15 minutes at a time

This is my third post of #draftweek where I’m finishing up some neglected blog posts; you can read more about that here. This post was started in January of 2013 and wrapped up at its close with the italicized type.

Preparing for my teachers’ return from Winter Break on Monday, I’m blocking out time for my next round of 15 minute meetings. This is a concrete action step I take to give teachers a voice and build trust. Going back, I was selected as principal to open a new building in my district in February of 2010. As a district, we were in the final stages of a limited enrollment full-day kindergarten pilot. The school I now serve had been closed for renovations, as its previous population moved into a newly constructed building. It was decided we would be a kindergarten attendance center for 6 of our district’s 13 elementary schools; as a fast-growth district, not all of our buildings had capacity to house this program. With the growth of the full-day kindergarten student population nearing 80% of the total group, that also meant many teachers would be shifting from half-day instruction to the full-day program.In turn, this meant that 20 of my 23 classroom teachers would be joining me from another building in my district. Spanning 64+ miles and serving multiple municipalities and diverse student populations, I knew it was critical to embrace these teachers right away as they prepared to leave their school homes to help me shape our new one. Likewise, I needed to get to know them so I could be intentional with building teams within our school and have a grasp on both strengths and needs. As soon as I was permitted, I contacted all of my teachers by phone to welcome them. I followed that up immediately by scheduling trips to each teacher’s teaching location at that time, in many cases to meet them for the first time. When we met, I provided them with my personal contact information and contact information for our school. I also posed some questions and really listened to their responses.

  • Where have you been as an educator and an individual?
  • What opportunities do you hope to have?
  • What do you hope to step away from at this time?
  • What do you want me to know about you?
  • What is on your mind now?

Really valuing the information they shared along the way, I decided to embed this at another point in the year, too. After winter break, I shared a Google spreadsheet with blocks of time I was available. I made sure I offered times at different points of the day, knowing that before school, after school, lunch and prep time would be better for different teachers for different reasons. In advance of these meetings, I posed a couple basic considerations:

  • Tell me what is going well.
  • Tell me where there are challenges or where we could do better.

When I invite teachers to pick a time I stress that it is not mandatory and it is strictly a time for me to listen. I tell them I will keep the content of our conversation confidential unless I discuss it with them first. I remind them that it isn’t evaluative and I want to hear what they have to say, even if they think I won’t like it. If you are an administrator, I really encourage you to think about adding this to your practice. Consider this as you do:

  • Trust- Some of your teachers will be hesitant to share and may not take you up on this offer until they hear from colleagues what it was like. Others may embrace it right away.
  • Ideas- You’ll get some great ideas! For example, we started hosting one faculty meeting a month in a different part of the building so a team of teachers could lead off by sharing their work. 
  • Value- Listen carefully and talk little! Show teachers that you value their thoughts and their time.
  • Needs- It is critical to listen to what the teacher says, and what they don’t say, to assess his or her needs as an individual and a teacher. Sometimes in this one-on-one setting, what you’ll hear may be different than what you predicted.
  • Solutions-  While in some instances this was an informal conversation, some teachers approached me with written notes and their noted challenges were often matched with a possible solution. 
  • Follow-up- Be willing to take time beyond that 15 minutes to address what a teacher brings. In some cases that meant more one-on-one time and for others it meant a conversation with our School Leadership Council or another team .

While I had the bulleted terms in that last section listed in my draft, I filled them in today, so I’m not sure that’s exactly what I was thinking at the time; it is, however, what I believe to be important looking back. Admittedly, I allowed that intended time get chipped away and didn’t have those meetings in January. That explains the post in the draft folder, huh? I still think this is critical to share, for while I did use other measures to collect feedback, I missed out by not having these individual meetings. And with that our teachers and kids likely missed out, too. This spring, I accepted a principal position in a different district, and I’m committed to reinstate these meetings. I’ll start with those first questions I used when I met my new teachers at my last school, and follow up with an additional check-in meeting mid-year and at the close of the year. Other measures, while often valuable for a specific purpose, just didn’t give me the same feedback and connections as I got 15 minutes at a time.