Building Trust: Working with Local Staff

            “I want to help you, but I can’t” was what I was told.  I am not big on being told no, especially by someone I had a working relationship with.  I was the Head of Department, and what I was asking was both reasonable and something that I had asked before.  I was frustrated with this fellow employee.  However, what I learned helped me to understand the importance of learning the culture as we build trust within the school system.

            When I worked in the public-school system in the states, there were clear structures and order to things.  There were ways to get things done that were followed.  However, there were also ways to get things done that had nothing to do with structure and order.  The second version, which usually was faster, was based on who you knew and how you related to them.  If you had met people, and built positive relationships with them, they were more likely to help you out in time of need.  At many times in my career, my relationships with the security team, grounds team, maintenance staff, and others has come in very handy when things have not gone the way they should.

            While working in the states, it is easy to meet people and build rapport.  Everyone, for the most part, speaks English as a first language and communication is easy.  If we want to build trust, we need to start by speaking with people.  Hold a conversation, ask questions, listen to the answers, and try to be supportive as you are able within the context of your job.  Following through with what you say you will do is also critical.  This is highly simplified and very dependent upon your role as a leader.  The greater your leadership role, the more critical discussions, listening, setting standards, and follow through become as a matter of trust.  How about overseas though?

            Some people assume it is much more difficult to build relationships, rapport, and trust with local staff.  It can be.  Language is the number one barrier in most schools. We don’t speak the local language and struggle to connect with the local staff.  However, language is only one barrier.  We can learn the local language, or at least some of it to break down barriers.  But we will likely never be fluent in the local language.  While this will continue to be a barrier, we can work to build rapport and trust by making attempts to use some local language.  This is only one barrier, and in my opinion not as big as we might think.

            Our attitude towards the people we work alongside is far more important than just language.  If we treat the local culture as less than ours, we will never truly build rapport and positive relationships with the people we work with.  I have heard the phrase “ugly American” in many places I have worked and visited.  It is not a positive phrase and rightly given due to the actions of some Americans with a specific attitude living or visiting abroad.  We want to avoid treating others poorly just because we think we do things better in our country.  We are guests in another country and must respect that.  Even though we may not agree with what we observe, we need to work within their system to make changes rather than work within our context.

            Cultural context and expectations become much more important when working with locally hired staff.  If we attempt to do things according to our own cultural context we are likely to run into challenges as we do not do things according to the country we are working.  This can create cultural divisions and increase levels of distrust with the people we work with.  The appearance is that we are imposing our beliefs and values on a system that operates differently.  I have found a willingness to work within the cultural context of the country we reside is valued and increases the level of trust and willingness to work with one as a person. 

            The example I gave at the beginning was an actual example.  The staff member I worked with did want to work with me.  However, I was asking him something that needed to be asked in a different way.  The greatest gift he gave me that day was explaining to me how to ask for assistance for that issue and others in the future.  When I left the school, he shared with me, years later, that he appreciated that I knew how to work with him and his staff as many people did not learn how to do that.

            Building rapport with people you work with and building trust in any context is important and, in many cases, critical.  In my experience, speaking with people, taking time to listen, setting clear expectations and following through are the critical pieces for building trust in any culture.  However, once we leave the comfort of our own culture, we must recognize that there are different rules for how things happen and how these relationships develop.  We must be willing to step outside our own context and acknowledge that things work differently than we might know.  If we wish to build trust, we must be aware of our own lack of knowledge of the culture we work in, accept that we operate differently, then learn how to operate within the context of the country we are working.  Too often, we are quick to notice differences as faults.  In this case, acknowledging that our differences can be strengths if we are willing to be open and learn from those, we work with is the key.

            I hope as you work within your school setting that you build positive, healthy relationships with local staff.  Commit to learning more about them and how the structure of leadership works within their context so that you can be more effective in your leadership.  This will pay dividends in the long run towards building trust.  If you commit to this piece, and work within the leadership structure of the organization, this will increase trust between you and the staff you work with.

            Feel free to contact us if you are interested in our insight on this or any of the topics we write about.


Classroom Management: Observing the Start of Class

          Routines are those things we regularly do.  The patterns of our life as it were.  The examples of patterns in our lives are endless.  Our morning routine of waking up and, for me at least, starting the water for coffee, checking my phone for social media, getting breakfast for my children, and getting ready for the day.  These consistencies allow me to start my day and get in the mindset for the work ahead.

          Classrooms are a series of expected routines that the student recognizes and is familiar with.  This routine brings stability and consistency to the student.  They know what to expect and they know what is likely to happen next.  A dramatic shift from the normal routine can cause significant behavioral shifts in the classroom.   Consider the impact of an unplanned fire alarm on the school day, or the week before a major break.  So, what routines should the administrator look for when observing?

          Let’s take a look at the start of the class rather than the entire lesson.  In this we will look at just Entering the Classroom to Starting the Class.  This is a significant time of transition and sets the tone for the entire class ahead.  For reference, I draw heavily from the work of Michael Grinder and Kendall Zoller especially in the areas of getting attention and connecting with the audience.

          The management of students entering the classroom is far more important than most people realize, especially during the beginning of the school year.  As the teacher, you are verbally and non-verbally setting the tone for the period of time you see them. 

There are a myriad of examples on YouTube and other social media about teachers doing all kinds of greetings and individual handshakes for their class.  I don’t know about you, but keeping track of 15 – 20 different greetings or handshakes per class is not going to happen for me.  So, my advice, do what comes natural for you or for your teachers.  Do not try to fake something that you are not.

As an observer, I want to see the teacher greeting students and interacting in a positive manner.  I like seeing teachers meeting students at the door, making eye contact, and greeting the students.  This serves as an initial greeting for your classroom and setting high expectations.  It also allows a first contact that is positive and if one is observant, an idea of where the student is at socially and emotionally for the day.  Each teacher will be different, but a positive greeting goes a long way towards connecting with students.  This sets a positive tone for the class and provides the teacher with some information about the students for the day.

As the students enter the classroom, it should be apparent that there is some sense of what to do next.  Do they hang their bags up?  Do they get their materials out?  Do they turn in work somewhere?  Is there some task accessible, that the student can begin work on and engage with the learning?  Does the teacher provide a written task on the board or projected on a screen describing the starting task or activity?

An entrance task limits down time, engages the student immediately with the subject, and sets a tone of importance for the class work.  All of this can be done without the teacher supervision, but it must be taught at the beginning of the school year and set as a routine.  An administrator walking in this class will see academic engagement and students on a task.  When the students are asked about the work, they should describe some version of expectation to get started immediately.

This is a time of significant transition for the class.  It is that moment where the students move from the passing period to the start of class.  This is where I draw on the work of Michael Grinder for Getting Their Attention.  I look for the following non-verbal and verbal cues when starting the class:

Teaching Space (non-verbal):  A teacher has a spot in the classroom where he or she teaches.  If you observe teachers, it is easy to spot but they may not realize that they are doing this.  Where do they stand to teach and give instructions?  Teachers always have a teaching space that they work from.  Do they come to that spot before beginning teaching?  If so, students engage quicker knowing that this spot is important for instruction.

          Freeze the Body (non-verbal): In preparation for the transition, the teacher, when in the teaching space, stops moving and freezes their body.  This is a non-verbal shift in the students mind that something is happening.  With practice, the teacher entering the teaching space and stopping will gain the attention of the class.  The caution is that this is a transitional state.  The teacher should not remain stationary for the entire class.  Just long enough to gain attention, using the Above – Pause – Whisper, as the verbal transition.  Then the teacher may continue with the discussion.

          Above Pause Whisper (verbal): When the teacher speaks to gain attention, how do they sound?  What is their volume level?  Great managers know that they need to speak ABOVE the volume of the class with a short attention getting word or phrase to interrupt what is happening in the class.  An immediate PAUSE and freezing the body, allows the class to re-focus on the instructor.  Then dropping the voice down to a near WHISPER verbally draws the class in to the instruction before moving to the next step which is instruction.

          Physical Cue (non-verbal):  At the beginning of the year, the teacher should combine the teaching space, frozen body, and above pause whisper with a non-verbal cue.  I like to place my right arm at 90 degrees at my elbow with my hand up and the left hand at my bellow button.  The idea being that this non-verbal cue replaces the verbal cues over time.  If I have done this correctly, I will start with a verbal and non-verbal cue, and slowly drop the verbal cues in favor of the recognized non-verbals only.  In this, my management becomes less verbal and more non-verbal and if done consistently, expected by the class.  Then, one can begin teaching.

          Written Instruction / Entrance Task (verbal and non-verbal):  At the beginning of class, we need to teach students how we expect them to start.  Writing an activity on the board, projected slide, or other method where everyone can see, allows the teacher and students to refer to it.  Initially, the teacher needs to teach this Entrance Task, the activity that students are expected to start once in the class.  However, over time, if consistent, the students will recognize this starting task and beginning to work on their own.  Or, if the teacher is providing instruction for the start of class, it is available for reference by the students and teacher.  This limits the need for the teacher to repeat instructions, instead they can simply non-verbally point at the instructions when the student say, “I don’t know what to do”.  It also allows our English Language Learners the opportunity to process the written word rather than navigating verbal instructions.

          When I am asked to observe the start of class, these are things I look for as the teacher begins class.  One can learn a lot about how the management of the class by observing the start of the class.  This significant period of transition is worth paying attention to, especially at the beginning of the school year.  Extra attention given at this portion of class will pay benefits throughout the class period.

          If you are serious about changing the classroom management style of your school, get out and visit the classrooms.  Use informal observations and create a checklist for behaviors and management skills you wish to see.  Provide feedback to your teachers about what you saw.  Have a conversation with the teacher, or teachers about what you observed and the strengths or challenges they seem to be having.  Encourage the teachers to observe other teachers who are successful at classroom management, or are demonstrating successful practices in their classroom.

          Shifting the culture of a school takes time, hard work, commitment, communication, and a willingness to commit the time to make the shift.  Keep in mind that small changes can make significant impacts in a classroom, and school.  Consistency across the school in teacher expectations has shown to have significant positive impacts in students behavior and academic behavior of students.  I encourage you to take the first steps towards making positive shifts in your school climate and classroom management practices.

For more information on the above topics, I recommend you view some of the hyperlinked videos below as a frame of reference.  Michael Grinder and Kendall Zoller are experts in the field of non-verbal communication and have provided some excellent resources for you to review in this field.

High Expectations (Michael Grinder)

I share this video as an example of how teachers can adjust how they stand to increase the non-verbal expectations.

Above, Pause, Whisper (Michael Grinder)

A description of the skill set of Above, Pause, Whisper.

Above, Pause, Whisper – Demonstration (Michael Grinder)

A demonstration of Above, Pause, Whisper with a group of teachers.

Exit and Entrance Directions (Michael Grinder)

Michael describes an Exit Direction for use with students.  This is easily modified to become an entrance direction at the beginning of class for students.

Digital Workshop: The Choreography of Presenting (Kendall Zoller)

Kendall Zoller shares his Choreography of Presenting in this video. While not specifically classroom based, it does provide us with a great deal of information as educators when we consider how we present information to the classroom.

General Leadership

Teacher Care

            How do you take care of the mental and physical health of your teachers?  This is the question that came to my mind after reading the blog post titled, “We’re Constantly Talking on Students, What about the Teachers?”  This particular blog post is written based on a popular image going around about how a teacher checks in on the students.  The teacher obviously cares greatly about the students, as we all should.  We spend a great deal of time and money making sure students are physical and mentally well.  Do we do the same for our teachers?

            I would venture to guess that most schools and school groups are the same in their approach to teacher care.  The teachers have a set number of sick or well leave and a few personal days.  The teacher can take those when needed.  However, when the teacher is gone, he or she must still write lesson plans, prepare assessments, provide detailed notes that anyone could follow, and have a high level of confidence that some or all of the plan will not be followed.  For most of us, it is far easier to come is sick than it is to be out a day or two.  If you are lucky, your principal or partner teachers will tell you to go home and they will cover your class.

            What about the mental health and well being of teachers?  If a teacher is sick, there are outward symptoms and a chance of infection which they can be sent home for.  But those teachers quietly struggling with overwhelming stress, perhaps depression, feelings of inadequacy, lack of support for struggling students, or any number of other issues, they too often do not show any symptoms other than a tired teacher.  What do we do to help our fellow teachers who are mentally struggling and don’t feel that they are sick?  What can we as administrators do to support the staff we work with?  Here are three ideas to get you started.

            How well do you know your teachers?  Building positive relationships with teachers is the first step towards a healthy staff environment.  If you are seen as both the leader and someone that they know and can trust, the staff is more likely to be open and honest with you.  This will require a bit of a tough skin on the administrators’ part, because you may get some difficult feedback, but in the long run, the community is stronger.  Know the teachers you work with as more than names and subject areas.  Listen to their challenges and do what you can to alleviate known stressors to the extent you are able.  This is a good first step towards building a healthy school and caring for your staff.

            Trust the staff if they say that the need a day for sickness or mental health.  I have personally been told, when I said I needed a sick day, “I hope we can find a substitute for you.”  This made me questions whether I really needed to take a day as it would put stress on my fellow teachers.  They would have to cover my class.   This only adds to the teachers’ stress.  On the other hand, I was also told by a principal, “Take a mental health day and take care of yourself.”  That little bit of trust allowed me to care for myself to do my job better.  If you are willing to step into the classroom to take care of the students when a substitute can’t be found, the teachers’ level of support will also rise because they see you doing the same thing they may be asked to do.

            Tell staff members to go home and then support them when they do.  When teachers are coming in because they are sick, or you learn that they need a day off, tell them to take it.  Tell them to go home in the morning or midday when you learn of it.  This may be a challenge with sick leave days and coverage depending on the school or leadership.   We should not do things that will run us afoul of our leadership.  At the same time, one should be able to flex within the rules and contract language to support teachers.  Teachers who need a day to get healthy should feel that they can take it and be supported within the school policies.  This may mean working to provide cover for the teacher at last minute, including you doing the coverage.  This will help to bring the staff moral up when teachers know that you are willing to help and support them in difficult times. 

            All of the above is under the assumption of normal day to day stress and conditions.  In the event of an emergency, flu epidemic, inclement weather, or any other cause that significantly impacts the school, we must address these on a case by case basis and under the conditions.  For example, if a flu epidemic sends half of your teachers home for multiple days, you deal with it to ensure the safety of the students which may mean that class instruction is limited based on who you have available to you.  In an emergency when the teacher has to leave, we address it and cover for the teacher so that they can take care of the situations.  Again, a little support for teachers goes a long ways.

            One final point for administrators in schools where programs exist that students must be restrained on a regular basis.  Have a plan in place for student care and teacher care.  A teacher, who has actively restrained a student, should not go in front of a class without ensuring that he or she is ready to do so.  A restraint is a traumatic event and can be very physical even if done under the best of conditions.  The teacher will need time to come down from the event, collect themselves, complete reports about what happened, and prepare to go in front of the class.  Be very aware of how the teacher is doing and allow them space to process before they get put in front of students again.  The same goes for teachers dealing with fights, lifeguards, or anyone who is in a situation where they are dealing with a crisis.  Support them as needed including providing cover for classes so they can come back at their fullest.

            As administrators, we are responsible for both students and teachers.  Teaching is hard no matter how good you are.  Our students deserve our best so that we may take care of them.  Our teachers deserve to be treated as well so they can do the job we hired them to do which is be their best self in front of students.  Consider how you care for you teachers and continue to support them in the best possible ways.

Classroom Management

Classroom Management: First Things First

The first question the administration needs to ask itself is “why does classroom management matter to us?”  We can take a page from Simon Sinek and his book series including Start With Why (2009).  We need to know why we are going to address the behavior before we begin to tackle the classroom issues.  We often want to jump to the how we are going to do things and the what we are going to do before we have addressed the “why” question.

Each school is different and unique.  Each administrator has a reason for tackling the issue of improving classroom management with its teachers.  That reason may be a significant behavioral issue within the school.  There simply may be a desire to bring all teachers together with the same focus for classroom management.  Possibly, the goal is simply to improve school climate from good to great.  The first step is to identify why you are going to bring time, energy and resources to bear on classroom management.  Identifying you purpose for this will make it easier over time to remind your staff when you are discussing the how and why.

It is valuable to check your own beliefs, and that of the administrative team, about what the school values.  Undoubtedly, you have a discipline policy for the school that states some of these values and consequences for violating these rules.  But, what do you believe about the school climate?  Are there non-negotiables that the administration or school values and expects to be consistent across the school?  What about areas that you feel are not important to enforce?  Are these also identified?  Have you told your staff about the non-negotiables and how they are enforced?  What about the things you don’t feel are critical to the function of the school?  Those are as important to share with the staff.  I would strongly suggest that this is completed with a group of administrators and teachers for the best results.

Once you have set a baseline for expected behaviors, it is far easier to step into the teacher’s classroom to address specific behaviors, or general classroom management.  Not everything is critical in the school, but some things are.  Just like the teacher’s classroom.  Some teachers enjoy noisy teaching spaces while others expect near silence and both classes can be amazing and well managed.  Just like what the administrators’ value, teachers value different expectations class by class.  Your goal is to help teachers develop well managed classrooms that are highly effective, without your own personal biases impacting your decisions.

An administrator who can self-reflect and identify the why behind addressing classroom management issues within the school can clearly articulate this with the staff.  The removal of personal biases from the discipline and management process of the school, while difficult, is a key ingredient to moving forward.  The step helps to eliminate confusion among the teachers and the staff about key issues.  It also helps to clarify what is important for the staff and the students.  This process is not a simple one.  It is a lengthy reflective process that should be a key element in all important decisions in the school.  This is a valuable step in the process which will propel you forward to moving into the classroom with a clear sense of purpose and vision moving ahead.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, N.Y.: Portfolio.

Classroom Management

Why Good Classroom Management Matters

I have been thinking a lot about classroom management lately.  I have not been thinking about the discipline models, but the teacher’s management of their teaching space.  When I say classroom management, I am talking about everything that a teacher does from the moment a student walks in the door to when that student leaves to make the classroom run smoothly.  Classrooms where the educator is a master of management strategies are the classrooms where good things happen.

As an administrator, we want our teachers to understand the importance of structures, routines, patterns, and low-level discipline strategies in the classroom.  The teacher who manages the behaviors of students within the confines of the classroom makes our life easier.  There will be less referrals to the office.  There are less disruptions in the classroom.  The teacher has positive healthy relationships with students.  We want the teacher to feel empowered to manage students within the class knowing that we will support that teacher.

In contrast, we will be challenged by teachers who do not have good classroom management skills.  They struggle with maintaining positive, working relationships with students especially in difficult situations.  Their classes may struggle with completing work in a timely manner.  They may be challenged by maintaining good order in the classroom.  The management strategy of behavior may turn to sending students to the administration rather than addressing behavior in the classroom.

Once a teacher becomes accustomed to leaning on administration to address behavior, the students recognize this as an opportunity to get out of class.  Relationships may be damaged.  Behavior may escalate.  Students may not respect the administration and then, the administrator must decide how to respond to the teacher to address the management issues.  In a positive setting, we would identify this early and address it with mentoring, instruction, observation, and guidance.  We want our teachers to succeed and be strong academic teachers and have positive relationships with students in regular daily interactions.  Good classroom management strategies are necessary for teachers to be successful in their room.

We will need to address behaviors of students.  That is part of the job.  We will be required to deal with extreme behaviors by students and address those when they happen.  However, on a daily basis, we want our teachers to address as much in the class as possible and support them when needed.  It makes our job easier.  In the coming weeks, I will add my thoughts on how teacher can become good managers by identifying key areas of their classroom management plans and strategies.  I will also identify areas that administrators can support their teachers to become better managers of student behavior.

In future writings on this topic, I will draw from the works of Dr. Kendall Zoller, Michael Grinder, and others as a point of reference.  There is a wealth of great resources available for administrators and teachers regarding classroom management.   I look forward to sharing some of it with you.