Last year, I wrote a post about how Justin Snider, who teaches education at Columbia, asserted that "the best principals are PRESENT, constantly interacting with teachers, students, and parents." I was especially interested in his comment about an intriguing if rough measure of how well a principal is doing the presence thing:
"[A] great back-of-the-envelope measure of whether a principal is generally doing a good job is how many students' names he or she knows. In my experience, there's a strong correlation between principals who know almost all students by name and those who are respected (and seen as effective) by students, parents and teachers."
I thought of Jason's assertions about the power of presence after getting this depressing email from a middle school teacher about her horrible principal. This boss defines lack of presence. I have reprinted most of the story below in this teacher's words, as I found it most compelling. But note the key point: "She never comes out of her office, and never spends time in the building, seeing how it functions. I can literally go weeks without catching sight of her." Scary, huh?
Please read the rest. If you are a boss, you might use this description as a bit of a self-test. Do you do this kind of stuff? Is this how the people you lead see you?
Also, this teacher is asking for advice about how to deal with this situation. What would you suggest?
Here is her story. Note she has taught at this school for over a decade:
I teach at a middle school. We have had a superintendent for five years. He’s no good, but largely did not touch the staff at my school because we had an excellent principal who did as you suggest – she insulated us from nonsense from above her. When she left for greener pastures, our super installed our current principal. (No interview process, no panel discussion. Hooray!) She’s probably a nice lady: shy, socially awkward, and apparently a “yes-man” for upper management. She reads books about “ideal” middle schools and then plans how to make ours match her vision. Alas, her vision after the first nine months was to transfer numerous successful people out of our building. She then changed the schedule, the teams, the grades we are teaching – essentially, she disassembled the school and rebuilt it from the ground up.
She never comes out of her office, and never spends time in the building, seeing how it functions. I can literally go weeks without catching sight of her – this in a smallish middle school of 540 kids and maybe 45 staff. She’s never taught above grade five, and we work with hormonal 7th and 8th graders. She is very uncomfortable talking to more than one person at a time, so doesn’t get “into it” at staff meetings with us. She has essentially disbanded team leaders, which was the democratic body in our school that used to hash out ideas and plan new strategies, with staff input. She has no one with feet on the ground feeding her information - consequently, her “ideal” visions and new structures are theoretical only – they are never held up to the light for discussion or dissection, to see if they’re workable or not.
One example: we no longer retain students who flunk more than two major classes in grades 7 or 8. Her rule. No staff input. Something about self-esteem? We’re not really sure – she’s never officially discussed or even informed us of this policy change. We have heard it through the grapevine. Meanwhile... A student of mine who flunked third quarter was informed by her that he can’t stay back no matter how little work he does for the rest of the year. Now, Bob, you’re not officially an educator – but imagine being a lazy 14-year-old boy and being told there will be no consequences for lack of effort in school. How much time are you going to spend studying or working on homework from April through June?
We, her staff, have seen the ebb and flow of parent concerns, scheduling glitches, social promotion, and poorly-constructed teams. We are long-term and short-term experts in our fields, with decades of experience among us. She doesn’t ask for our input in how to implement plans – and many of hers hit the ground like lead weights. People have tried to approach her in a variety of ways, but it’s clear from her reaction to us that any disagreement is seen as a dire threat to her. She has no confidence, and completely shuts down if she proposes an idea and the staff offers logistical questions or pushback. We literally do not know how to talk to her about what is not working, because she is so hypersensitive and easily flummoxed that we fear she can’t process it – and we fear more greatly that she will try to “get us” for expressing concerns.
We live in such a well of fear and distrust now, it’s hard for us to function. New superintendent is coming in July. We are crossing our fingers. In the meantime, I guess I’m hoping you’ll have some advice. What can underlings do to salvage things when the boss is fully incompetent to do the job – and is bringing the walls down around her as she pursues her incompetence?
What do you think? Any advice for this teacher other than to lay low and hope that her crummy boss gets canned by the new superintendent?