Last week’s show was about growing veteran teachers. I focused largely on the importance of relationships. At the end of the episode, I encouraged you to ask your veteran teachers three questions:o What is your teaching super-power?o What’s the biggest difference between who you are now as a teacher, and who you were when you began?o If you could get students to do one thing differently, what would it be? I recognize that some of you have been in school for several weeks while others still may have a week or so of summer left, but hopefully you have at the very least been able to reflect on those questions, and if you have not asked them of someone else, maybe you have asked them of yourself. I also stated, “next Tuesday I’ll offer some additional steps to build on what you find out.“ My intention was to provide some explicit “tips and tricks” but instead I decided to ask some of my connections on LinkedIn about their tips for working with veteran teachers. This group included administrators at all levels as well as veteran teachers. I’ve taken their feedback and put it into a tidy visual framework because… that’s what I do!
Inset Show Intro
Celebrations: My new truck! Apologies if that sounds a bit vain and materialistic, but I ordered a Ford Maverick – a minuscule size pickup, in Sept, 2022 and finally got it last week. It’s the perfect vehicle for me, able to haul mulch, lumber, and trash around our rural mountain roads and get 30 mpg on my trips to Columbia, Greensboro, and elsewhere.
The Big Idea
Today’s episode takes place in two acts. In Act I I’m going to smash the stereotype of the veteran teacher being a curmudgeon or burned-out resistor. Remember that change begins within, and the first step in working with experienced teachers is reframing how you perceive them. In Act II I’ll present a simple 4-stage framework for working with veteran teachers.
Act I: You don’t know me
Change… trauma… change
Sure, it’s not all been bad, but if you have been in this profession very long you have experienced change, trauma, and more change. First the change…
I began teaching in 1988, so I would be beginning my 35th year had I remained in p-12 education. You may be working with a few teachers who began teaching in that same year, or perhaps in the early 90’s, and education has changed dramatically. Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that weren’t around when I began my teaching career. No:
· Standardized tests
· Computers in classrooms
· Cell phones
· Social media
· Canned or structured teaching programs
Principals were paid to manage things and instructional leadership was largely in the hands of teachers. There were far fewer grand initiatives, and teachers were largely expected to close their doors and teach. And although teachers were not above being questioned or criticized, it was nothing like what it is today. This might not be a universal experience, but it was my experience.
So, point 1, veteran teacher possess a sense of history and have experienced profound – profound – changes over the course of their careers. For many of them, in many ways, the profession they find themselves in now is not the profession they entered.
Now the trauma…
I believe that teaching is the greatest profession in the world. Not necessarily in its current condition, but the ability to transform live and enrich the future is unparalleled. That said, teaching can be a traumatic endeavor. Trauma can occur in conflicts between teachers and the students and families they serve, the form of trauma that is most pertinent to our discussion is trauma with administration. Especially around the teacher observation and evaluation process.
The average tenure of a middle school principal in the US is 3-5 years. As a 35-year veteran teacher, on average, I have had 7-12 principals, and countless assistant principals. Think about this… Seven times new “leaders” have come into my school, brought their vision, changed school culture, asked me to buy-in, and then they have left. More than likely, some of those principals have acted like this was their school, not my school. And in their quest to stamp their identity on the school, they may have erased part of my identity, even erased part of my school.
In addition, with so many leaders cycling through, it is very likely that most experienced teachers have had at least one very negative – traumatizing – experience with an administrator. Imagine, having pride in your craft, having invested years in working with kids, receiving solid evaluations year after year, and then someone with half your experience comes in and tells you not only that you need to get better, but that they know better than you how your craft needs to improve! Seriously?
And maybe things are very different today, but two decades ago is was not that uncommon to have administrators who yelled at teachers. Not a lot of them, but they were out there – and many experienced teachers have experienced a humiliating dressing down at the hands of a petty tyrant.
Please, I’m not throwing you under the bus, but understand, not all administrators are like you. A few are great, most are good, but there are some bad administrators out there and when a teacher has had 7, 12, or more principals, and maybe another 7, 12, or more assistant principals, the chances are high that one of them – and that’s all it takes to create trauma – one of them, was bad. Maybe even very bad.
That brings us to the third part of Act I, change. The change in part 1 was about how education has changed (no cell phones, no social media, can you imagine?) The change in part 3 is about the change process, more specifically the fascination with the flavor of the month. In our quest for improvement, we can often get dazzled by the next best thing. I’m speaking from experience here. I’m one of those visionary leaders, and if I didn’t have people to keep me firmly tethered to the ground I would jump from one change to another at light speed.
Just think about the changes in reading instruction over the past three decades:
· Whole Language
· Balanced Literacy
· Reading recovery
· Accelerated Reader
· Guided reading
· And now a plethora of computerized programs
I read a research study a while back that described how teachers’ attitudes towards change projects changed over time:
· With the first change initiative, new teachers are gung-ho, leading the way
· With the second change initiative, teachers willingly engage
· With the third change, they are beginning to detect a pattern and may begin to hesitate
· And with the fourth and subsequent change, many teachers will close their doors and ignore it
Obviously, I have made some generalizations here and individual experiences will vary widely, but the existence of change, trauma, and change is critical in not only understanding, but appreciating veteran teachers:
· They are right to not embrace big change initiatives, because those initiatives will go away
· They are right to be wary of you, they have been hurt by people like you before, and by “people like you” I mean administrators.
· They are right to view you as just another cog in the machine, because you’ll be gone in a few years and they will still be here
· They are right to resist your attempts to “sell the vision” because, you’ll be gone in a few years and they will still be here
What I hope I’ve tried to do here is to reshape how you perceive experienced teachers. I want to shatter the myth of the curmudgeon. Veteran teachers are survivors, they have seen unprecedented changes, and have more experiences with school leaders than you do. They are caring and passionate, and a wealth of knowledge, and if they are hesitant to engage, they are only being wise.
This closes Act I.
I promised you a simple framework for working with experienced teachers in Act II, but I first need to thank the educators who inspired this framework. Last week I DM’d about 30 education connections on LinkedIn, asking for their tips on working with veteran teachers. I received 13 replies, which was surprising. Clearly, this is something we need to talk about more.
My responders consisted of people I’ve know for a long time and others I had just recently connected with. They are district leaders, principals, assistant principals, and veteran teachers. They come from rural, urban and suburban schools, and are diverse in a myriad of other ways. I which I could share each of their quotes, but this is already a longer episode than I had planned.
Please, fellow educators and esteemed colleagues, accept my deepest gratitude:
· Jessica Preisig
· Dr. Darian Byrd
· Alex Auriemma
· Bryan Lively
· Dr. Efrain Martinez
· Nicole Ward
· Kristin Holt
· Dr. Cliff Lee
· Natacha Isaac-Bonaventure
· AJ Bianco
· Jennifer Bertram
· Dr. Sam Sircey
· Tashika Truesdale
· And Dr. Bart Elliott
You have made this episode into, I hope, something special.
This model is not meant to be exhaustive, it is meant to be simple and, above all, actionable. I’ve developed it from the perspective of beginning with nothing and working through a four-stage process of developing a collegial relationship with your experienced teachers. Remember the collegial relationship consists of both personal and professional components, see episode 154 from this past Friday if you need a refresher.
The framework should be especially valuable for new administrors and new-ish administrators in new buildings. There is nothing earth shattering here and the value is not in the behaviors – you are probably engaging in many of them already. The value is in putting the behaviors together into a process.
Without further ado…
Phase 1: Learn
Phase 2: Empower
Phase 3: Support
Phase 4: Grow
Let’s dig deeper…
Learn: Learn about the person. Learn about all the changes they’ve seen, the ups, downs, joys, sorrows, the traumas. Learn about their teaching super power, their aspirations. Learn what they bring to their school. How do we do this?
· Be present. As Alex Auriemma said, “One thing I learned this year is really to lean in. People want to feel safe, and heard. And by leaning into the experience of a veteran teacher, especially as a new, young AP, you’re able to build trust and rapport.” And Bryan Lively said “. I think being present, is one of the biggest things. So many of my veteran teachers have thanked me for listening to them, their thoughts, ideas, and feelings. A lot of veterans feel that they are not heard. I feel like truly listening to them first allows me to build trust”
· Ask: Ask the first question (How are you?), ask the second question (Really, how are you?) ask the third question (why?). Ask questions and seek to learn from them. Harvest their wisdom. As Jessica Preisig said, “Build relationships by seeking the voice of experience in the building.”
· Empathize: Refrain from judgement. Accept their lived experiences are different than yours, and you can’t truly understand what they have been through – the good, the bad, and the ugly. But respect their stories. As AJ Bianco said, “remember how you felt when you were in a classroom setting”
Jennifer Bertram summarized it this way: “Giving audience to the veteran voices validates their experience and can make them feel valued in a profession that doesn't offer that very often.”
Learning about veteran teachers, especially being present and listening, were the most mentioned comments by far, so if you take away nothing else from this episode, at least learn, by being present, asking, and empathizing.
Once we’ve learned both about and from our experienced teachers, we are in a position to empower them, to improve our school by leaning on its most experienced members. Phase 2 is to Empower. There are three parts to this:
· Autonomy: Give as much latitude as possible to your veteran teachers. Avoid burdening them with unnecessary requirements. Don’t tell them how to teach. As Cliff Lee recognized, “Nothing delegitimizes a person's authority like forcing meaningless work on people”
· Leverage their expertise: What is their teaching super-power? What are the skills and techniques they have mastered over the years? Maybe instead of bringing in someone like me to teach about developing classroom procedures, tap the talent in the room and have your veteran teachers do it.
· Provide opportunities: Specifically, provide leadership opportunities. Mentoring, leading parts of your MTSS process, or important committees. Involve them in scheduling and updating policies and procedures.
Okay, we’ve learned about our veterans, we’ve empowered them, now let’s support them. In my frameworks, supporting teachers means something very specific. Supporting teachers means bringing alignment to your school, so that teachers’ work, growing students, is helped, not hindered by the other dimensions of the organization. Specifically:
· Align: Your resources, so that teachers’ time and attention – the tow most valuable resources – are focused on teaching. Align your structures so that teachers feel like they are swimming downstream, not upstream. And focus on the school’s affirming purpose of growing students and cultivating adults who have agency in their lives. Its about lives, not scores.
· Protect: From the ravages and vagaries of external forces. Full confession, in a time when teachers are being targeted as a profession and as individuals by a plethora of media and politically motivated groups, I’m not sure how to best do this. It seems like having a teacher’s back isn’t enough when people are attacking them head on. I guess, that’s another episode, which I will need lots of help with, but at the least be a wall between angry voices and rhetoric and constantly remind your teachers of how positive and powerful they are.
· Celebrate: In a hundred different ways. Yes to food and sticky notes, yes to jeans or whatever tokens you can offer, but let’s also begin every meeting with celebrations, let’s find small wins every day, in every lesson, and let’s relentlessly point them out to everyone. And let’s acknowledge and admire the landmarks of long service.
Now that we have done all of this – we have learned about and from our veteran teachers, we have empowered and supported them, now we can help support their growth. How do we grow veteran teachers? We don’t. We help them grow themselves. Consider the incredible words shared with me by Efrain Martinez, an elementary school principal and producer of the Wisdom and Productivity podcast,
Never forget that as the coach, your presence upon the field does not signify the act of scoring a goal. The tutelage of Messi or Ronaldo in the art of goal-scoring remains beyond your purview. The seasoned veteran embodies expertise, while you grace the periphery. Employing an empathetic and Socratic demeanor, you possess the capacity to gently probe the facets you've perceived, affording the veteran the privilege of self-discovery. As a keen observer from the sidelines, you are endowed with the insight to illuminate those hidden blind spots, offering your revelations in a manner untouched by judgment. Through this harmonious interplay, the veteran finds themselves enveloped in admiration, for you have inadvertently nurtured their journey towards the pinnacle of their potential.
It's hard to build on this imagery, so I’m not going to try. Just embrace your role in growing your experienced teachers as that of holding up the mirror. Be present, ask the questions that pave the path for self-reflection, and provide assistance when they ask.
Summarizing (The big takeaway)
This has been one of the most time-consuming episodes I’ve done, and honestly I feel like we are just scratching the surface. Mara and I are trying to get a nice visual of the process put together but I don’t know if it will be ready when this episode releases at 6 AM on August 29th. I’ll post it on the podcast page of my website at https://www.frederickbuskey.com/appodcast.html . I’ll announce on the daily email when it’s done, so if you aren’t a subscriber this might be a good time to sign up. There will be a pop-up on the website to make it easy.
Again, if you take nothing else away from this episode, be present, listen, ask, and empathize. If you can do these things, you are halfway there.
I think this is a special episode of the show. It might be the best solo episodes I’ve recorded. If you think this has been a great episode, worthy of the days I have put into it, PLEASE do one or all the following:
· Forward the podcast link to your colleagues and encourage them to listen
· Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on LinkedIn and tell me something, a story, a suggestion, or some praise.
· Rate and review the podcast! Rating and reviews are two of the metrics I track and a bump in those will be evidence that this episode hit home.
This could be the greatest episode ever, but I will never know if some of the 3-400 people who listen to this show don’t forward it, review it, reach out to me, so please do one of those things. It’s a way of giving back – or giving forward.
Speaking of forward, I look forward to seeing you again on Friday when we recap this week’s daily emails.
I’m Frederick Buskey and thank you again for joining me on this episode of the Assistant Principal Podcast. Remember to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode. Cheers!
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