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Your Principal, Your Ally

How to create a great working relationship between administration and staff.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Remember how you learned to spell ‘principal’? With emphasis on the last three letters? Too often the relationship between educators and administrators looks nothing like the supportive, mutually beneficial partnership that would be best for educators and their students.

Yes, there are plenty of wonderful administrators out there, many of whom are Association members. You know them: They move mountains to make sure you have what you need to succeed in the classroom. 

But there also are the few poison principals: The under-miners, the grade-changers, the know-it-alls…. How can you possibly have a productive working relationship with them? How do you make your principal, if not your pal, then your ally in education?

Your Goal: Collaboration

First, you can take a page from your colleagues who have been there – both the ones who sit behind the teacher’s desk, inside the school bus, or elsewhere on campus, and also the ones inside the principal’s office. They understand what it takes to make a relationship work.

Sarah Applegate, a teacher librarian from Lacey, Washington, remembers the turning point in her relationship with administrators. It was 10 or more years ago, and she was working hard to get students to improve their reading test scores, as well as read more for pleasure. An administrator came to her with a program idea that she encouraged Applegate, a new teacher, to develop. “I felt empowered by her willingness to give me a great idea to lead,” she recalls. “I think this moved me from a ‘supervisor/teacher’ relationship to more of a collaborative one.”

The educators who most value their relationships with principals almost all use that word – “collaboration.” They see their administrator as somebody who can actually help them get what they need.

“The principal was the enemy when I was a young teacher, and I considered him or her to be the ‘big bad boss,’” echoes North Carolina middle-school teacher Cindi Rigsbee. “When I became more experienced, and therefore more confident, I began to treat the principal as a colleague, someone to bounce ideas off of and someone to plan with. Of course, that type of relationship begins with communication.”

The Don’ts

 How do you talk to your principal? First of all, consider how not to talk to them. Don’t get angry. Don’t be quick to snap back. Even if you think they’re about as bright as that broken stadium light, they are recognized as the educational leader of the school.

“Don’t be insubordinate,” advises Virginia UniServ manager Marlene Reagin.

But don’t go crazy in the opposite direction either. Do not become overly friendly. “The number one thing I've learned, as harsh as it sounds, is you aren't friends with a boss,” says Kentucky teacher Jason Hubler. “When you make personal connections with someone who is basically a supervisor and evaluator, you're opening the door to personal evaluations. From my experience when you build a friendship with a supervisor you open the door to all of the misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and other things that come along with a personal relationship… ‘Friendly’ does not mean ‘friends.’”

And one more cautionary note: Don’t make the principal’s office a dumping ground for your complaints. Fix this! Fix that! “In previous years, I ‘backed up the truck’ and dumped all of my frustrations on him right in his office,” Rigsbee recalls. But they’ll get as sick of hearing it as you would – and, most likely, just stop listening.

The Dos

When it started working for Rigsbee, she “began to talk with the principal instead of at him,” she says. That is real communication.

Consider having, if not a script, at least a plan for your conversations. What do you want? How are you going to get it? Applegate, the teacher librarian, always schedules meetings with her principal to present her plan for the year. She considers what she wants and needs to do her job, but also considers the goals of the principal. “I try to research what they are interested in working on, and figuring out how I can help that goal,” she says. For example, if math is the issue that year, how can the library program help math?

Do your homework before making any request, Rigsbee advises. She recently asked her principal about funding – always a touchy subject – for a summer reading program. But he was open to her suggestions because she had collaborated with other teachers first, and researched exactly what and how much was needed.

Make them feel involved. When Barbara Coleman-Brown, an NEA director from Lynchburg, Virginia, noticed that her principal was suddenly visiting her classroom after she missed school for NEA business – a definite sign that he was feeling a little hot about her absences – she took positive steps. She started to provide him with briefings about her NEA meetings. Better informed, he began to feel like an ally.

Consider putting your request or other communications in writing, so that there’s no risk you’ll forget what you wanted to say. When Maryland support professional Lorraine Snyder, the bank manager at her high school, got a new principal who didn’t necessarily understand the ins-and-outs of Snyder’s financial work, Snyder wrote her a letter at the end of the year, detailing the successes and improvements that Snyder had supervised that year, and also pointing out areas that Snyder would like administrative support to improve.

She also asked, “Is there anything you want me to try?” Says Snyder, “We didn’t have a bad relationship, but it improved. [The letter] really helped to open up communication.”

And finally, say thank you, reminds California speech-language pathologist Pamela Greenhalgh. “Teachers and support personnel like pats on the back for good things that they do – administrators are no different.”

Behind the Principal’s Desk

Another way that teachers and education support professionals are like administrators? The men and women in the big office also want your students to succeed. Melanie Pealor, an NEA member and assistant principal in Oklahoma, sees a big chunk of her job as making sure her educators get what they need to make kids succeed.

“I just want to know they’re here for the kids and that they’re helping the kids be successful,” Pealor says. And, because her teachers know that she’s working hard to get them the very best professional development, the very best technology and resources that she can possibly afford, and the very best support, it creates a relationship of mutual trust and support.

“I can depend on them and they know they can depend on me.” And, when she can’t get them something, she says so. “Sometimes I have to say, I’m sorry, I can’t make that happen.”

It helps to make everybody’s expectations clear, Pealor says. For example, before doing any kind of evaluation, Pealor says she sets out exactly what she hopes to see. That way, there aren’t any surprises.

When It All Fails 

Okay, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. You’ve got a problem on your hands – or down the hall – and he or she is just making you miserable. You know you can’t make it work, but you still shouldn’t let it get you down. First, know that you’re not alone. You won’t be the first person who has found himself in an unworkable situation.

Second, call your Association rep or UniServ manager. “If you’ve been reprimanded, you need to contact us directly. We will help you with a response,” says Reagin, the Virginia UniServ director. If you get something in writing, you should always respond in writing – and that rebuttal should be short and informative.

Even if you see that the best strategy is an exit, you’ll still have to make the best of a bad situation – at least for a little while. Consider this: Even if you intend to leave that school for another, the first person that a new principal will call is the old principal, Reagin points out.

But your Association can help you write a résumé and work on getting a transfer. (You should use “positive reasons” to explain wanting that transfer, Reagin advises. Maybe you like the programs at the new school and feel like you have unique skills to support them.)

Know this too: Just like you, principals get evaluated, too.

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