by Freeda Pirillis
Educators possess a moral authority that exemplifies the values we strive to teach our children, our students, and even the adults around us: the value of being honest. We teach Character Education lessons on communicating your feelings when another person has called you a name, identify mentor texts that demonstrate how children can stand up for themselves when they are being bullied by a peer, and engage our students in role playing activities to build their self-esteem.
There’s a natural developmental milestone children reach when they begin to realize being completely honest is not always best. Children start to recognize when and where honesty is valued, how to convey a message without hurting another person’s feelings, and when it’s better not to say anything at all. As educators and parents, we begin to explicitly identify those situations for children so they can transition into adulthood with a deeper understanding of the human condition and successfully navigate the social world.
Let’s shift the focus to educators, who are at the forefront of shaping children’s understanding of themselves in a world full of conflict. How do educators learn to navigate their school buildings, their districts, or the world of education? How do educators craft their conversations with colleagues or their principals? Are they truly being honest when conversing with the various stakeholders in their school building?
In the book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, Rick Hess reports teachers are simply not being honest. When dissecting the topic of professional development, Rick Hess reported that in 2012, 73% of teachers surveyed felt their professional development was excellent or good. In 2013, 60% of teachers that teach ELA or Math stated their CCSS PD to be extremely helpful. Yet, as teachers, we can attest to the numerous times we’ve heard a colleague privately complaining about the last PD they attended or the grade level meeting they sat through. What accounts for the discrepancy between what teachers say and what teachers “say”?
We could look no further than a school’s culture. There are some school buildings where teachers are hesitant to be honest on a survey or on an exit slip for fear of being singled out by an administrator. There are schools where administrators ask for honesty from their staff, but respond with disappointment or frustration when teachers provide critical feedback. There are teachers who have become apathetic simply because no one has ever asked them what they think. What can be done to improve the professional culture of these school buildings so teachers are providing honest, critical feedback to their colleagues and administrators?
Much like teachers, school leaders possess a moral authority to establish trusting relationships with their staff, likened to the classroom community that educators strive to build with their students. A community based on shared responsibility, respect for one another, and trust that when one student (or teacher) shares their thinking, it will be received with an open mind and a willingness from the listener to meet in the middle.
A school’s culture is a reflection of a school leader’s ability to establish systems for collecting feedback from teachers that not only engages the top 5% of teachers, or those that are often the loudest in the room, but the remaining 95% who have valuable perspectives to offer, but may not be willing to raise a quiet hand. As educators, we strive to engage all our students and validate each person’s contribution.
Providing teachers with a multitude of platforms for providing honest, critical feedback can ensure school leaders have an accurate pulse of how teachers are feeling and what they can do to improve the school culture. Engaging all teachers in the hard, but crucial work of fostering a culture of openness and respect will result in greater gains for students, greater teacher retention, and an increased commitment to the school leaders in the building. Honesty is a virtue which necessitates open dialogue between all stakeholders, within the classroom and beyond.
Freeda Pirillis is a First Grade Teacher in Chicago, an NBCT, and a 2015 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow.