unprecedented. We talk about innovation every once in a while, but this is every morning we’re getting up, and at the end of the day our brain hurts. Not just from looking at a screen, but because we’re thinking so far out of the box every moment.

Mandy:

Yeah, absolutely. I think too, as teachers, we expect our leadership to be able to have difficult conversations with us when things aren’t working. But that kind of goes both ways. If it’s a teacher that’s really struggling with the way that the leadership is clearly doing their best to try to handle this as everybody is, I think it’s important that they’re willing to have those difficult conversations as well, or challenging conversations, crucial conversations, whichever one you want to call them and say, “Hey look, this is my reality. I really love that you’re trying so hard to keep us connected, but I can’t do this right now like this. This just isn’t working. Can we find sort of a happy medium?” Would you have any other kind of recommendations for teachers to do if they’re faced with a situation where they believe that their supervisor is expecting too much from them?

Joe:

Well, I think we’ve all got our own communication channels, the people that we go to. We’re implementing a buddy system here at our school, just in the event that one of us gets sick, a couple of us get sick, and we’ve got to be out for multiple days. Who’s going to plan the lessons? If there’s not a direct communication to the school leader, to the grade level chair, to the grade level leader, I’m hoping that there’s somebody in that building that they can speak with. If not in the building, maybe it’s somebody that’s a colleague or a friend. I think we can’t hold things in. As Phyllis recently mentioned in a blog post, we’ve got to regulate our emotions, and be okay with that and be real. I think validating those are a good thing, and just constantly leaving the door open, letting them know that wherever you are, I’m going to meet you where you are, and you’re going to be supported here. My expectations for you are just to make it through this beginning part of the year. I feel like we’re starting this school year over again, if we’re just launching distance learning. Again, you’re doing a great job. You’re working hard. I see it. We’re all under a tremendous amount of stress, and I value you. These are some opportunities for wellbeing and we’re doing the morning announcements every day on YouTube to bring the teachers and the families and the students together like we did in brick and mortar. But bringing teachers on every day, different ones. They’re surprised and they’re bringing something new, and so whatever we can do morale wise to continue to at least put some sense of consistency back into the picture, is going to be great for students, for staff and for families.

Jon:

So Phyllis, what about the teacher? I believe that’s definitely the case with you Joe, and a lot, most leaders out there. But there are teachers listening right now who would be scared to death to confront their supervisor. I mean their stress and anxiety is not going to go away. What can we tell that teacher who is afraid to even tell a friend? Or is afraid to even go to their principal, because they’re worried about what might happen? Or it might get relayed to the principal because as much as I hate to admit it, that’s probably the case out there in some places. What should, what would you tell them, Phyllis?

Phyllis:

Yeah, I can appreciate that. It would be harder to go to a principal who may not have the same touch as Joe. So for that teacher, hopefully, the principal has enough self-awareness to identify other people in the building who might be a first line of support. It could be even the school counselor. I’ve had a lot of conversations with teachers in my building since we started distance learning. It’s another way to encourage. You can encourage them to connect with their peers. I love that Joe uses a buddy system for content creation, but I think that that is also something that you could do as just to be supportive, or pair a younger teacher or a newer teacher with a more experienced teacher.

Jon:

Great idea.

Phyllis:

In this situation, it could go both ways because I know that there are teachers who are very experienced in the classroom but don’t have a lot of experience with technology. So trying to pair people who might have different skill sets or different strengths, but who could support one another might be helpful right now.

Joh:

I love that idea of the buddy teacher in many ways. That’s an excellent idea, Joe.

Joe:

I don’t think we can say it more. The technology is not what’s important right now. Being there for each other is important. All that fancy tech and all those tools will come, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to recreate school in a way that kids can understand and thrive from. Our teachers can learn at a minimum to communicate with them and begin to take that next step into this digital learning. We’re all growing by leaps and bounds in lots of ways. But just like we value the social-emotional piece of students, we’ve got to do that every day with staff and understand that we’re not going to know what’s going on in their lives.

Mandy:

Yeah. Yeah, and I do think, I’ve spoken for years about the fact that a lot of times when we focus, I’ve seen districts when they’ve started to focus on SEL needs for students, that in the process sometimes they tend to sort of throw the staff under the bus, for lack of a better term because it’s, “Well, we have to focus on SEL needs for students, and so you guys have to do this, this and this.” Unless we are focusing on SEL needs of our teachers as well, or social-emotional needs of our teachers, we can’t expect them to focus on the SEL needs of our student  because it’s just no human has that capacity to give themselves completely. And I also think that when we start to talk about technology in the form of this digital learning that we’ve kind of been thrown into, learning Google Classroom is important and things for pushing out content. But I also think that once we’re to a place where we can focus on technology, the important technology, the tech is the stuff that helps us connect with kids. It’s the Flipgrids and the Google Meats, and the ways that we can connect face to face and make those connections. So yeah, in closing the situation is kind of new to everyone like you guys said, it’s just unprecedented. So as far as supervisors and principals, they mean well, but we’ve established there may be times when they push too hard. So what’s your best piece of advice for teachers caught in the situation?

Phyllis:

I think we need to make sure that we give ourselves some grace and that we recognize that not only are we not going to be at our peak all of the time, but our colleagues also are going to be struggling, and to the extent possible recognize that this is an unusual circumstance and that we may have to do a little bit more backtracking, and a little bit more apologizing, and giving one another a little more support through a difficult time.

Joe:

I think we’ve got to continue to check on our colleagues. The people that seem to always have things under control and are fine, nothing bothers them, a lot of times, things are really bothering them. They’re just being a rock from time to time. But those people may or may not have a rock for themselves, so just checking in on your colleagues. Again, relying on the relationships, owning where your emotions are. We use the Mood Meter in terms of the Ruler program out of Yale. Not just to focus on our own emotions, but to check in with family members, to check in with fellow teachers, and of course the students who are also learning that.

Jon:

No, I think there’s nothing wrong with, even for the leader, for the teachers [inaudible 00:11:25] to say, “You know what? I’m scared. I’m not sure what to do next, but we’re going to do this together.” I think so often, especially we always read about in times of crisis, we need to be that rock. But like you said, sometimes it’s good just to tell a colleague, “You know what? I’m burnt out. I’m scared. I’m stressed.” Sometimes when they hear that, then they’re going to give themselves a little grace as well.






Editorial Leam
Editorial Team
This article was written by a collaboration of editors and columnists on the FLR editorial team or guest contributors.




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