When I was serving as an interim principal, I had a surprising conversation. I was told that teachers, students, and parents all seemed to love me and the job I was doing. That comment was followed by the implication that I must be letting everyone do whatever they wanted to do.
I spent 19 years engaging in various areas of education. I was a science teacher in both public and private high schools and universities. I was both a school-level and district-level administrator. I even taught part time in an after-school religious school. With all that experience, there is one thing I can say with certainty: very few experienced teachers want a principal that lets everyone do whatever they want. To be clear, many teachers may think they want to be given free reign. However, even those teachers don’t want everyone else to have free reign.
So if teachers don’t want an administrator that is completely hands-off, what is it they want? The secret to happy teachers can be summed up in one word: “clarity.” Teachers want to know what is going on. Teachers want to be able to make lesson plans with a reasonable level of assurance that they will be able to follow those lesson plans, without surprise assemblies popping up every week. Teachers want to know what administrators expect from them, so that if they do something wrong, they know they did something wrong. Teachers don’t like surprises that affect their ability to teach.
There are multiple ways this idea of clarity can play out. The most obvious thing administrators can do is to try and plan out calendars well in advance, and to make those calendars available to teachers. Administrators expect teachers to plan their lessons in advance, so set them up for success. When the inevitable schedule changes occur, let teachers know as soon as possible and apologize for the inconvenience. That apology lets teachers know that you didn’t make the change lightly, so they are more likely to accept the change as a necessary evil, rather than the whim of someone who is out of touch.
An extreme interaction I had was when I had to let a teacher know that they would not be invited back the following year. The response from the teacher was, “I would have been surprised if I was invited back. You have been very clear about your expectations, and I am not interested in putting in the work necessary to meet those expectations. I would be happy to help train whoever you find as a replacement.” I will admit, I was surprised by this response. However, my expectations were clear, I gave regular feedback, and there were no surprises. Therefore, even when firing a teacher, I was able to keep the relationship non-adversarial.
In this current climate of teacher shortages, it is important to keep in mind that it can be really easy to keep teachers happy. Make your expectations clear, just like you want them to do with their students. Then, they will be happy because you are letting them do whatever you want them to do.