Through Their Eyes: What Teachers Want Their Principals to Know

Psst!  Principals, over here.  We need to talk.  This blog post is for us.  More specifically, it’s about what we can do to support the most hard-working, amazing people I know: teachers.  It’s a rough time to be a teacher.  They are asked to do more and more with fewer resources and less support.  They likely have more students in their class each year and less dollars in their paycheck. Often times it’s easier for society to blame the teachers instead of looking in the mirror and facing the real problems that plague our country: poverty, lack of affordable healthcare, and opportunity inequalities.  These are big issues that we need to tackle, but they likely have long, slow solutions.  Fortunately, as principals, there are things we can do immediately to better support and appreciate our teachers.

I really want to be a good principal.  I care deeply about the students in the building and want them to have every opportunity to reach their full potential. I want my teachers to see themselves as I see them.  I want my teachers to feel valued, appreciated, and HAPPY.  I know I often come up short being the principal they need, but I am determined to do better.  If principals are going to better support teachers, we need to understand what they need and what they want us to know.  I can’t think of a better way to find this information other than asking.  So that is exactly what I did.  I sent the following email to several teacher friends from all different schools.



I am working on a blog post for the new year.  I know the culture and climate surrounding teaching has been negative lately.  I know you probably feel like principals don’t always know the struggles, fears, obstacles, and vulnerabilities that you feel as a teacher.  If you have time and you’re comfortable, please respond to the following question:

What do you want your principal to know about your teaching, your classroom, or your students that they might not know?

All responses will be kept completely confidential.  The responses may be used in the blog post, but no names will be tied to any of it.  

Thank you in advance for your responses.



The responses were both incredible and eye-opening to me as a principal.  They were eerily similar to one another.  Regardless of the building, the grade level, or the experience level of the teacher, each and every response had a very similar message.  Here were the most frequent responses:

“I want my principal to know that I am doing my best and even though I make mistakes, I’m working to improve.”

“Don’t punish me for a job well done.  I can’t serve on every committee and serve on every team.  It is burning me out.”

“A little acknowledgement goes a long way.  A simple note, text, email, or passing word in the hallway makes my week.”

“Check in with me and be available.  I need a principal to listen.  I don’t need a solution to every problem but I want to know my voice is heard.”

“When you make a mistake, as we all do, own it.  Admit the mistake and try to correct it.”

“I want the principal to be a real person who is visible to teachers, students, and parents.  Be involved in the school activities and not just sitting in the office.”

“We believe in your (or the district’s) vision, but stick with it.  Give us time to implement new strategies and programs.  We can’t chase every shiny new idea.  Let’s pick good practices and perfect them before abandoning them or trying something new.”

However, this was the message that rang the loudest to me:

“Don’t forget what it’s like to be in the classroom.  The stresses, the demands, the pressures, and the many balls in the air.  Remember that lessons go wrong, especially when trying something new.  Teaching and learning is messy.”

I love the rawness and honesty of the responses I received from teachers.  They weren’t bitter, although you certainly couldn’t blame them if they were.  When they complained about lack of services, class size, or resources, it wasn’t because it was an inconvenience to them; it was because they cared deeply about helping their students.

We need to be better about acknowledging the tremendous work they do each day.  This can be a quick email, text, kind word in the hallway, or a sticky note on their computer.  We need to check in frequently and ask how we can better support them as teachers.  This can take many forms including covering classes for them so they can observe colleagues, providing more opportunities for collaboration and professional learning, and giving them time to implement new strategies.  We need to stop bouncing from new idea to new idea.  Instead, let’s focus on getting better at the strategies we are already using.  If we are going to preach for teachers to innovate and be risk takers, we need to understand that lessons will not always go as planned.  Teachers need to be praised for taking risks, not punished for a lesson not going perfectly.  I often tell my teachers, “I would rather have a lesson be a complete disaster while trying something new than have everything go according to plan with an outdated practice.”  

The message teachers want us to hear is loud and clear.  They are working as hard as they can.  They are doing everything in their power to help the students in their classroom.  The classroom is where the rubber meets the road.  Teachers are the ones working directly with students.  The responses to my email provide a roadmap on how we can better support them.  Principals, let’s make sure 2018 is the year every teacher in our building knows that we have their back and support their work.

Lessons from Star Wars

I write this post immediately upon coming home from seeing the newest movie in the Star Wars franchise: The Last Jedi. It likely comes as a shock to nobody who knows me even modestly well that I’m a giant nerd, especially when it comes to things like fantasy/sci-fi movies, books, religion, and technology. Star Wars encompasses essentially all of that.

But beyond all of that, I’m also an educator, and I’m nearly always thinking of students as they go through their lives as developing humans. And I’m a sucker for a good metaphor.

So as I was watching The Last Jedi, I was thinking about teaching. I’ll keep this spoiler-free, but as is common in these sorts of movies, nearly the entire movie is based around battles. And those battles are often framed for us as good versus evil. Right versus wrong. Light versus dark.

I was getting inspired. I was getting pumped up and thinking of how important it is to be a part of the battle in education. That our students are worth fighting for. That we should be the resistance to oppressive practices and political moves that hurt our students. There was even a thought about battling against students who are tough to teach, but that we can reach them all. Etc., etc., etc.

Then it hit me. The thing that was so inherently wrong with my metaphor and therefore my whole line of thinking.

Teaching is not a battle.

Teaching is not about going toe-to-toe with our students who present us with the most difficulty. It’s not about fighting against those who use practices we believe are incorrect or even harmful. It’s not about fighting for our students. We’re not “on the front lines” or “in the trenches” when we enter into our classrooms.

If that is the case, if we are soldiers in a battle, then who are we fighting against? Are we fighting parents? Students? Administrators? An intangible, general ignorance and passivity?

I can’t reach a student if I view them as an adversary. In my first draft of this post, that was one sentence and then I went on to the next, but I want to pause here for a second to state that again. WE CANNOT REACH OUR STUDENTS IF WE VIEW THEM AS ADVERSARIES. I can name a few students who I have viewed that way, and guess what? I didn’t do a great job of teaching them. The students lost out because of my views.

I do a disservice to the home life of my students if I view their parents as the enemy. Maybe I think their parents are wrong. Maybe they’re overstepping their bounds as parents and telling me what to do as an educator. I have met plenty of parents who I felt were out of line when it came to the education of their child. Who I felt were making poor choices on behalf of their child. I have never met a single parent who makes decisions on behalf of their child that they believe will be detrimental to their child. That being said, I bet parents like that exist. And if you teach their child, then you have to know that that student of yours goes home to those parents. You are with them for a year, or maybe a couple years. They are likely with their parents for decades. We can’t lose sight of that perspective and start painting a picture of the parents as enemies, even if we just think that to ourselves. It’ll inform what we do and how we treat both the parents and the students, and the students will lose out because of our views.

I bring down the entire culture of my building if my administrators are my foes. And I will own that last one: I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I regret the toxicity I fed into. The adults in the building were fighting, and the students lost out because of our views.

We have to focus on ways to keep it positive. We have to make sure the students succeed and have gains because of our views, not lose out. The “battles” I mention in this post are not bad things to “fight” for. We should be looking for the best for our students. We should promote best practices and be up on the current research. We should be advocates for our students in the political sphere. If parents or administrators are coming to us with things that we think are wrong, we should find ways to address that and be better as a team. It’s not about the things that we might say are worth fighting for. The problem is we shouldn’t be fighting at all. We cannot lift up those in our care if we have to tear someone else down in order to make that happen. We must always be bridge-builders and connectors.

Teaching is about empowering every young person who comes through our doors to be the most well-informed and best person they can be. And there are plenty of metaphors that can help us with understanding the work we do.

Let’s leave the fights and the battles out of it.

The Shamash, The Helper


‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the world
All the presents were opened, all the wonders unfurled;
The hugs were all given to those loved so dear,
In hopes that this light and this warmth lasts all year.

As many as two billion people around the world celebrated the Christmas holiday yesterday. Here in the Midwest, it was a beautifully sunny, snow-covered day, reminiscent of childhood holiday seasons. It stirred up the nostalgia in my Christian-raised husband, as he fired up Netflix, searching for “White Christmas”, while I washed out the hot cocoa mugs our family sipped from that evening.

It had already been over a week since my menorah was cleaned of melted wax and placed back in the china cabinet, and the air was cleared of the smell of latkes sizzling in hot oil.

“So, is Chanukah like Jewish Christmas?” asked my dental hygienist a few weeks ago as she scraped and prodded, while I could do nothing more than respond with garbled grunts. Finally sitting upright and all instruments of dental torture out of my mouth, I shared the Reader’s Digest version of the holiday’s history…

Over 2,000 years ago, King Antiochus ruled over the land of Judea, and decided that he wanted all of his subjects to worship Greek gods. The Jews were not down with this plan, as they were a monotheistic people who prayed to one God.  One of those Jews, Judah Maccabee, possibly a Jedi, gathered his fellow resistance fighters, and fought back against Antiochus’s army, pushing them right out of Jerusalem. The Jewish people went right to work cleaning and spiffing up the Temple, restoring it to its original state. They decided to light an oil lamp, but seeing there was only enough oil to last one day, they expected their light to burn briefly…however, the oil continued to burn for eight days! Chanukah, “The Festival of Lights”, is now celebrated to recall this miracle and success over those who wished to oppress them.*
*So, no, Chanukah is not Jewish Christmas.

One of the enduring symbols of Chanukah is the menorah, the nine-branched candelabra which is used to recreate the burning of the oil in the Temple. Chanukah lasts eight days. Each night, a new candle is lit on the menorah, until the 8th night, when the entire thing is ablaze. But, WAIT!!…say my mathematically-minded readers. There are eight nights, but nine branches. That does not add up! Ah, there is, however, a ninth candle, which takes a humble, yet significant role in lighting up the menorah each night.

The Shamash, the ninth candle, is Hebrew for “servant” or “attendant”. It is also informally known as the “helper candle”. On a traditional menorah, the shamash is usually in the middle of the menorah, either taller or shorter than, or set off to the side of, the other 8 branches. The job of the shamash is to kindle the light of the other candles, which then provide a full menorah’s worth of light. The menorah’s light is not meant to serve us, to read or do work by, but to illuminate the darkness, to chase the shadows away.

There is a beautiful sentiment to consider in that the menorah’s light is not created selfishly for us, just as the world was not created for any single one of us. The Earth does not belong to us. We are here to be stewards of this place we call home, maintaining it for everyone else we share it with and for those who have yet to exist. Just as we are caretakers of the Earth, the shamash attends to the lighting of each Chanukah candle. If a candle accidentally flames out, the shamash takes up the task to light it again. One unglorified, plain candle has the ability to bring light to the darkness.

This Chanukah season, after a year of heightened anti-Semitism in the United States, lighting the candles left me pondering the metaphor of the shamash as the candles burned each night in my home.

How can we be a shamash in our teaching lives? How can we kindle the light in others?

With our coworkers, we can be patient, supportive, collaborative, reflective.

With our school’s families, we can be kind, helpful, thoughtful, communicative.

And most importantly, with our students we
Give them a pencil when they need one
Offer hugs, fist bumps, and high fives
Share a snack when they don’t have one
Talk about their lives and the ever-changing world around them
Show them how to be a good friend
Listen to their stories
Validate their stories
Teach them how to amplify their stories
Introduce them to diverse, life-changing books
Make time for them to read those books
Allow them to wonder, explore, be curious
Tell them they are important and unique
Let them teach
Learn from them

We find it is in the simple acts, the quiet moments, the ordinary interactions that we have the opportunity to be a shamash, a helper, with our children. As teachers, we serve our students best by raising them to be stewards of not only this Earth, but of the people who populate it. When we light that fire in our students, they learn how to become a shamash of their own someday, attending to others for the greater good. It is never too late to kindle a flame, or to rekindle a flame that has extinguished. Once ignited, it may last a day, or eight. Or a lifetime.


You don’t have a pencil, but you have…

The day before break, there is joy in the air for most teachers that is nearly tangible. A much deserved break is upon us. For many of us, it’s two weeks to rejuvenate. Two weeks to catch up with our friends and families. Two weeks to relax and to focus on us—which is perfectly okay—rather than on everyone else.

When we come back from break, our interactions with kids will reflect this “down time.” We will be more patient and more lenient. We will be friendlier and, perhaps, our truer selves. Having had time away from the stress and the constant push to do more for those who need it most, we will be fresh again.

But it won’t take long for some of us—and I will admit that I have defaulted to this before—to show a side of us that isn’t the positive person that we once wrote about in our undergraduate teaching philosophies.

So with this post, I want to address the elephant in the room after winter break: How can a kid have that new __________ (insert object, item here) but can’t seem to ever bring a pencil to class?

Admit it. You will wonder it. You might think it. You might even really, really want to ask.

But what will it accomplish to ask the student, particularly in front of their peers or the class? How does it improve your relationship, which actually does matter for teaching and learning to occur, by snarkily asking about their lack of supplies?

Quick answer: It doesn’t.

Long answer: It can do irreparable harm. You’ve made the student feel inferior and stupid. You have implied that they don’t value your class, or that they value it less than another material object, like a cellphone.

But if you talk to the student, you might just find out that during the holidays, they had a parent re-enter their life temporarily. For some students, it is all too common to have a parent come back in their life during the Christmas season and then to disappear again. As one student shared with me, every year his dad buys him a new cellphone, computer, or something that’s expensive because his father thinks that the amount he spends on him will demonstrate how much he cares.

The student shared with me that he knows better. The visit will be temporary instead of permanent. It will last long enough to resurrect pain from so many years of absence. And then he will disappear again. But that doesn’t mean he throws away what he was given. But while he might still use the gift, it does not have to become a reminder from us when we see that he doesn’t have a pencil the next time he’s in our class.

I even could go on and on about the desires of humans to fit in, even though some of us don’t. For some students, getting that one item is the only thing they want and keep asking for because it feels like everyone else around them has it. (And let’s be real: We all have bought things that we didn’t need because others had them. Raise your hand if you ever purchased a Beanie Baby.)

I recently saw this Facebook post that went viral about parents pretending that gifts came from Santa.


I don’t share it to advocate the message about Santa, but I do share it to emphasize the point about the disparity in Christmases that exist with so many of our families. I will be the first to say that teachers are overworked and underpaid, but I also know that we can forget that we sometimes live much more comfortable lives than most in the communities we serve.

The easy way out is to judge and assume. The more difficult route, the route where we seek to understand with our students instead of shaming them, will help us establish a safe and supportive environment that is necessary for learning.

Bruce R. Taylor and Glenn Kummery (1996) wrote about the different types of shaming in their article about family conferencing. They discuss stigmatizing shame and re-integrative shaming, and I think this can have profound effects in our classroom. The first is meant to label offenders, like the time that my then-seven-year-old niece continued to refer to herself as a “bad kid,” and the other is meant to “reject the deed and not the doer.” Our actions with kids need to reflect this.

So with the new year quickly upon us, remember to listen more than you talk when it comes to kids. What are they saying but, perhaps, without words? What are you communicating when you point out that the new iPhone 8 could have been 8,000 pencils? Compare that to what you want to communicate. For me, it is that my classroom and school will support any student in his or her learning, and I will work really hard not to make them feel ashamed along the way. I can’t control who comes into their lives outside of my classroom, but I can welcome them every day and not make them feel embarrassed when they enter my room.



Hey! Let’s Try This.

That’s the sentence where the insanity is usually born. Don’t we all start with a crazy idea? It’s what we do with it that counts. Do we keep it buried in our pocket? Or do we take the plunge and dive in?

I took the plunge.

When I began to think about how to spend our time for an upcoming afternoon of professional development, I knew I wanted to keep the focus on teachers. Based on recent observations and teacher feedback, I knew this to be true:

  • Our staff felt we were in a rut.
  • The health and well-being of teachers was being overlooked.
  • Professional development was almost always structured for curriculum purposes.

Most often this time is driven by “data” and does not offer teachers the opportunity to personalize their learning. How many times do we attend PD sessions that are one-size-fits-all? Teachers need choice too. I began to wonder what an afternoon of professional development could look like if teachers had the ability to learn from each other. We are our best resource collectively.

This time of year we are all feeling a bit “frayed” as Tony Keefer talked about in his most recent blog post. He somehow took the juxtaposition of unraveling and gratitude and morphed it into a love letter for teachers. 

On December 8th, just 12 days shy of our winter break, we had our first afternoon of professional learning chosen entirely by, and for, teachers. This day, and all the magic that happened, was a love letter to teaching….and to each other.

Too often in education we get in a rut. Sometimes you have to take an idea and run with it. Don’t be scared to fail. Community is what saves us when things get off track.



Frayed … I feel a little unraveled this time of the year. The crunch of getting things done before the last day of school. The never-ending list of must do items before we smash several get-togethers with family and friends. The packing before leaving for a vacation. The lack of sleep. The … well, the everything.

Our students are frayed. Teachers demanding their assignments. Parents rushing them around. Realizing they might not see good friends for two weeks. Having the pressure to be perfect at family get-togethers. Knowing the safety of school will not be there for the next two weeks.

Our families and colleagues are frayed. Most likely everyone we have recently seen or will see in the next few weeks are feeling the stress we impose upon ourselves this time of year. Holiday stress is so real that the Mayo-Clinic has a page on its website dedicated to coping with stress and depression.   

We cannot expect to be perfect during this time of the year, but many of us expend a great deal of energy trying to be or pretending to be. This includes the time we should be relaxing, away from the day-to-day time spent with our students. We don’t always need to feel like we are doing everything we possibly can. I need to remind myself frequently during the Holiday Season to take the time to refresh myself. I want to return to school excited to be back with my community of learners. I don’t want to return to classes of 25-29 students feeling like I need a vacation to recover from a vacation.

Over the last few years I have, rather secretly, only had three goals over the Holiday Break.

  1. Read a book that has nothing to do with school. This year I am planning to read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (which I received last for Christmas. ugh).
  2. Sleep at least eight hours each night. This may not happen, but it needs to happen. I think I’ve had one night in the last month that I slept more than seven hours. Most nights it is less than six hours. The lack of sleep is a constant for me during the school year, but it doesn’t need to happen during a break.
  3. Practice gratitude. I think I do practice gratitude regularly, but I am forgetful during the busyness of this season. Since I know I am happier when I share my thankfulness toward others, I will do something to show my thankfulness each day.

I know I have to do so much more than these three things before I return to school in January, but most everything else can wait. If I don’t read the numerous books I hope to read, then I don’t. If I don’t finish pre-planning the next writing unit, then I don’t. If I don’t go to every event I want to attend then I don’t. None of those things will make me feel renewed at 8:18 am on January 3, 2018. However, I know reading a book just for me is a gift to myself. I know catching up on my sleep is a necessity for me and a gift to my family. And I know being thankful will make me a better person and remind the people I love the most that I am thankful they are in my life.

Our classroom communities need us to be the best version of ourselves when we return from a long break. We should return to school feeling put back together, not coming apart at the seams.
To start my practicing gratitude phase, I am publicly thanking Brian, Sarah, Jim, Lysey, Kevn, Jennifer, Angie, Scott, Lea, Mandy, Andrea and Aliza. You said yes to collaborating on this site and I am incredibly thankful you did. I have learned a great deal from all of you in just five months. I cannot wait to see what you do to challenge and affirm my thinking in the future. I am truly blessed to call you all mentors and friends. I wish sometime in the future we can all be at the same place at the same time. Let’s figure out a way to make that happen.

photo credit: greg.simenoff Knot- via photopin (license)

Our Reading Lives

“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”

~Jim Henson

As a teacher it’s always been my hope that my students leave my classroom as readers. They may not remember everything we learn about Romeo and Juliet or Twelve Angry Men, but I hope they remember the books they chose to read in class, my excitement about reading, and our classroom reading community. I hope they remember that I care about them.

FullSizeRenderFor six or more years now I’ve been posting covers of the books I read on my classroom door for students and staff to see. It encourages others to read, promotes conversation, and also helps me keep track of what I’m reading (and where I need to fill in genre holes). My students see me reading during SSR and I think it’s beneficial for them to see my reading life as a whole via the covers on my door. They also notice how quickly I’m reading (or not reading).

In the past I’ve saved a bulletin board for my seniors to post recommendations for the classes following them. Unfortunately none of my seniors last year participated, so I was left with an empty board this year. After some careful consideration, I decided to dedicate my two bulletin boards to my freshmen and my seniors’ reading lives. It’s fun to create Pinterest-worthy bulletin boards, but 1. I’m not that artsy and 2. I want my students to have ownership in my classroom. So these bulletin boards aren’t “artsy” by any means, but they are effective, which is the whole reason for bulletin boards in the first place.

My classroom now has a space for me, my freshmen classes, and my senior classes to post covers of the books we’ve read. I wasn’t sure what my students would really think of the idea, but they jumped right on board. It’s also prompted some healthy peer pressure between the grade levels. In fact, I just updated my senior board and I heard one of my seniors whisper “Bring it, freshmen!” to another student. Little did he know that I have yet to update my freshmen board! My last group of freshmen walked into class and noticed the updated senior board as well. “I thought we’ve read more than that! They’re ahead by a whole line!” They’re paying attention and the bulletin boards haven’t become “wallpaper” like so many pieces of classroom decor can become.

Since beginning this process, I’ve noticed students looking to the boards to see what everyone has been reading and then asking about specific books they see. It’s also been a great way for me to see the trends in their reading. When a student reads a book that has already been posted, I place a star sticker on the cover. Some books–my book club books in particular–are going to end up swamped with stars! I’ve also been playing around with the idea of including student reviews with the covers as well, but for the sake of space, I’m not sure if that will work. At this point, we may end up posting book covers around the outside of the boards!

The organization has been tricky. I try to carve out time each week to ask my students which books they’ve finished and add it to the list I have for each class. I also have to make time during my planning to insert book cover images onto Google Slides and then ask our media center assistant to print the covers in color. That also means making time to cut out each cover and staple it to the board. It’s an ongoing and somewhat time consuming project, but it’s worthy of my time. I plan on surveying my students at the end of the school year to find out what they think of it and if they think it’s a project I should continue.

I was disappointed when my seniors last year didn’t participate in my former bulletin board practice, but I’m ultimately thankful for it now. This new idea has been much more interactive and successful than any other bulletin board I’ve created. I hope my students continue to enjoy it.