A “Welcome Back” Manifesto to South Brunswick’s Administrators

As South Brunswick kicks off a new school year, you can feel the excitement in the air. The aisles of Staples and its competitors are buzzing with parents and students eager to fulfill supply lists emailed and/or posted by their new teachers. Additionally, parents like myself are busy buying our kids new clothes, better technology and providing pep talks on the value of academic achievement and study.

Our students and teachers form the core of the vibrant community that we parents work extremely hard to sustain and support. Every class, every athletic contest, every school dance, every after-school event – we couldn’t do it without them. The community and its vitality just wouldn’t exist in their absence. It takes good students and passionate, diligent educators to make learning and creativity happen.  

All of this being said, you might have noticed that I did not add the term “administrator.” Administrators are part of the school community, to be sure, but they’re in a unique position that makes them very different than everyone else around them. Through the process of hiring, disciplining, managing and firing teachers they set the day-to-day tone for the entire school community. It takes years – even decades for a school district to build a working group of caring, effective, experienced and knowledgeable teachers, coaches, volunteers, etc. But what a school district can build in a decade, one or two administrators can wreck in six months. I’ve seen it happen.

While I am not speaking specifically about South Brunswick, from my perspective as an educator, parent and citizen, I’ve become wary of administrators. In my experience I have seen formerly superb, nurturing, achieving schools thrown into chaos at the hands of an ambitious, destructive administrator (or a set of them). I’ve seen good teachers silenced, intimidated and shown the door for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it was simply because an administrator didn’t like them, or that an administrator wanted to please another higher-up. Sometimes it was because an administrator considered an outspoken teacher a threat or a potential critic (typically, these are the most innovative educators as well). And while we all need to get along in any workplace, our schools are not typical workplaces. They are places where merit must win the day, because if it doesn’t, our entire educational investment will be squandered. And personally, we parents pay a lot of money for that investment.

For those parents and other residents who may not know, there is a lot of change going on in the administrative sector of education, and most of it is not good. Teachers are now held to new evaluation tools that, while originally intended to help them improve their practice, now provide administrators with greater leverage in getting rid of them, in increasing their misery, in making the professional atmosphere of our schools ‘toxic.’ Meanwhile, there’s been a titanic shift in paperwork in many districts that have led to an almost second job, albeit an uncompensated one, whereby teachers create, submit and correct endless unit plans, nonsensical “student outcome reports” and the like. None of these elements, not a single one, has contributed in my opinion to any improvement in classroom instruction.

So, with all of this in mind, I’d like to make a few short points to the educational administrators of South Brunswick, those leaders who command salaries that are frequently double that of our teachers:

1. You Work For Me. Yes, I know that sounds a bit, should I say, defiant, but make no doubt about it. As a town resident, taxpayer, and parent, you’re in my employ. My elected representatives have invested you with significant pay and power over the professionals that interact daily with my child. Even though I am not in the building every day, it is not your building. I pay for the instruction, the physical plant, the maintenance, the snow shoveling – everything. But most importantly, I pay for the community that provides the social, academic and developmental oxygen my child breathes. This community needs to be cared for and nurtured, not stifled, limited or intimidated – ever.

2. You Exist to Empower Our Educators. First and foremost, I am paying you to assist, coach, encourage, and of course, supervise the educators of our district. The fact that you can fire an educator is implied, but what is not frequently implied (and should be) is your core mission to empower them in their complex mission. I want our teachers to educate our children, to mentor them, to lead them, to challenge them, to help them grow. Teachers cannot do that if they’re in an atmosphere where you’re viewed as unstable, intimidating, sniveling or capricious. And if I found you you’re any of these, you’ll quickly hear from our community via email, letters and at Board of Ed meetings.

3. Avoid Obsessing with State Testing. Our testing culture has not lead to better schools or better educators. In fact, it is damaging the American mission to create the critical thinkers, leaders and innovators that our society was once known for. I understand there are some mandates that you must comply with, but do not let these mandates destroy the fabric of learning and support, as it has already in many of our nation’s schools.

4. I Am Holding You Responsible for Your Hires and Fires. Recruit and retain good people. Sometimes teachers have to be let go, and I understand that. But you hired the faculty, and if you’re going to fire someone, it had better be for a good, explicable, serious reason. I understand that specific personnel matters are usually held as confidential, but I’m not stupid either. If I see any pattern of teachers in their third year being fired, or if an otherwise talented, experienced educator being shown the door, my suspicions will immediately be raised. And frankly, if the statistics reveal that you’re firing something like 1 in 5 of the teachers that you’ve hired, I may ask why you are not being shown the door.

5. You Need to Lead. Administrators are paid to be leaders, and leaders in schools need to engage in community building. You need to reach out to teachers, parents and students, not rule by memo or email. You have to mingle and network. You need to cultivate a culture of inquiry, tolerance, calmness, collaboration, innovation and teamwork. If you operate like a tyrant, running our schools in an intimidating fashion, we’re going to find out.

6. Wow Me. I pay you a lot of money (did I mention that?). I want to see superb things going on in our schools. I want to see teachers fully supported in their instruction and professional development. I want to see theatrical productions, progressive social events, fundraisers and the like. I want to see you reaching out and forging relationships and creating programs with local hospitals, museums, businesses and universities. I want to see guest speakers and experts being brought into our schools and classes, sometimes directly, sometimes through teleconferencing tools like Skype. And I want you to provide regular updates, either via our website or through newsletters, on how you’re seeing this vision through.

7. Be Present. I want to see you at our events. You’re not a teacher. Teachers have papers to check and lessons to plan for. You’re an educational leader. Administrative team members should be present at events to encourage the community and cheer on students.

On Tuesday, I’ll be sure to carefully pack my son’s backpack with his supplies before sending him off to your capable care. To South Brunswick’s educational leaders/administrators I say: take good care of him, because I have my eyes on him…and you, too.  

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