Cindi Rigsbee is an award winning educator from North Carolina and author of "Finding Mrs. Warnecke." Rigsbee has been profiled on ABC's Good Morning America and other national publications. We talk about her experiences and focus in on the relationship between teachers and administrators.
Dr. Rod Berger: You have been recognized as a national and state educator of excellence. You have also engaged, at the state level, in the ongoing support and development of teachers. What have you learned about the relationship between successful educators and their administrators that could be used as lessons for both populations?
Cindi Rigsbee: If you had asked me early in my career to name the deciding factor in keeping teachers in the classroom, I would have provided some answers that probably aren't surprising: offer appropriate teacher pay, lower class size, maintain optimum working conditions, etc. But later in my career, with experience under my belt (and some research along the way), I now know that administrative support is the most important factor in ensuring educator success.
This support must start at the beginning of a teacher’s career; administrators shouldn't depend only on mentors and other personnel in teacher support positions to be available for novice teachers. Considering the experience level of the teacher when making decisions about scheduling and extra-curricular duties is important as we strive to retain those newest to our profession. In addition, communication between administrators and all teachers (regardless of experience level) is important so that educators feel as if they are part of a TEAM, all working toward the same goal.
The school should embrace a culture of “family” and should be a safe place where concerns are articulated in the open and not whispered in the back hallways. This practice of trust is critical in successful schools. And last, teachers want to work with administrators who recognize, and celebrate, the amazing things they see in classrooms. A quick email or note from an administrator to a teacher can make a huge difference and can be a boost for educators who work long, hard days doing important work impacting student success.
Dr. Rod Berger: I have had numerous discussions with school leadership about the challenges they face in communicating with their staffs. They often talk about interactions in a manner similar to that of teacher’s accounts with leadership. How can we support well-intentioned leadership on the best approaches to communicate with teachers in the current context of evaluations and performance plans?
Cindi Rigsbee: As I mentioned in the previous answer, communication tops the list when it comes to positive relationships between school leaders and staff members. As a teacher I have seen morale hit all-time lows when teachers depend on students, parents, and community members to provide information that should have been transparent, and communicated by school leadership, from the start.
It is one of the administration’s most important jobs to communicate with teachers any information that comes down from state departments of education and/or central offices. Intricate details about measuring teacher performance are too often shared in a brief, matter-of-fact manner and leave teachers feeling “in the dark” about matters that impact them the most. Truly, these days of access to 21st century tools leave us with no excuses when it comes to communication. I recall the days of the printed memo stuffed in teacher boxes; hard copies sometimes were misplaced or misunderstood with little opportunity for quick feedback.
An email, an electronic newsletter, an open wiki or web platform…all these offer methods of seamless communication between administrators and teachers. In this instance, I would also recommend the team and community approach – when teachers feel that they are privy to the same information given to school leaders, and when they feel they are safe when asking questions and requesting follow-up information, the school runs more smoothly, morale is higher, and school leaders as well as teachers are able to focus on the work at hand.
Dr. Rod Berger: Other industries talk about the new generation in their respective field and the differences between generations of employees. What should administrators know about early-career teachers that might be different from established teachers when thinking about ways to engage, motivate and guide them along their career path?
Cindi Rigsbee: This topic is actually one I cover in trainings with beginning teacher mentors. It’s important that we understand that this new, energetic generation is a cadre of professionals who may be different in many ways from the veterans in our schools. Our new “millennials” of course are more tech savvy than those of us who started teaching with Royal typewriters.
I have seen many examples of beginning teachers actually mentoring more experienced colleagues when it comes to tech tools. (First year teacher Jenny actually sat beside me to help me enter my grades onto an online platform for the first time). In addition, novice teachers are accustomed to quick communication – emails and text messages work better than phone calls and face-to-face conversations as well as readily accessible, and frequently updated, school website information. Also, our newest generation of teachers has grown up in a global society.
Those of us who were confined to classrooms with four walls may not understand beginning teachers’ need to reach beyond those walls and teach with the world at their fingertips. Access to technology is crucial for beginning teachers and their students, and a school with staff available for tech support is necessary. Engage them with interactive and fast-paced professional development (and provide follow-up across the school year), motivate them by noticing (and celebrating) their successes, and guide them by establishing and maintaining open communications (an open door policy) so that they feel safe enough to approach administrators with concerns as well as innovative ideas that could impact classroom instruction.
Dr. Rod Berger: How do you evaluate a school and district leadership and what questions should educators be comfortable in asking that supports a collaborative approach to problem solving?
Cindi Rigsbee: The current trend is to evaluate schools and leadership on student test scores only. Just as teacher evaluation should be multi-layered, so should other levels of evaluation. At the school and district levels, administrators should be accountable for teacher retention, teacher growth (professional development completed, graduate degrees earned, national certifications awarded) as well as other measurable elements like graduation rate, attendance, etc. Educators should ask that evaluators develop a comprehensive plan that includes a multi-faceted approach to assessing their limitations and successes. Evaluations should be based on a well-planned rubric of observable practices that are measurable. Asking “What specifically are you measuring?” and “What evidence can I provide to prove to you that these practices are occurring?” are examples of questions that should be asked.