When a teacher is absent at my school, the principal sends an all-staff email with this wording: “The following teachers have decided to call in today …” He says it’s so everyone knows to give extra support given the sub shortage, but the language makes it sound like we’re lazy. I was sick Sunday night and put in an absence request at 2 a.m. When I got to work on Tuesday, I not only had the email from my principal but a follow-up from our school’s G/T teacher saying, “Because Ms. Taylor is absent, the following students will not receive their G/T services today …” because she was assigned to provide coverage for me. This feels out of control—how do I turn around my school’s shame-y culture toward absences? —Ew, David
When I give advice to teachers, I sometimes launch into Experienced Teacher mode. My Experienced Teacher self was much braver and bolder than her New Teacher counterpart. But it’s important to remember that Experienced Teacher was only born out of years of New Teacher anxiety around having tough conversations or standing up when something is unfair (and it’s worth mentioning that my administrators during New Teacher phase were borderline tyrannical).
So I’ll provide several different options, in the order that I think is most effective for the change you’re wanting. You can pick based on your comfort level:
- Talk to your principal. Ask your principal to schedule a time you can chat one-on-one about something you’ve noticed. Start by connecting with the core issue, then state your feelings, then lead into proposed solutions. “I know the sub shortage is hard on teachers and administrators. I know it’s easier for everyone when teachers can be here, but I’m worried that the language we use as a community around absences feels demeaning and places unfair blame on teachers. I think some training on language will help boost morale—may I have 10 minutes at the next faculty meeting to talk about it?”
- Offer to create a better coverage system yourself. Ms. Taylor might be mad because she’s constantly pulled out of her classroom to provide coverage instead of a more fair rotating system where each teacher pitches in. Examine the system with input from other teachers and offer to create a better one.
- Show your school board the impact of the sub shortage. Come with data (e.g., “4 days this week, my students lost class time because I had to provide coverage by watching 45 students at one time”), and remind them of the type of impact that would actually matter to them (“I would hate to see our test scores impacted because we decided not to take steps to attract more substitute teachers.”).
- Help remind Ms. Taylor that you are a human. Ask her about the pictures on her desk, her classroom plants, her weekend plans. Don’t pander to her, but talk about your honest gratitude for her job (G/T services matter a lot!) or nice things students say about her. Connecting with her might help her see that even though it’s disappointing when she misses out on her classroom, there’s a real person with real needs that she’s covering.
- Change schools. Honestly, this sounds like a principal who is either unaware or unfazed by demeaning language—both of which are red flags to me.
An older teacher on our campus often uses outdated, exclusionary language—things like “You don’t have to yell—I’m not deaf!” or “Don’t be such a girl about it.” She’s an amazing teacher and genuinely loves our kids, but I cringe every time she says things like this. I’m friendly with her and am fine talking to her about this, but is it better to go to administration with something like this? —Cringing Into the Next Century
Make no mistake: This kind of language is still harmful. While it isn’t outright hate speech, this teacher needs to stop using language implying that a good percentage of this population she “genuinely loves” is defective.
Ask if you can schedule a time to talk with her in private. Explain that you’re worried about two things: the harm she might be unintentionally causing students, and the swiftness with which her job and retirement might be in jeopardy if an angry parent told the right school board member.
If she’s receptive, offer some examples of language she can swap and resources for her to learn more. If she’s not receptive and implies she’ll continue to use that kind of language, then you go to your AP.
But regardless of how she responds, it sounds like your school could use some diversity and inclusion training. Suggest them to your principal as PD.
I originally became a teacher to teach art but got hired at my current school to teach English. Over the years, I’ve become good at what I do, but ultimately I really want to be in the art classroom. When we had an art vacancy four years ago, my principal begged me to stay in the English department and said he would definitely consider me if the spot opened again. Now, the art teacher is leaving—I really want that position and will be angry if I waited years just to be told no. How do I remind my principal of this without sounding threatening? —My Art Belongs With Another Class
First, bringing up your principal’s own words is not threatening. Unless you have a brand-new baby principal (which he’s not, because he was your principal four years ago), he has undoubtedly dealt with this exact kind of situation before. If he can’t handle a simple reminder, I might posit that you don’t want to work for him.
Consider what you’ll do if you don’t get this job. Would you want to find an art position at a different school? Or will you stay where you are as an English teacher? If the latter, examine the possibility that he might never give you the art teacher position—would you be OK with that?
If not, talk to your principal. “I’m sure you know I’m interested in the art position. I’m grateful for your belief in me as an English teacher, and I’ve gained important skills there over the past four years. But seeing the art position open helped me realize that I know I need to be in the art classroom next year, whether it’s here or at another school. If you don’t think I can be your art teacher, I understand—but I want to make sure you have enough time to find a quality replacement for me.”
Be prepared for him to try to change your mind. But always trust your gut over your principal’s guilt.
Do you have a burning question? Email us at email@example.com.
I’m in my first year of teaching. A few times last semester, my principal called me on a Sunday about helping to provide coverage for another teacher, which I didn’t think was a big deal. But now, my principal regularly calls on the weekend or during evenings with all sorts of requests. The latest was if I could start holding afternoon tutorials for our department. It’s my first year of teaching—is this normal? —The Number You Have Dialed Is Not on Contract Hours