Know what really makes teachers good?

  • Article by: MICHAEL KENNEDY
  • Updated: March 2, 2012 - 6:33 PM

Principals and administrators who lead, communicate and support.

When I started teaching, I had a question about the appropriateness of a play I wanted to direct with my students. I went to my principal and asked her advice. She replied, "You're the drama teacher; you know better than I do whether it is the right play to produce or not."

I did the play, and it went wonderfully.

A few years later, in another school, I had a problem with fellow faculty member. I went to my principal and asked her to help solve the problem. She rolled her eyes, then looked directly into mine.

"Have you discussed this with her?"

"Well, no ..."

"Look, you need to try to solve the problem on your own before coming to me."

I talked to the teacher, and the issue was solved in less than three minutes. I'd made a lot of fuss in my mind about nothing.

I've also had the opposite situations in my career.

One principal told a math teacher to record higher math scores for the black students because, "That's just the way it needs to look."

That teacher graded the kids as he saw fit and transferred out of the building.

I taught in a writing program where I was told, "Don't give them all A's but make sure to give all of them good grades. That's just how it is these days. And by the way, don't tell anyone we said this to you."

I graded them as I saw fit, meaning that some students didn't do very well, and I was never asked to teach in that program again.

I've been teaching for 37 years, and I know I'm going to be retiring in the near future. In all this time, I've worked for at least 14 principals. Of these individuals, five have been outstanding, and seven have been simply awful.

The others were good managers, but I wouldn't call them leaders. To me, the quality of the principal and the administrative team of the school is what establishes the quality of the teaching and learning within each building.

The current political witch hunt concerning seniority and teachers is looking at the whole problem from a far too simplistic and elementary angle. If we want good teachers, we need to make certain they are working with and for people who know how to lead, how to encourage creativity and how to judge performance.

This is not a union problem or a case of letting people ride out their careers until their pension kicks in. This is a problem of school systems allowing poor leadership to create environments of fear, limited thinking and poor communication. I've been in enough school situations to know what I'm talking about.

Those schools with lazy, indifferent and ineffective teachers are those schools where the principals see themselves as the center of the building. They feel they must control everything, make every decision, and silence anyone who may have a different point of view.

Schools that are effective have principals who see their role as that of a support position. They talk to teachers. They find out what teachers need and help them find tools for effective work. Their doors are open to discussions, contrary opinions and debate.

At the same time, effective principals know how to remove ineffective teachers, and they do it quickly. I've seen too many principals keep poor teachers because they can control them. There are ways to remove bad teachers, and good principals know how to do this.

Effective principals and administrators do not fear teachers or see them as the enemy or as employees. They see them as colleagues and as the champions of the school.

The problem isn't seniority in our schools. The problem is effective, open leadership, as opposed to closed, ego-driven leadership. Teachers have to deal with an amazing amount of issues. Young teachers can quickly become confused and lost in a school. Having effective and generous older and more experienced teachers there to help them with their work is essential.

Would administrators release teachers because of their cost? Some would not, but many would in a heartbeat.

If we want effective schools, we need effective teachers, but we will not get them through thoughtless legislation. We will get them through trust and dialogue. To change the current system is misguided.

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Michael Kennedy is an English teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.

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