Giving teacher’s a voice without overloading them – how do leaders do this?

Teachers want to and should be heard – how do leaders do this without overloading teachers with priorities to address? On Thursday morning three people on the Report Committee facilitated a report review session. Reporting is a hot topic that generates many opinions and stress for many teachers and leaders. Reports take a lot of time to write for not so much reward some feel. No format is perfect, parents don’t always appreciate the truth, capturing the essence of a learner in writing is not easy are other observations.At our school we have wanted to improve reporting for a long time and have heard great ideas. But it turns out that our options are limited. At our school, we have got much better at collaborating – so why didn’t we collaborate sooner with teachers? Due to the following, we decided not to hold discussions with all staff to gather input in an organised way (we did get input from a few):

  • The technical system we use to generate reports limits the changes we can make;
  • Our aim is to not make the report writing process even more complicated and time consuming for teachers than it already is;
  • We had already put into practice shifting the focus from work to learning and the learner;
  • Everything we say/write about a student has to be evidence based not opinion;
  • The requirements to use a 5 point A to E scale and include comparative reports are not negotiable.

Furthermore, Term 1 was 8 weeks long and priorities and PD left insufficient time for collaborating about reports. Creating the time and space to give teachers a voice becomes a choice between collaboration and preserving sanity.
With all of the above valid points in mind, we realised as a leadership group, there was not much wriggle room for change and the kinds of changes teachers and leaders were desiring (evidenced from informal discussions with some teachers who feel strongly about reporting), would not be possible to make or would not be practical to implement.

Questions I have been pondering:

  • As a leader, does one try one’s best to avoid pushing teachers over the tipping point by looking out for teachers’ workload and well being or do you consult on everything to ensure everyone has a voice?
  • Realising only minor changes can be made to reports, should leaders do the best job they can under the circumstances without whole school collaboration?
  • Does one consult with a few or all when the timing doesn’t allow further consultation without risking burn out by holding another before school meeting to give teachers a voice, only to tell them their suggestions can’t be taken into consideration?
  • Even with attempting to consciously limit priorities, teachers and leaders feel pressured as there is never enough time to do these justice, so do you add to the priorities so that all stakeholders can have a say?

I remember clearly the feeling of frustration at not being consulted on decisions that directly impacted me as a classroom teacher. I also remember at times realizing afterwards that being included although it would have felt fair, was not going to change the outcome in those instances.

Sometimes it’s not feasible to give everyone a voice. Knowing when to and knowing how to, makes all the difference to the outcome.

Additional questions i have been pondering on include: With our reports it turns out that a total of three changes were made to the report format. Only one of these is a completely new addition. Did this make it worth it to hold a discussion with all staff in Term 1? We thought not. Did we do the right thing in not formally including enough teacher voices in our discussion earlier on? Probably not. Should we have added this to the agenda for year level teams to discuss in their meetings when they already had enough to discuss and decide upon? Definitely but when? Is it too late for teachers to have a voice? No.

Following our report review session with teachers, the three facilitators of the Report Review session met and debriefed. We analysed concerns teachers raised and figured out what our next steps could be.

A summary of all the points teachers made was sent to Learning Team Leaders to review and add to in preparation for their weekly meeting with the Director of Teaching and Learning. At the meeting potential issues were debated, team leaders were given a voice and next steps were decided. They felt they should have been consulted sooner. Certain aspects of the report will be taken back to their team. They will then be the voice for their team at the next LTL meeting and be a part of the decision to include or exclude the proposed new addition.

The second biggest issue to come out of the review session was teachers feel that the changes (introduced three years ago but implemented across the school at the end of last year) makes some comments feel generic and that their writers voice has been lost. We have heard you and as a moderator/ editor I make a commitment to you to do my best to preserve your writers’ voice should I suggest any changes to your comments.

One solution we have tried to ensure teachers voices are heard is to collaborate with Learning Team Leaders on what our priorities should be for the term and year ahead. Somehow reports were left off the list of priorities.
We robbed teachers of their voices – this brings me back to my original question: how else could one ensure teachers have a voice when there are already enough priorities on the agenda and PD schedule?

Managing the tipping point (part 1) without losing sight of what’s important…

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The end of Term 1 is nearing and there is a lot happening for our teachers. All teachers are time poor. Managing the tipping point between flourishing and being overwhelmed is tricky because the tipping point is different for everyone. Sometimes the timing of priorities collide and this can tip the scales. We reached this point late this week and I ended up going against my better judgement in an effort to keep the scales balanced. I realised immediately that although I was keeping the scales balanced, it would only be a short term gain. The cost could end up being too high for some teachers and in my role, I need to ensure this is not the case where possible.

Let me set the scene…

This week our teachers have been immersed in professional learning under the guidance of Silvia Tolisano (@langwitches), a visiting expert. It’s been an inspirational few days and a busy time too as teachers have moved between teaching, meetings, professional development and wanting to implement their learning, blogging, duties, enrichment activities, replying to emails, etc. The tension has in fact been building over the last couple of weeks. By mid week, I realised (as did others) that the tipping point had been reached for some and was drawing nearer for others. I wondered what I could do to support teachers without disempowering them. In briefing on Thursday (and in one on one conversations with a few teachers), I expressed my understanding of the additional time pressure they are all under at the moment. I offered to teach their classes to free up time for them to communicate with their students’ parents and catch up on other professional responsibilities without feeling they were losing teaching and learning time with their students.

This was well received by some. A few felt this was placing additional pressure on them to fit this all in before the end of term.

Later on Thursday, I followed my Deputy Principal’s advice (who, in turn, recognised that some teachers were feeling overwhelmed) and I sent an email explaining that teachers do not need to contact all parents and to use their discretion as to who needs to be called. This did not sit comfortably with me and (as I explained to our Deputy Principal later:-)) I should not have done this as this is not setting teachers up for success in their ongoing relationship with all parents. He agreed with me. Following two separate conversations re this matter with parents on Friday (one was sharing how happy she was with her child’s teacher’s communication and the other was voicing exactly the opposite as she had not heard directly from her child’s General Studies teacher since Parent Orientation night) I decided it was in our best interests to explain why it is to their benefit to contact all parents this term. I did this via email to ensure clear communication to all concerned and time for teachers to process its content.

I reminded them of the following in what I hope is perceived as a supportive tone: Contacting all parents in our home class and number classes once (unless needs require more contact) every term is an expectation and something we do practise in our primary school. Parents expect to find out how their child has transitioned from one year level to another or one number group to another- they want to know if their child is happy and is learning. Parents want to know that their child’s class teacher cares about and understands the needs of their child. This is a reasonable expectation. Making contact via a phone call or email once a term, evidence shows, is positively received and goes a long way to earning parents’ trust and respect. This will also set teachers up for positive interactions with parents at school events and long term.

I do also know from experience that some phone calls can go on for a while and sometimes the teachers and parents end up playing phone tennis before successful contact is even made. This is time consuming. In addition, I recognise that during the previous two weeks all teachers have been time poor due to ongoing professional development, excursions, duties, enrichment, achrayim responsibilities, learning to use your MacBooks, setting up class blogs, planning, etc. The next two weeks is also going to be busy with seders, galas, PD and planning. I am genuinely happy to teach their classes to free them up to make their phone calls without worrying about losing teaching/learning time with their students. I have also offered to cover their duties or enrichment activity where possible. This is something I am willing to do throughout the year.

I apologised for sending mixed messages re. communication with parents.

One teacher contacted me within the hour to make arrangements for me to teach her class on Monday morning.

Prioritising – another way to create time…

In regards to our monthly newsletter requirement, I decided that in an eight week term, and taking into consideration all of the above, there is no time to send out a second newsletter at the end of this term as writing these and inserting photographs takes hours. In the same email I have simply asked teachers to ensure they have sent out one newsletter this term.

I do genuinely appreciate everything our teachers do and have huge respect for what they accomplish every day, week, month and year. I have not forgotten what it’s like.

What ways do you have for managing the tipping point and creating time for your teachers?