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.
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.
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.
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