Three Things I Want Folks Beyond the Classroom to Know about Teaching.

Over the last few days, I’ve been having a conversation with a few close friends about the differences between the work of classroom teachers and the work of educational professionals in positions beyond the classroom.  

Perhaps the most important conclusion that we came to was that regardless of position, there are good people doing important work in both places.  The primary difference in our roles rests not in the demands of our jobs or the importance of our contributions, but instead in our preference for having a deep and meaningful impact on one small group of students or having a broader impact on the students of an entire school or district.

William Iven

Personally, I’m incredibly thankful for everyone who is willing to lead from beyond the classroom — whether as an instructional technology coach, a media specialist, a social worker, a guidance counselor or an administrator. 

I recognize that all of those roles accomplish important tasks for a system oftentimes without direct access to a single group of students — and it’s that direct impact that I personally crave the most.

I couldn’t imagine working in education without the positive feedback that I get from the day-to-day interactions with a single group of students.  I can see and feel the difference that I am making in the lives of kids because they are having a-ha moments in front of me all of the time.  People beyond the classroom have to look for evidence of the impact that they are having in other — and to me, less rewarding — places.

And because of the part time work that I do as a school improvement consultant and trainer, I know full well how difficult it is to move individual teachers, learning teams, and schools forward.  “School change” is REALLY nothing more than changing individuals — and changing individuals isn’t easy.  That means people working beyond the classroom require a patience and determination gifted by God to accomplish their work.

Need proof of just how hard it is to “change individuals?”

Try to get your life partner to change ANYTHING about their personal actions and habits and then get back to me.

More importantly, remember that helping teachers to change actions and habits is like 90 percent of the work done by people in roles beyond the classroom every single day.  ANY success is a small miracle when your primary responsibility is to change the actions and habits of adults.

#trudatchat

But there really ARE three things that I wish every person working beyond the classroom would know (remember?) about being a classroom teacher.

(1). I really can’t check my email and respond to you during “the workday.”  One of the defining characteristics of my work is that I don’t have any flexibility during the bulk of my school day.  My students roll through my classroom door at 7:45 and — with the exception of 16 minutes for lunch — don’t leave again until 1:30.

That entire period of time is a whirlwind for me.

I’m trying to deliver good instruction. I’m trying to answer a thousand questions.  I’m trying to collect missing work.  I’m opening stuck lockers.  I’m helping students find missing phones.  I’m soothing frayed emotions and negotiating conflict between both individuals and social groups.

What that means is if you are trying to get information from me, you are going to have to wait until my one free period of the day — which doesn’t start until every single kid is gone AND I’ve had the chance to hit the bathroom!

Sometimes, I think people working beyond the classroom — who generally have more flexibility and control over their schedules because they aren’t teaching an individual group of students who attend classes on a specific schedule — forget that.  Heck, just yesterday, I disappointed a colleague in a position beyond the classroom by not having something completed for them by the end of the workday.

“Didn’t you get my email?” she asked.  “I sent it at 10:38 this morning.”

My answer:  “Nope.  I was teaching students until five minutes ago.”

 

(2). I’m responsible for moving the work of a TON of other people forward, too:  One of the hardest things about being a classroom teacher is that I almost always feel buried under a never-ending list of tasks that I need to complete for people working in positions beyond the classroom.

The Equity Team needs me to fill out a survey about my perceptions on the role that race plays in my work.  The school improvement team needs me to fill out a survey on my thoughts regarding our school’s results from recent testing.  The PBIS team wants me to continue making positive contacts with the parents of students demonstrating the kinds of behaviors that we encourage in our building.

I have questions to answer about the progress that I’m making towards meeting my individual and team goals for this school year.  I have chapters to read for a book study that I am participating in.  I have to generate a new list of students with medical needs and then add that list to the materials that I leave for substitute teachers.  I have to pull work together for a student who is home bound for medical reasons.

My learning team’s benchmark has to be written — and then I have to meet with our school’s technology specialist to get that benchmark prepared properly so that we can track progress by student and standard.  I’ve got a list of students who are currently struggling in class that I need to develop individual intervention plans for.  I have to nail down a plan for delivering a universal screening assessment for my entire team in the next few weeks.

What that means is that there are going to be times when you aren’t getting my best effort and thinking, no matter what your role is or what task you are asking me to complete.

That’s not because I’m a slacker who doesn’t care or a difficult guy that doesn’t respect the importance of the work that you are trying to do.

That’s because there are twelve other people counting on me to complete items as a part of their area of focus.  In every circumstance, moving that work forward can only happen after consulting with me — but because EVERYONE relies on responses from me, I’m always behind or I’m always giving some tasks more of my mental attention than others.

Sometimes, I think people working beyond the classroom — who, in many cases, have the wonderful opportunity to focus deeply on one specific aspect of moving our building forward — forget that.

 

(3). Working directly with kids is still my first priority:  Probably the most important thing to remember as you work with me is that the day to day interactions that I have with students are ALWAYS going to be my first priority.

That’s for obvious reasons:  I really do have kids rolling through my classroom door every morning.  If I’m not prepared with engaging lessons, my day is going to be a huge grind!

But it’s for philosophical reasons, too:  I CHOSE to stay in the classroom with kids because those direct interactions mean more to me than anything.  Making them smile and helping them learn and seeing them succeed are the rewards that keep ME moving forward.

Here’s how that plays out in my own thinking: When I’m deciding how to use the limited time that I have for responding to demands for my time and attention, I’m prioritizing based on my own belief of the potential positive impact that individual tasks might have on MY work with MY kids.

Planning and preparation and responding to parents will always come first.  I know those actions matter.  I can see their impact on my students and families every single day.

From there, I’m ranking and sorting everything else that lands on my to-do list.  Some tasks get done quickly and with full attention and effort.  Others sit on my to-do list forever — or at least until I get a second (or third.  or fourth.  or fifth) email reminder that they need to be completed.

What that means is if you want me to prioritize your work, you need to do a REALLY good job selling me on the impact that your area of focus is going to have on my students.  I need a “convincing kid-centered why” before I’m going to give ANY new task my full professional attention simply because I’m ALWAYS buried in new tasks.

Sometimes I think people working beyond the classroom — who ALREADY understand just how powerful their area of focus — forget that.

Because they can already see the convincing kid-centered why behind the work they are doing, they assume that I can see it, too.  The truth is far more complicated than that.  Most teachers can see SOME value in ALL of the tasks they are being asked to complete — but if you want YOUR tasks to matter most to us, you need to find ways to show us the direct impact that your work will have on our kids.

Only then will you move us from simple compliance to full commitment — and only then will you start to see your work move up on our list of priorities.

Does any of this make sense?

Again — I know full well just how hard the work that people beyond the classroom are trying to pull off can be.  I do that work, too.  I’ve been a consultant in schools and districts for the better part of the last decade.  What’s more, I know the sacrifices people make when they move into positions beyond the classroom.  When you walk away from having a direct impact on a single group of students, it’s harder to find evidence that you are making a meaningful difference in the lives of kids.

That’s a trade-off I’m not willing to make — so I’m grateful for everyone else who HAS made that trade-off.

My goal with this post is simply to help people working beyond the classroom to better understand the reactions you are getting from teachers.  

__________________

Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach.

Does YOUR School Have an “Avoid at All Costs’ List?

Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

9 thoughts on “Three Things I Want Folks Beyond the Classroom to Know about Teaching.

  1. Kyle Hamstra

    Bill,

    As a fourteen-year classroom teacher now moved into a specialist position, I greatly appreciate this post. Even those of us who once taught in the classroom, even if just a few years removed, like me, need frequent reminders about how complex the classroom teacher position is, and yet that it is the lifeline of our schools today, experiencing more student interaction than any other educator professional, and maybe even more than student-parent interactions at home. In fact, a version of this post could be read aloud at staff meetings at least once a year.

    Done well and meaningfully–being a classroom teacher is really hard work! I once heard that “a teacher makes a thousand decisions a day,” and I would argue waaay more than that.

    Your constant theme of prioritizing students, student learning, and student interactions FIRST, above all other priorities, duties, and people speaks volumes about your vision, work ethic, and character.

    While reading and nodding along, I couldn’t help but to think how we could make it better. And off the top of my head, I don’t know the answers yet. Perhaps, we need to do some restructuring of schedules, duties, and expectations. At any rate, respecting and protecting prime instructional time between classroom teachers and students matters big time.

    Thanks for your post.
    Sincerely,
    @KyleHamstra

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      The solution to this, Kyle, is something NO ONE will ever go for: EVERY position in schools needs to include a component of classroom teaching. Maybe that’s something like being the educator in charge of one class per day every day for the entire year. Or maybe that’s something like working beyond the classroom for three years and then cycling back in for a year of full time teaching.

      But creating positions where people NEVER teach students — and deal with the responsibilities of being a teacher — again once they land their spot beyond the classroom is a recipe for disaster. You have people with organizational power and authority with no working memory of just what “the work” they are governing involves anymore.

      What’s extra frightening is that many of the people who land in those positions leave after just a short time of classroom work at all. They teach for five years or seven years and then move into positions of great authority and power within our system. That rarely happens in other fields — but it’s the norm in education.

      And what’s extra discouraging to me is that none of this will ever change because it would require people who hold the reins of organizational authority to willingly question their experience and ability and then willingly reimagine their role. There’s literally no incentive to do that outside of maintaining credibility — but because they are surrounded by people in the same positions as they are, there’s no reason to second guess their credibility to begin with.

      That’s the reason I’m so doubtful about change in schools.

      Anyway….
      Bill

      Reply
  2. kheywood34

    Thank you for this reminder. I really do try to keep in the forefront of my mind that I might be walking into a meeting with a group of teachers who just left a meeting with another out of classroom person after they just replied to an email from another out of classroom person. I do not always do that successfully, but these reminders help. One of my dreams would be an instructional team that was more communicative and on the same page about what we are asking teachers to do. Rather than a literacy initiative and a tech initiative and an assessment initiative, we have a Student Success initiative that married those things together. I love the idea mentioned above about lists of what’s on teachers’ plates and how we as a support team can remove things or assist with those tasks!

    All that being said, thanks for vocalizing the difficult (and often exhausting) task of moving individuals and schools toward change. You’re right, it’s definitely a different kind of reward!

    Reply
  3. Learning with Lucie

    So much of your post resonated with me. I remember the 30 years I spent in K12 (more than 22 with my own students enjoying the benefit of those AHA moments you described. I remember going to a workshop at a conference lead by a time management specialist and thinking that this guy really has no clue that classroom teachers cannot ‘block off chunks of time in their calendar with the door closed, to check things off their list organized by like tasks.” During the 8 years that I spent as an out of the classroom educator / tech integrationist, I tried to do everything I could to relieve your day to day duties whenever I asked you to do ‘something for me) Sometimes it was ‘take a group of your kids to lead a learning tasks or take something else off your plate like collate or organize materials. Sometimes my husband would state “you seem willing to spend an hour to save someone 5 minutes” — I would then explain Like you did in this post – why teachers have such great bladder control! I think your post is a great reminder to those of us no longer ‘in the classroom’ of things we can do to get your support with some of the systems work. Even something as simple as long hallway conversations or photo copier meetings while waiting for copies can help. Advocating for teacher time to be built in for some of these out of the classroom responsibilities or always asking – ‘how does this directly impact students’ and prioritizing our own request this way.

    You mentioned one of the benefits of out of the classroom roles as having the time to thing deeply about things – this is such a benefit for me now. How I wish every teacher could have both – those direct contact moments that fuel us AND also the benefit of time to think, process, create in long blocks of time required often required for deeper thinking. I had a superintendent who told me his goal would be for every classroom teacher to have a sabbatical where they would have to take a year out of the classroom to regenerate, think deeply, learn out of the classroom. Obviously that never happened for him, but I have seen schools where classroom teachers get to spend a couple of year in an out of classroom experience, thus engaging in needed periods of deep thought, systems work, state of flow as they create as oppose to 15 minute chunks of prep time. I also believe that every out of classroom educator/school leader should have to spend a year back in the classroom every so many years to keep their license.

    Thank you Bill, for the thoughtful posts. Sorry this got a bit long, maybe I should go add it to my blog! Your post definitely resonated. I ended up sending this comment to my blog after all
    http://learningwithlucie.blogspot.com/2017/12/important-reminder-for-educators-no.html

    Reply
  4. Melanie

    Bill,
    As a person who supports classroom teachers in hopes of helping to make everyone’s day a little better, I appreciate everything you do. From the day to day instruction, to the kind words to the student having a rough day, to the extra efforts in helping to make overall improvements to the school you work in-I see and recognize all you do. I recognize the day to day struggles of a classroom teachers and that is why I do what I do.

    As a person who is one you speak of as “beyond the classroom”, my hopes are that I can support you support our students. I don’t meet or teach with you to make your life as a teacher harder or put more on your plate. I work with you in hopes of helping to make learning even more spectacular than it already is. I’m not trying to make teaching harder or more burdensome, I’m only trying to help.

    It’s people like you who remind me what is the most important focus- our students. The bigger picture however is if we (the people beyond the classroom) are not willing to empathize with the teachers we work with and truly support than we are not supporting what’s at the core of our mission. Reading your thoughts have reminded me that perspective is important.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and helping me #becomebetter everyday!

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Melanie,

      I totally get that no one working beyond the classroom is trying to make our lives harder — but by default, all y’all do!

      I also get that every person working beyond the classroom — particularly determined and competent and passionate folks like you — has incredible value to add to my work and that you can make my work easier with your expertise and know-how.

      The hitch is that there are a LOT of you who are ALL doing good work and who ALL need me to take action in order for anyone to become better — and there’s just not time to completely invest in all of those different directions.

      I think people beyond the classroom forget — or downplay — the intensity of those demands on our time and attention. They say things like, “But if you just gave me five minutes, I could make your life easier” without realizing that combined with the five minutes that the other fifteen people working beyond the classroom want from me, every minute of my day is completely swallowed up.

      Because you have the luxury of focusing on just one topic, you don’t get peppered by the same number of demands — or you can ignore demands that don’t apply to you. As a teacher, EVERY demand applies to me. What’s more, while what you are asking teachers to do may be completely and totally reasonable, given the context that teachers work in, those reasonable demands end up feeling completely overwhelming.

      This isn’t an issue of value or intent. This is an issue of volume.

      Does that make sense?

      Rock on,
      Bill

      Reply
      1. Melanie

        Bill,
        I hear what you’re saying. I’m reading to understand, not reply. We should all look through different lenses to #becomebetter You opinions and reflections matter.

        Reply
  5. Brig Leane

    Great balance of giving credit to both groups! As a principal, your blog was a great reminder of teacher priorities. This fall I had my leadership team create an exhaustive list on chart paper of everything on their plates. We then started taking things off. Those chart papers are on the wall in my office as a constant reminder of what is already on teachers plates, when I think about adding something.
    Very true about the challenges of the change process – DuFour and colleagues said, one of the greatest myths is that the change process, if managed well, will proceed smoothly.
    Great blog – Thanks Bill!

    Reply

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