The answer: much-needed empathy.
As coach of the English department in an urban-Philadelphia high school, I spend a lot of time in classrooms but hardly any time teaching. However, when one of our 12th-grade teachers was suddenly hospitalized, I offered to teach her AP Literature class until she returned. I hadn’t formally taught in nearly four years, and the experience reshaped how I view the classroom, my colleagues, and the relationship between teachers and administrators.
Some background first. I strive to be a defender of teachers. While four years of teaching taught me the challenges of this work, coaching has taught me how important it is to equip teachers with the right resources and supports to do their jobs well. I’ve seen teachers go from floundering to thriving in just a few months of coaching. I’ve also worked with teachers who actively resist. Some are hesitant to trust my feedback or our conversations, and occasionally reject the process altogether. When I was in the classroom, I remember frequently questioning my coach, but ultimately embracing their perspective and eagerly trying out their suggestions in my classroom. I saw coaching as a tool to make me a better teacher. Who wouldn’t want that?
I empathize with educators who are disturbed by an administrator unexpectedly popping into their classroom. It’s no fun having someone in the back of the room seemingly documenting everything that happens. It’s like having the IRS watch you do your taxes, or cooking dinner for your family while a local food critic tastes every dish as it’s served. A teacher’s classroom is a safe space, and having someone observe during a lesson can understandably feel invasive.
Knowing all this, stepping back into the classroom caused a mixture of emotions. I was nervous and excited. Would I embarrass myself in front of the students? Would another teacher or administrator come in and judge my performance? Would I be able to implement the instructional rubric we use to evaluate teachers with fidelity? Would (horror of horrors!) the experience make me want to return to teaching?
Within just a few days, I learned a number of lessons from re-entering the classroom:
1. Students are fun! I’m used to interacting mostly with adults with the occasional non-so-fun student discipline sprinkled in. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed spending time with students. We made each other laugh, they said the “darndest things,” and I felt that good feeling of facilitating young adults’ learning.
2. I fell short on my teacher goals. Although I had a clear goal, I didn’t post an objective each day. I didn’t allow for a ton of practice and instead provided space for discussion and flexibility. And I left out a closing reflection and exit ticket. Maybe it was because I saw myself as a long-term sub, but those components of a traditional lesson quickly lost importance when faced with delivering the kind of instruction my students needed.
3. I had gotten better. Though rusty, years watching both great and mediocre teachers in action had taught me plenty about what an effective classroom looks like. Four years ago, I was rigid, systematic, rigorous, and serious. Suddenly, I found myself starting each day with a circle, allowing myself to change up an activity on the fly as needed. I allowed myself to be a little silly, taking a more flexible stance on rigor.
4. Teaching was still unbelievably hard: Even in a 12th grade AP class, I had students who were absent, late, disrupting class, giving up on simple tasks, recalcitrant when redirected, and everything else that comes with a normal hour of teaching. I didn’t always handle these tricky situations well, and my lessons were far from stellar. I made mistakes every day, learning from some and feeling beaten by others. The classroom’s emotional pendulum left me bewildered most days, even when the lesson went exactly as I hoped.
Tensions run high as my school battles its way through union negotiations, inconsistent test scores, mediocre climate data, and low teacher retention. These issues widen the gap between teachers and administrators. Relational trust, a major predictor of student success, cannot exist without an empathetic understanding between teachers and administrators.
More than anything, my few weeks subbing bolstered my empathy for the work our teachers do every day. It will absolutely help me do a better job coaching, evaluating, and professionally developing teachers. It will help me speak about their craft in a different way and will make me an even stronger advocate for their protection and professionalization.
I encourage school leaders to create these opportunities for staff to step into each other's shoes, even briefly. Have an administrator assist with a lesson. Let a classroom teacher lead a professional development session. Give a coach a chance to sub in. A good office environment leans on staff relationships. And like any healthy relationship -- personal or professional -- we are better to each other when we understand each other, or at least try. I encourage all educators to try.
This week's writer is an the instructional coach for a large neighborhood high school in North Philadelphia. They are passionate about employee engagement, cultural competency, and rigorous learning.