Administrators: Be The Support We Need

Jess Ledbetter Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Uncategorized

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Deep breath in. The beginning of a school year feels like a fresh morning in the mountains: new energy, new students, new staff members. Everyone is busy, but there is hopefulness. It reminds me of standing on the porch watching birds flutter around peacefully. I don’t mind pausing for a few minutes to take it in. I wish the whole school year could feel like this. The rejuvenated feeling in August is nothing like the exhausted, depleted feeling in May.

Each year, school principals lead their staff on a journey from August to May. This job is not for the faint of heart. From what I can tell, being a principal in Arizona requires superhero powers. To add additional pressure, recent studies suggest that school administrators have significant influence on teacher retention and attrition. According to the Fall 2017 Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellows report, “most teachers agreed that school climate influences teacher retention, and they pointed to the role of administrators and school staff in determining school climate and culture” (p. ii). In the 2017 TELL AZ survey results, 30% of teachers reported that school leadership was the most influential teaching condition that affects their willingness to keep teaching at the same school, as shown in the graph below. (In fact, many of these teaching conditions below can be influenced by a school principal.)

Teacher Responses to TELL AZ Survey Q10.3

TELL AZ Teaching conditions for retention


With an ongoing teacher shortage in Arizona and declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs across the country, we must do all we can to retain teachers. So I started wondering: What are some qualities that teachers are looking for in a supportive administrator? What type of administrator makes teachers want to return every year?

I reached out to teachers through social media and asked some questions: (1) What qualities make you feel supported by an administrator ideally? What are some examples of what that looks like? And (2) What qualities make you feel unsupported by an administrator? What are some specific examples that have happened to you that decreased your morale or sense of safety?

I received responses from about twenty teachers during this social media project. With so many great ideas, I spent time reflecting about how to summarize and share their powerful ideas in a concise style. I decided to use a technique called poetic transcription. I took direct quotes from all the teachers who responded and rearranged them in a rhythmic way to create a free verse poem. I published a first draft of the poem on social media and asked for critical feedback. Teachers provided additional ideas that needed representation and I rearranged the quotes again.

Today, I am proud to introduce this poem: Words from teachers about their ideal leaders. I hope it provides affirmation and guidance for administrators who desperately want the best for their schools, students, and staff. I am so grateful for the work that you do. Journey on. Teachers need your support to stay in this challenging work.

Support to Stay poem

I’m looking forward to your reactions and comments below. If you’d like to read more suggestions for school principals, check out this recent blog from Beth Maloney! You might also enjoy this blog published on Cult of Pedagogy last year. If you’d like to see some more poetic transcription, check out the poems I wrote using participant quotes from my dissertation about Team Leadership in Special Education.

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Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms. Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

Comments 17

  1. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    Great work, Jess!!! A great administrator makes you want to stay. One that makes you feel unsafe and defensive will drive you away. It’s absolutely true. Thanks for also continually reminding us about the significance of the TELL survey and how it can be used to create meaningful improvement in our state.

    I can’t help but wonder: What can districts do to encourage great administrators to stay put? Seems like many of the good ones have their eyes on the horizon.

    1. Jess Ledbetter

      Thanks for the kind words! I imagine that school level administrators need support from their district office superiors just as teachers need support at the school. The ways we encourage and challenge each other in education can be so rewarding and sustaining. It would be interesting to read the poem in the mindset of a principal talking to those above them to see if some of the statements still ring true :)

  2. Sandy Merz

    Hey, Jess. Just like I suggested on Beth’s letter to a principal, I can’t help but think it’s a two-way street. Your support to stay is excellent, but I just reread it substituting the inverse. For example, how well have I listened to my principal’s ideas, or supported their growth. A crucial one is behavioral support – how much am I willing to change in management style?

    1. Jess Ledbetter

      I totally agree, Sandy! Maybe you could do a piece asking administrators what they are looking for in an ideal teacher! No doubt, a supportive and engaged staff would likely help retain administrators in their challenging work :)

  3. Mel

    Wow, Jess, the poem is incredible. Your poetic transcription is such a powerful way to convey what teachers are looking for in an administrator. Reading the poem drove home to me the nuanced and balanced leadership approach that teachers would like to see. It seems like the teachers are saying they’d like a leader who does not shy away from taking the helm in order to create supportive conditions. Likewise, this is a leader who recognizes the leadership of teachers and the value of their decision-making contributions to the school.

    1. Jess Ledbetter

      Hi, Mel! You really pulled out some of the bigger themes in your analysis! I totally agree. Thanks for the kind words, for your guidance in research methods, and for giving me the courage to explore unique methods of data representation! :)

  4. Leah Clark

    This is fascinating. I had a lengthy conversation with some of my administration this week about change. I have noticed many administrators are resistant to change. The “this is the way we have always done it” mentality is frustrating to me. As a newer teacher to my school, I have a fresh perspective and want to offer my ideas, but often times I don’t feel my ideas are valued or even listened to. I would add “Listen and consider new ways of doing things” to your poem. Thanks for the post! Love it!

  5. Jaime Festa-Daigle

    I will be totally transparent. As someone who serves as an administrator, I struggle with the line in the sand that indicates that like teachers, administrators are not doing everything within their powers to do all the things in the world to support teachers and students and parents and staff and community members and district admin, etc. Whenever I hear, the teachers need to… or principals need to… it is just so hard because every single one of us have strengths and areas to grow. With all that, and my guard being up just slightly, that poem is genius and beautiful. I feel all of those things in my heart. The words are so eloquent and simple and true.

    1. Jess Ledbetter

      I agree completely! I operate from the viewpoint that everyone in the world does their best, given the training and resources they’ve been provided. Actually, I think that was part of my motivation for this piece. I have seen a lot of AZ research coming out pointing to the importance of good administrators. I definitely don’t think that’s putting a negative light on AZ admin. I think it might be telling us that many teachers are choosing to stay for the good ones. And it made me curious what teachers mean when they say they want to work for a “good” administrator. For me personally, I love my administrator (and sent her this poem with some words of thanks for being awesome!) I bet many teachers feel the same way about their own administrators :) Thanks so much for your comments Jaime!

  6. Jen Robinson

    Hi Jess, Thank you for posting this blog. It really helped me adjust my mindset back to supporting teachers and recognizing where they are at this time. I reconnected by spending the day in classrooms and appreciating teachers. I will schedule days like this into my calendar. So powerful.

  7. Caitlin Corrigan

    I wanted to pick one line from the poem that really struck a chord with me, but every line did. Nicely worded!

  8. Sterling Colvin

    Thank you for sharing this blog! I am currently in college studying to be an elementary school teacher and I love the poem that you came up with. I liked the line “listen to my ideas and find ways to implement.” I think that everyone has something cool to bring to the table and the more educators comes together and work to implement those ideas, the better students education will be. It is so important to have a strong learning community where teachers and administrator support each others ideas and values.

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