Monday, June 12, 2017

Bad Administrators Are Killing Education

Perhaps more than any other single factor, bad administrators are killing education.

That is a bold statement when the ability to educate our young people is under assault from poverty, poor home situations, a runaway obsession with testing, the misuse of data to malign teachers and hurt students, blind worship of technology that in some cases brings more harm than good, and insulting attempts to make educators feel like professionals instead of allowing them actually to be professionals with appropriate salaries and control over how they practice their craft.  Yet the ham-fisted, utterly misguided, and at times cruel leadership at district and building levels has produced "the most unkindest cut of all," leaving too many teachers with the choice of either crying, "Et tu, Brute?" to the those who should have had their backs instead of stabbing them, or leaving the profession.

I recently shared an article* on Facebook, one more in a seemingly endless series of its kind, about a good teacher leaving the profession.  This was not a new teacher who got in over his head or an older teacher who left because she was burned out.  I sarcastically suggested in my preface to the post that there was no problem in teachers leaving for, as some administrators say, there are plenty to take their place.  I had no idea the hornet's nest I had poked.

In the days that followed, Twitter messages, emails, and Facebook messages bombarded me with stories from around the country of teachers bearing witness to hearing what is quite possibly the stupidest line of thinking that should get any leader fired for speaking it.  Please note that the stories you are about to hear must remain anonymous.  I will give no indication of any teacher's name, subject matter, or state, and that alone is a matter worthy of concern, because the prevailing emotion in so many of our toxic school environments is fear.  Teachers are afraid, and it is not because they are emotional snowflakes who need to grow up.  It is because too many administrators, far from doing their job of fostering an environment in which teachers can do theirs, have created, whether through ignorant neglect or genuinely malevolent intent, a sweatshop mentality complete with dread of the overseer's whip.  Fear is completely incompatible with education, but that will be a topic for another time.

What follows, then, are comments shared with me from teachers across the country.  After a few responses to the article linked above, I asked whether educators had heard administrators say that there were plenty of teachers to take the places of those who leave, or a variant of that.  The results were as follows, and there is no pattern of their coming from certain geographic regions or from one type of school or district over another.

Not comfortable responding to your fb post, however, our HR Director told us in negotiations "...that there is a line of teachers waiting to take [our] place."

Teachers talk about administrators feeling that way; colleagues have throughout my career.

I've had it said to me two minutes before I was supposed to start teaching for the day.

At a new teacher hire, I heard, "With all due respect, as Beyonce says, 'Don't you ever for a second get to thinkin' you're irreplaceable.'"

I've heard it as well, multiple times and once through my own experience.

It makes me sad to say, but yes I have heard that at least once a year during my 15 years as a teacher.

Regrettably, I've heard it.  I heard it said of some of the best educators with whom I have worked or co-taught.

On more than one occasion, I've heard a district administrator...state, "If they [teachers] don't like it, there are plenty of openings at McDonald's."  Also, a district administrator...sent an email to a colleague with a link to a job opening in a neighboring district after she pointed out the potential impact of budget cuts on her department.  It has been an interesting few years to say the least.  It is one thing to deal with external perceptions of education and teachers; it's another when it is from within, especially from those in "leadership" positions.

"Everyone's replaceable" has been spoken many times in my school.

Quote at a school board meeting when a good young teacher decided to switch schools, "There is no one who can't be replaced."

Spoken by the principal to a colleague and me in his office when we told him about ill-will among the faculty, "When they leave, we will cry for three minutes and get back to work.  I have a long list of people wanting jobs."

I've heard it in [name of state].

Yep, in [name of state] I've heard it.

A former superintendent used to say that -- she used to say that teachers should be grateful for the jobs they have because there are lots of people lined up waiting to take them.

I've heard it several times in my own district and others in [name of state].  It's so disheartening.  We have so many vacancies.

One of many reasons I moved into administration.  I have heard it across the state in several districts. 

I've heard it -- especially at negotiation time.

I've sadly heard it when I taught in [name of state] and a few years ago back in [name of state].

My superintendent said a couple years ago that English teachers are a dime a dozen.

It's said regularly.

If you are a parent, talk to your children's teachers and administrators and find out for yourself the true culture of their school, making sure to encourage those leaders who are serving well.  If you are in a university school of education, visit some schools in your state and discover for yourself their culture and then set yourself to the task of crafting leadership training programs capable of producing the leaders our children and teachers need.  If you are a teacher, work well with your administrators.  Lead up by sharing good leadership materials with your department chairs, principals, and superintendents.  Encourage them when they do well.  And if the environment of your school or district is such that you cannot be the teacher you were made to be, do not leave the profession, but find another place where you can thrive.  The power of Pharaoh was broken by the exodus.

Whoever you are, as you go about the shared work of ensuring our children are well grounded in the past and present for their callings in the future, allow this extended email from a colleague of mine to motivate you.

It was via email, and regarding an extracurricular position I held. I have done this position for years, and the district has been very pleased with how I managed it, having brought it back from kind of a mess, thanks to my insane organization. However, it's a ton of work and for several years I've been feeling tired of being taken advantage of and tried to give it up. 

This year there were some particular concerns I was raising, ethical concerns about some other staff members' conduct. When I approached admin about the fact that I wanted to give up my position, I told him I was concerned about handing it over to someone not as conscientious of the potential issues, as they've had difficulty getting the position adequately filled in the past, and I wanted to make sure to leave it in good hands because the integrity of the program meant a great deal to me.

Rather than addressing my concern he said, "Do the position or don't do the position. If you don't, someone else will"  (paraphrase... i'm uncomfortable using his exact quote, but he did use the word *replaceable*).  My immediate response was that he'd just made my decision really easy, and I emailed him back and said I wouldn't be doing it anymore.

This was said via email, at 7:28AM, as my 11th graders were walking in the door. I stood up to start class and as I was going over the agenda I just broke down. I had to excuse myself and took a couple of minutes to calm down. I told them "I'm sorry, something just happened that really upset me, and it has nothing to do with you."

There are a few things to this:

1) The fact that it was said in response to me raising concerns... it felt like he was saying "we'll find someone who's not going to raise a fuss" and it discounted all the heart and soul I'd put into the program for six years and trying to do the right thing.

2) While on the surface it's a logical and true statement, it's certainly not a great way to get your people to want to pour their heart into something that has few extrinsic rewards.

3) Our school has a major "positive school culture" initiative. Our principal is a driving force behind it, and goes out of his way to do special things and make it a positive environment. In many ways, he's wonderful at that task. But when he gets stressed out in the spring, he lashes out at people... and often times he lashes out at his best people, the ones who are going above and beyond, the ones who are truly giving their all. But those day-to-day interactions mean just as much, if not more, than all of the positive murals and pep talks and recognitions and assemblies. I suspect he said it out of frustration with something that probably had nothing to do with me, but that's not an excuse, and I will never forget how worthless and unappreciated it made me feel that morning. I don't think I will ever have an interaction with him not colored by that experience.

*Here is an important and related article, whose comments are equally worth reading.


  1. This is so distressing and disturbing, both because of the attitude and the prevalence of that attitude. Although not explicitly stated, there is the perception in my school that newer, pliable, less expensive teachers are preferred to veteran, more expensive teachers who are not so subtly encouraged to retire or move on. It's absolutely true that not a single one of us is irreplaceable, it's also true that each of us is irreplaceable as each teacher brings a unique set of skills, content knowledge, innovation, tradition and student rapport to our classrooms.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Magistra (aut dicam, "Tibi gratias ago!"?). When people forget that education is a human enterprise and not business driven by bottom lines, that is what happens. Keep sharing the true, the good, and the beautiful once you have closed your classroom door.

  3. I've not heard any administrators mention teachers lining up to take our places. Perhaps that's due, in part, to a huge lack of teachers in my state. I have, however, seen administration do all it can to discourage teachers through overwork and underpay. The last two schools where I worked only hired teachers part time, not wanting to invest in adequate pay or benefits. At one such school, teachers were sometimes replaced monthly. My friend was dismissed because of a disagreement he had with the administration. That soured me on continuing at the school, and now I'm off to another school and have to completely redefine my classroom over the summer for the coming year.

    In short, the educational system is broken. Teachers are mostly devalued. Schools are administration heavy forming a monolithic bureaucracy.

    1. I am sorry that poor admin has created such atmospheres, my friend. You are indeed a first round draft pick for anyone with the sense to see it.

    2. Well, I'm off to a new school, full-time, and teaching in a field I love, so things are definitely looking up.


While I welcome thoughts relevant to discussions of education, comments that are vulgar, insulting, or in any way inappropriate will be deleted.