Thursday, June 30, 2016

Five Things I Learned from My First Year as Team Leader

Our high school places much more emphasis on grade level teams than departments. To that end, all of our teachers are attached to a specific grade level, and our core teachers typically teach only students from that grade. For example, I may teach geometry and algebra II, but my classes are all sophomores, with the exception of three students. Each grade level team has a team leader (aka Dean), and any non-urgent issue should pass through the grade level team leader before going to administration. Moreover, our schedules are specifically designed such that the entire core team (Math, Science, English, Social Studies, Language, and SpEd) has the same prep time every other day for 90 minutes, with the intent that some of that time will be used for meeting.

This year I took on the role of team leader, in a school so new that we hadn't graduated a senior class, with a sophomore class that I been warned about. These are five of the many things I learned.

1. Preparation.

It wasn't until December that I started planning for our week long class field trip in the spring. It wasn't until January of my first year that I realized that I had never been trained in our schools academic intervention protocol. And, it wasn't until April that I realized that not every member of our team was taking accurate data on our students. All three issues blew up in my face in one way or another.

I suppose there isn't a MTBoS or a "First like Third" for deans and grade level leaders. I've talked with @Borschtwithanna and @jaz_math about their experiences transitioning into leadership roles, and we had a productive meeting at TMC16. But, with all the nuances and confidentiality issues, it's difficult to be open about your experiences. For now, the best preparation is experience.

2. You won't know how to deal with everything, and that's okay.

I thought I had been called some pretty nasty names and seen my share of odd behaviors. But, when you lead a group of teachers, the issues in their classroom suddenly become your issues too. Issues that you would normally prevent before they arose suddenly land on your desk without any forewarning. This is probably the toughest part of my new role, and by working through it, I have gained I have a newfound respect for my administrators. There were many cases I had no idea how to deal with, and many things I have to learn from my principal. But, I've learned to take things as they come and understand that I can't possibly have control or even knowledge of all issues in all the classrooms on my team. In this case, it looks like experience is the best preparation.

3. Perhaps there should be a fine line between teacher and administrator, but it's often blurred.

Often, teachers on my team would come to me complaining about a student. I had to learn to step back from the break room gossip and respond in a way that would be constructive for the teacher. At the same time, I tried to develop a very friendly rapport through consensus building, and only making top-down decisions when absolutely necessary. Thankfully, everyone on my team had been teaching for at least a few years and had their stuff together. They let me dance between the teacher, administrator, and friend lines with very few issues. Next year I'll probably have at least a few different teachers, and the dynamic will shift.

4. There are three other grades in the school: use them to your advantage.

At the minimum, it is important to ensure that all the grades are on the same page clerically (timing field trips so they don't overlap, coordinating special events) and academically (common rubrics, similar good assessment techniques, etc). However, I learned that leading the sophomore team requires more. It is important to reach out to the seniors and ask for students to TA a sophomore class during a study hall. It is critical to have an assembly where Juniors starting their college applications reflect publicly. And, it is well worth the time to have sophomores set the example for our new freshman by leading norming sessions. A high school has a natural hierarchy, and it's important to embrace it.

5a. They're just kids.

Procedures are important. Rules have their place. But, kids are kids and everyone has their bad days. When I started the year, I thought I would tow the line and hold up high expectations. But, when I started to see students with difficult home lives and exceptional circumstances, I began to bend. I had always seen the the typical issues students might face in a Title 1 school, but instead of just seeing each student for 90 minutes every other day, I saw a much more holistic version. So, I bent. You're family can't afford a uniform? You can be out of dress code until we figure something out. Parents working and can't get you to school? I guess we'll have to excuse the tardies. Couldn't do your homework because you were working? Just hand it in next week. And then the slide started...

5b. But, they're still kids.

It turns out that both students and teachers need structure. Bending a rule for a few students can quickly turn into breaking it for everyone, especially when other teachers are looking at you. It's difficult to understand a situation without context, and I understand how seeing your team leader make an exception for a student from down the hall can be easily misunderstood as a rule change. We especially had issues with a high number of nuanced and ever changing rules (dress code, tardy procedure, code of conduct). By the end of the year, nobody knew exactly what the expectations were because they had changed so frequently, either explicitly or by a sort of implicit "let's just follow what Janes is doing and hope for the best". And, as we all know, once the teachers start being inconsistent, the students can run the show.

I suppose my resolution is to work with my administration to set a shorter, unchanging, and more enforceable set of rules and expectations for the sophomore students. In addition, I'll need to work with the entire team of teachers to develop a common understanding and a uniform procedure when students need to circumvent those rules, if only for a day. Building rapport and background with students is key in order to recognize those days when a specific student needs a break.

All in all, a long and exhausting year, but one that taught me a great deal about myself, my teachers, and the students we work with every day.


On to year two!