What Administrators Need: Part II (Pam Moran and Matt Haas)

My cell phone rang from the passenger seat of my car as I crossed the last intersection before a two-mile stretch of Hydraulic Road leading to Albemarle High School, my high school. A clear blue May sky stretched out above the Blue Ridge Mountains. The time was 7:40 a.m., and I had just dropped off my seven-year-old at school; my thoughts were on the AP and Virginia Standards of Learning testing schedule ahead of us for the day. I reached for the phone, flipped it open, and lifted it to my ear. On the other line was a parent of one of our juniors and a friend of the family. Her voice was anxious.

“Matt, there’s been an accident where Ashland Drive crosses Route 29 North!” she said.“I think it’s a student. I think it’s all right. The traffic is backed up, though.”

I thanked her for the information and dialed our school resource officer to see if he had any information on the accident. The word forlorn comes to mind.

“Hi, Matt. I was just about to call you. There’s been a bad accident up here. A panel truck ran a red light and just – well – just t-boned her car.”

I pulled over to the side of the road, “Whose car?”

One of our students, on her way to take an AP exam that morning, was killed. It has been three years since that day, and I still haven’t reconciled. As any principal can tell us, losing a student is heartbreak, devastation with no reprieve.

Before calling in the crisis response team, I called my wife for strength. In the wake of our student’s death that morning, I followed all the steps we take in a crisis situation: notified central office, called an emergency staff meeting, and then waited for the AP testing session to finish before informing all the students in the session what had happened. They were her friends; they had to know first. Just prior to that, I found her brother and walked him to our school resource officer to be driven home. Her parents wanted to be the first to tell him what happened, but the fear in his eyes told me he was guessing hard. He must have read my face.

The day culminated with a live broadcast from our in-house TV production studio to the student body. I shared the story with them, simply confirming for some what happened. That evening the athletic director and I visited her parents at home. She was the third of our 1,700 student family to die tragically in the past four years. I know and feel that any child’s passing is a tragedy; some grip a whole school community.

When I arrived early at school the next morning I was greeted at my office door by the school psychologist. Before he really had a chance to say anything, I started to rattle off actions for the day to take care of students, staff, and parents.

Patiently, he waited for me to finish. We found seats across from one another. Sunlight settled on us through the office windows. He gave pause, looked me in the eye to get my attention, and asked me what I needed. The guilt I felt for his asking me this was overwhelming.

“Well, I think I need to rewind about 24 hours and be up there at the intersection to stop that truck. Otherwise, I don’t need anything.”

He waited for what I said to sink into me and then let me know he was there to help me too, but I’ve never been very good at expressing my own needs. I have never met an educator who really can. We almost always express our needs in terms of student needs.

I challenge any teacher to ask and answer this question without naming something that is meant to help a child: “What do I need?” A teacher is a parent in every sense of the word. When passengers on an airliner, we are all trained to don a dropped, clear-plastic oxygen mask before putting it on our child, but we are all revolted by that thought.

Using a pyramid to represent hierarchy, we have long structured human needs from basic to the most profound as defined by Abraham Maslow. I think there is no coincidence that we have also structured school leadership as a hierarchy as well. I offer a Venn diagram and propose that three communities or sets of needs merge in a school: those of students, teachers (including support staff), and administrators. At the point of merger is the set containing our most vital need, the need to actualize. Each of us needs to become everything we are meant to become, and we need each other to do it.

In a school, needs become communal, and I believe, less hierarchical and more situational. People tend to rely on one another in order to realize their needs. I hesitate to say that we need from one another; rather, we need one another.

As these merging sets of needs grow and distend from lack of satisfaction and clarity of moral purpose, they can tend to squeeze and shrink our central merger of actualization. I think that many teachers today feel the pain of this state. I also think that students have felt this pain for a long time: the pain of deferred needs and dreams. Often, as I illustrated above, administrators are the last to even express a need, let alone a need from someone else at school.

So the question is, “What do administrators need from teachers?” The answer is that administrators need teachers and students. I have never felt that we need something from them. We need them. We need their relationships, their friendships, their dreams and achievements, and their acceptance. There is really no hierarchy with leadership; people construct a hierarchy to manage.

In turn and in merger, we all need each other as we work toward the moral purpose of learning. When we realize our overlapping needs, we lean toward problem solving rather than evils; we merge around creativity rather than fear; and we actualize individually and as a community. We can put ourselves first to save children, and we can put them first to save us. We synergize.

When I think in these terms, I can frame the relationship I had with my departed student: the child I watched running – long red hair trailing her like a comet’s tail – across the soccer field two weeks before her passing. I needed to be the one who shouldered her passing for the school, to console her parents, to honor her, and to be someone on whom the teachers and students could depend. I would give anything to change what happened; I was needed.

What Administrators Need: Part I (Pam Moran and Matt Haas)

Dear Scott,

I haven’t really answered your question, “What do administrators need from teachers?” Instead, I’ve deferred to a colleague who has a most unique perspective. I’d like to share some background about him- before you read his story and response to your question. By the way, I’ve always liked to color outside the lines of work so you are getting something you didn’t ask for- two blogs in one day!

Dr. Matt Haas currently serves as secondary director for Albemarle County Public Schools. Until two years ago, he led a high school of around 1700 students. This past spring Matt came into my office, sat down at my stained and worn country-kitchen worktable. Looking me in the eye, he said, “I need to ask you something.”

He looked a bit nervous, not a usual state for Matt, and my thoughts immediately turned to a concern that perhaps something was really not going well for him. Instead, the question he asked shocked me, compelled me, and indeed moved me.

I was forced to sit, silent for a moment, to contemplate a response to a question I had never been asked by a central office instructional leader. “May I teach a class in a high school next year?”

My first thought, I confess, was how would Matt ever be able to do his job as an administrator. Then, words floated back to me from my first administrative mentor, “Pam, if teachers come into your office with a new idea they want to try out, give them a chance. Even if you believe it won’t work, do NOT say no. Figure out how to make it work. As soon as you start saying no, you will close down the potential for growth and creativity forever more in your school.”

I took a deep breath, pushed away the list of Matt “to dos” for the next year, and said, “yes.” Then, I asked him, “why?” His response came without hesitation, “The last time I taught a class was in the 20th century. I think I need to experience teaching in the 21st.”

This year, Matt holds down his day job as Secondary Director and teaches a heterogeneous group of 30 ninth grade English/Language Arts learners. These two jobs now often keep him up after midnight. He writes in his journal about his experiences and I hope he’ll eventually blog for the education world. He’s tried out Poll Everywhere as a personal response system and found that almost all his students have cell phones. He’s using Edmodo with the class.

Tech learning curve? It’s been a bit of a problem, but he says his kids can teach him just about anything he wants to do with tech apps. He’s asked for a document camera so he can share printed work more easily to facilitate group conversations. He’s also shared his frustrations with me about the same tech challenges faced by colleagues in the classrooms around him- time to learn new skills, infrastructure, tech access, etc.

Most importantly, Matt’s found out what happens to kids in his class who don’t have dictionaries in their home- let alone tech devices and proximity to Internet access. Despite their learning struggles, he worries every day about these learners because he sees such potential in them. He shared that they take to tech-accelerated work like “ducks to water” and he knows he’s opening critical learning pathways for them.

He’s figuring out how to support them with extra access options at school and is securing devices they can check out for home use. However, he also experiences angst because these learners without Internet access can’t get 24/7 chances to collaborate and network with peers who have home devices. He worries about every one of his learners, but he’s especially concerned about those who are blocked from participating in the full range of learning options available to kids who simply are born into middle class homes with college-educated parents. So, when he uses Poll Everywhere, he’s figured out how kids without cell phones can log responses from his phone. He shared with me recently that one such student took her own iPhoto and turned it into his phone wallpaper. He laughed about that. Then, our conversation turned poignant about this student who doesn’t have a cell phone and the constraints upon her learning.

I originally thought that Matt and I would co-write this piece drawing upon his experiences this year as he puts his feet simultaneously in the two worlds of teaching and administration. Then, when he sent me his initial draft, I felt I could add nothing to what he wrote- no questions, no pithy insights, no perspectives. I think he nailed it. I’m learning from his experiences this year and believe I will be a better superintendent for saying “yes” to him. I’m learning what it means to be a lifelong learner from Matt. He looks for and finds learners’ strengths rather than dwelling on their deficits. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference.

My answer to you, Scott, is simple. What I need are more educators who commit, feel, care, think and problem-solve like Matt. Give our children schools full of “Matts” and I believe we can change the industrial hierarchical model of teaching, learning and administration.