Sunday, March 23, 2008

For Principals: Relationships with Faculty

Two Competing Models

Let's begin with a 4 question quiz:

1) The parents of a boy in your school disagree with a teacher over a grade he received on an English composition. The boy made a "D"; the parents believe the essay merited a "B" or higher. After trying unsuccessfully to resolve it with the teacher, the parents come to see you. As principal you read over the essay and privately believe the parents are correct. What are you most likely to do?

a) Tell the parents you agree with them and change the grade. b) Meet with the teacher and ask him to explain the reason for the poor grade. If he or she cannot articulate an educationally sound reason, you allow the grade to stand. If not, you ask the teacher to change it. c) Meet with the teacher and ask him to explain the grade. If his reasoning seems unsound, you explain why you disagree with him, but you allow the teacher to determine whether the grade should stand. d) Ask the teacher to call the parents and work it out.

2) Who plans your in-services? a) The principal b) The central office (superintendent, etc.) c) teachers d) principal and teachers jointly

3) If a Catholic school is a Christian community, whose primary role is it to be the "spiritual leader" of the faculty? a) The pastor of the parish school b) The principal c) The theology faculty d) There is no particular person or department who has this singular responsibility.

4) Which of the following methods are you likeliest to use in assisting in the evaluation of teachers? a) Take a formal instrument to a teacher's class, record, and then review strengths and weaknesses with the teacher. b) Rely on departmental chairs and other senior teachers to do a form of (a) above. c) Solicit input from students and parents about the effectiveness of the teacher which is then shared with the teacher. d) Develop statistical information on grade distributions, standardized test scores and course evaluations by students for the teacher to study.

How did you respond? Of course there aren’t right or wrong answers; rather, your answers indicate the school paradigm you assume as you go about your job. In general terms, if your answers were mostly (a) or (b), you likely operate with a hierarchical model in mind. Relationships within the school are seen in terms of a line-staff order: Teachers over students, departmental chairs over teachers, principals over chairs, etc. In such a model outstanding principals are seen as those who are people of charisma and vision, directive, forceful, able to inspire the employees to action. The imagery might be of a knight leading his soldiers into battle while the townspeople cheer to support him.

If you answered mostly (c) or (d), you likely assume more of a collegial paradigm: Teachers are seen as colleagues, policies and directives of the school are generated by teachers, parents and students, the emphasis is not who one's boss is but who makes which decisions. In such a model the outstanding principal is one who can frame the right questions for faculty, generate consensus, foster healthy relationships between faculty members, those who can support and assist others to become excellent. The best metaphor is perhaps the player--coach, who as coach is always looking for the best combinations to make the team successful, but who as player is equal to his teammates and works alongside them.

It is likely that the school for which you work has elements of both paradigms, for few things in life are ideal types. Yet despite the profound changes in the Church since Vatican II toward a less hierarchical, less authoritarian Church, relationships between principals and teachers within Catholic schools remain largely unaffected by the theological shift some 40 years later. To be sure, priests have much less influence; most of our schools are staffed predominantly by lay teachers and principals. But the clericalism of the priests has largely been supplanted by similar attitudes of the lay leadership within the school.

I believe the tendency is seen most clearly in our communication with and about faculty. In Dr. Thomas Harris' dated but still useful book I'M O.K.--YOU'RE O.K.: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO TRANSACTIONAL ANALYSIS (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row) ,1967, the reader is provided with a method of analyzing communication. Basic to these methods is the assumption that all of us operate in one of three "ego states" whenever we act or speak:

a) The "Child" state, which is that part of us that thinks, acts and feels like a little child. Its predominant need is to get "strokes", that is, verbal or non-verbal feedback from others, attention;
b) The "Parent" state, which is the part of us that acts like a parent, particularly the part in us which nurtures the child in others, giving strokes, treating others like children.
c) The "Adult" state, which is the part of us that thinks in a detached, objective manner, weighing consequences, seeking facts, etc., almost like a computer.

My observation is that often we as principals operate in the Parental mode in dealing with faculty, whom we subconsciously treat like children. Consider the following:

1) How many of us, when speaking to other principals, refer to the faculty in our school as "my faculty"?

2) Have we written one of these?

"Dear faculty,
We have scheduled the last day of our year end faculty meetings to be a party. We are all busy people, but for the sake of building community I expect all of you to be there".

3) Do faculty call us by our first or last name when we are outside the presence of students?

4) Do we see it as one of our foremost responsibilities to "build up" teachers when they're in the doldrums?

5) N.C.E.A. has a program for principals called "Shepherding the Shepherds". Are we comfortable with imagery suggesting the faculty are sheep?

6) If a parent is angry at a teacher, do we try to act as a "buffer" between them?

7) If a faculty member asks us "what we think" about a project that he has just implemented in the classroom and we don't think very highly of it, do we shade our comments so as not to hurt his feelings?

8) If a faculty member is sick (let us preclude extreme cases), do we believe it is the principal's (or the office's) responsibility to find a substitute?

If we find ourselves answering "yes" to many of these questions, we have likely adopted a parental stance toward our faculty. The difficulty is that a relatively consistent pattern of this stance will breed a relatively consistent "child" response in them. In the long run, this is counter-productive. Faculty who need a shepherd to guide them are not likely those who take initiative and ownership for the school. The ultimate aim of a school leader--any leader--is to empower subordinates to become leaders themselves.


Anonymous said...

I have thought a lot of Faustin's new venture and departure from MCPS, and wanted to share a few memories of what I learned from him - both as a teacher and a student:

Reading some of this blog entry reminded me so much of working with Faustin as a new teacher myself. I know I made many mistakes that I wish I could now correct, but I learned so very much from Faustin, and always felt supported by him as the principal. I remember specific times when, having given a grade to a student, he consulted with me and provided a different perspective on the merit of the work. It was most beneficial for all involved. Regardless, I knew that he would not force me to change a grade or undermine my work in the classroom. One of the best pieces of advice he gave to me and other teachers: be sure to call parents and tell them when their child has done something good. Most calls a parent received were when there was a problem; rarely did they receive a call of acknowledment for a job well done. I remember very well calling one mom, I think a single mother, whose son was regularly in academic trouble. She picked up the phone anxious, thinking, "what now?". I told her how her son had really worked hard to bring up his grade and that he would pass the class because of his accomplishment. She was absolutely thrilled for the good news. A year later, when I was not teaching anymore, I saw the student at halftime of a Catholic High football game. He was a player on the team, and was heading to the locker, but made a point to say hi to me on his way in. I like to think (imagine?) that he appreciated the call as much as his mom did.

Other memories as a student:
- learning to read Scripture in a contextualist way, and having the bible come alive because of it.
- listening to rock songs and their parallel with some of the prophets of the Old Testament (Roxanne by the Police as an image for the book of Hosea).
- all the many writing assignments that stretched one's consciousness and moral development, on topics such as: "Are you Saved?"; "Is 'to each his own' reconcilable with being a Christian?"; "Name a time when you had to make a moral choice that affected others - what did you do?";
- the Senior retreat and he and Fr. Tokarz bringing in a great faciliator (from North Carolina?) for the weekend. among the many letters that we received on the retreat, reading Faustin's kind and warm letter.
- his taking the time during the summer to meet with me to help me figure out how to put together the finanicial pieces in order to attend college.

What an influence on me and so many others -- I wish him the very best and know his future students will be fortunate.

Kristin (Sadie) Schwarz
Class of 1988

Laura said...

I agree with this last sentence...whole heartedly. And our job as teachers is to make leaders of our students.