Last week, I saw this blog post from Pernille Ripp about the apparent divide between teachers and administrators, and it got me thinking about my journey from teacher to department chair and back to teacher. Pernille talks about the need for trust, and I completely agree with that need, but I also think the divide is a result of differences in perspective. I know mine has changed quite a bit in the last few years.
As a “pre-department chair” high school math teacher, I had anywhere from 80 to 140 kids in my classes, depending on what I was teaching. I had to answer to the students, their parents, my department chair, and teachers with whom I was collaborating. My responsibilities included creating lessons to meet the needs of my kids (each and every one of them), providing them with encouragement, feedback, coaching, and occasionally discipline, and working on unit plans and curricula with teachers on my team. I sometimes questioned the administrators’ decisions, as they did not make sense from where I was standing. My perspective was necessarily narrow based on my experience and “sphere of influence.”
When I became the department chair, I no longer taught any classes, but met with lots of different students on a daily basis and had to answer to and work with students, parents, teachers, counselors, the principal and other administrators, the math coordinators at the public and private middle schools, and the other department chairs in my building. I had primary responsibility for hiring, evaluating, and developing the teachers in my department, placement of incoming students, course changes for current students, department course curriculum, scheduling and budgets. I had to address complaints and compliments about teachers from all the players (including other teachers), and adjudicate a few cheating and disciplinary situations. My sphere of influence was much bigger as a department chair than it was when I was a teacher, and my perspective had to change to accommodate all the new information. I couldn’t make decisions based on a narrow focus.
I enjoyed being the department chair, and I think I did a pretty good job of it. The hard part for me was that I continued to see myself as a teacher, and felt I was losing the ability to focus on the things that have kept me in the profession for over 25 years: my relationships with the students and the joy of sharing my content area. So I went back to the classroom.
And now, as a “post-department-chair” teacher, my perspective has again changed. In some ways, I had to relearn how to use my classroom lens this past year, to keep a tight focus on my students and let go of some of the “administrator worries” I had developed. But knowing that wider perspective has helped me fine-tune my classroom perspective. For example, having seen more examples of teaching as I observed classrooms has helped me better understand the rubric on which I am now evaluated, and how my actions as a teacher affect the students. (We’ll see how much this helps as I go through the observation and evaluation process this coming year.)
Trust is important, and I have had to work to build it as a teacher and as an administrator with a variety of people. Part of that trust is recognizing that my perspective will be different from my colleagues’ and different from our administrators’. Walking the administrator path for a while has taught me again the importance of walking in someone else’s shoes for a while. I’m glad I went there, and I’m glad to be back again.