Four Tips for School Administrators to Help Stay Connected with Students

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” — John le Carre, author

And in that simple sentence, Le Carre nails it.

School administrators like me usually start out as teachers who got into this profession to work with children. Alas, we often find that moving upward in the profession pushes us farther away from them. We move from schools to administrative buildings, classrooms to offices, conversations to emails. We spend more time talking to adults than talking with children. Slowly and silently, if we’re not careful, the child begins to fade from our view.

Elementary School TeacherKeeping our connection to children requires us to do more than just be where they are, though that is important. Instead, we need to create an expectation that we will have a place in their lives (and those of their parents and the teaching staff). Here’s how to do it:

Establish a schedule

Most of an administrator’s day involves moving from meeting to meeting, answering phone calls and, sometimes, stealing some alone time to read. To get around this, we have to build time into our schedules to walk the halls and visit classrooms.

If your school has multiple student events going on, think about balancing out your visits so no group feels left out. Your presence — especially when it’s unexpected — sends a strong message about your priorities. Also, if you have an administrative assistant, ask that upcoming events get placed on your schedule automatically.

Watch and be present

As former classroom teachers, we share an impulse to play a role in any activity. Whether by guiding a discussion, responding to students or lecturing, we are comfortable with being at the center of the classroom.

For administrators, one of the best ways to connect with students is to simply watch them at work in the classroom. No need to ask detailed questions or have them explain the activity (while that can be done from time to time). Your presence sends the message that you value what they’re doing.

Make your intentions clear (avoid perpetual evaluation mode)

It’s well known that the act of observing an event changes the event being observed. While it’s great to stop into classrooms from time to time to visit with students, remember that your presence changes the dynamic. You go from seeing an event happening naturally to an event being unconsciously changed due to your presence.

So does that mean you shouldn’t visit classrooms to connect with students? No, it means that you have to understand it for what it is — an informal drop-in to foster connections with students and staff. Yes, you will be able to collect some information on the quality of the lesson, but most likely your presence will motivate people to change their behavior. Yet the more you visit, the less the class will change. Keep that in mind.

I strongly suggest avoiding specific feedback on the class to the teacher after your visit (unless safety is at stake or the class was being conducted poorly). Doing this makes teachers feel they’re living in perpetual evaluation mode. Teachers need to know they can simply perform their duties in your presence and not be preoccupied with what may be coming from you.

Set up a focus group

A more formal way to stay connected with students is to organize meetings with them. As John Maeda says in his book “Redesigning Leadership,” nothing gets students to chat with you faster than putting “free pizza” at the bottom of the flyer.

Children enjoy it when adults listen to them and value their opinion. Don’t be surprised if these meetings feel somewhat stilted at first; over time the children will grow more comfortable.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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