The Truth Is… We Could Not Run Our Schools Without Our Substitutes

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On any given Friday in May, my school district is struggling to fill our substitute vacancies. Many of our highly regarded substitutes are retired teachers, and by May they have worked all of the days that our state’s retirement system will allow. In addition, May brings college graduations and weddings and, well, a wide array of reasons for our teachers to be absent from work. And yet… learning must continue.

Thus, we find ourselves utilizing creative solutions for plugging those holes, and so, a substitute may arrive at one school to step in for a third grade teacher, only to be told that we’ve covered that vacancy another way, and that he/she is instead needed at another school across town to teach bilingual Polish first grade, or middle school math, or perhaps PE. Or, a substitute will come to a middle school teaching assignment expecting to have planning time as part of the day (definitely not guaranteed for substitutes, but a nice perk!), and will instead be told that he/she will be covering other classes during that time.

When we are asking our substitutes to do more and more, I am glad that we have a few constructs in place to thank them for their commitment to our district:

  • Like many districts, we have different pay rates — a daily rate, an increased rate for those who have worked a certain number of days, and a long-term rate. A couple of years ago, we also added a Loyalty Rate to honor those who have, indeed, shown loyalty to our school district. In order to be eligible for this rate, a substitute must meet these qualifications: have worked in our district for at least 5 years as a substitute and/or in a full time position, and have worked on at least 90 days as a substitute in our school district in the previous year. The Loyalty Rate resets each fall, and thus each spring we review our data to identify which substitutes qualify for the rate in the next school year. Full disclosure: the Loyalty Rate is only $3.00 per day more than the rate used for those who have worked at least 60 days. However, we know that our substitutes may also work in surrounding districts, and we created this rate to both encourage them to keep our district at the top of their list, and to acknowledge their consistent work and longevity with our district.

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  • Each June, we host a Substitute Appreciation Tea. We schedule it during the window between the school year ending and summer school starting so that as many substitutes as possible might be available. We work with our food service provider to create a real tea, complete with finger sandwiches, pastries, lemonade, and of course, tea! The agenda is simple: very brief speeches from a couple of grateful administrators, time to mingle (many of our substitutes have known each other for years, and love the chance to catch up), and an opportunity for substitutes to provide feedback to us via a brief form which they complete in small groups.

Our Tea gives us the chance to let our substitutes know how much we really appreciate them while also getting feedback from them in a positive setting.

  • We are proud of the training that we provide to our substitutes, and believe that putting time and effort into offering substitute trainings shows them that we appreciate and value the work that they do for us. We make it very clear to them that every day counts for our students, that gone are the days when a teacher might have the substitute put on a movie for the students. Our substitutes need to be ready to teach new skills and reinforce what has already been taught, and thus our school district helps them to hone their craft.

    All of our substitutes are required to attend a half-day training prior to working for us. Even if they have worked in this role in other places, we want to make sure that they have full awareness of the expectations in our district. We try to keep our training interactive and fun while we provide important information. During this training, we cover: HR basics such as securing assignments and understanding pay structure, information about our district, crisis plans and health training (such as practice with EPI Pens), and classroom management expectations and tips.

In addition, we offer our substitutes optional training opportunities throughout the year. We take advantage of times when we know our substitutes would not be working for us, such as after school or during School Improvement Days when students are not in attendance, and then provide inservices run by our specialists. For example, training about working with students who receive special education services was provided by our Director of Student Services, and updated information about math instruction was given by our Math Coordinator. In this way, we help our substitutes to remain current in their teaching practices, and we honor their work as educators who are important to our system.

Of course, the best appreciation comes at the school level. I will never forget the joy and pride I felt when teachers told me that they had created goodie bags for all of the substitutes who were present at their school on a particular day. I also regularly remind our principals and building secretaries to greet and thank substitutes, and to treat them as the professionals that they are.

The truth is, we could not run our schools without our substitutes. It seems only right that we let them know that.

What’s in Your JunePile?

It started when I was a teacher. Every year, every May, there would come a day when I would just start tossing things in a pile to deal with “later”. Later meant after the last smile was shared with a student, after the last grade was given, after Field Day. After the last day of school. I never knew when the day would come — just one afternoon I would realize that there were only a few weeks and lot left to do with my class, and I could only spend precious time on papers, projects, and tasks that would really mean something to my students. The rest would have to wait until school ended, in June. The JunePile.

It continued when I was a principal. I tried to keep an organized office, so the JunePile became a JuneBox which was stashed under my desk. And if something wasn’t important to others before the end of school, well, then, it wasn’t getting done until everybody went home.

Of course, now, most of my JunePile is electronic — more of a JuneList, if you will. And as an assistant superintendent, I have many projects that are best done in the quieter summer months, anyway. But nonetheless, the habit continues. I’ll get very stressed about how quickly the end of school is coming, and one day will breathe a little sigh of relief when I remember that there are SOME things on my list that don’t have to get done right away. And anything that won’t directly affect students, families, or staff gets put in the JunePile to be dealt with after the school bus pulls away for the last time.

The end of the school year is always such a rush, isn’t it? Educators are amused when folks who have not devoted their lives to school ask in May, “So, is school winding down?” Winding down? Winding DOWN? Hilarious! School does not wind down. We run like crazy to the edge of the cliff, and try very, very hard not to fall off of it. That’s it, and everyone who lives by the rhythm of school knows it.

But that last day of school WILL come, and then indeed it will be time for me to dig into my JunePile. This year I’m wondering, though, why am I even considering doing things that don’t have a direct impact on students, families, staff, or other administrators? So, perhaps my primary responsibility on my first day after school lets out should be to cull the pile, continuing my commitment to spend time on work that is important. Yes, there is filing that went undone this year, and I’d eventually be sorry if I couldn’t find something I need. Ok, I’ll crank the music up in my office and file. But I’ll hold myself accountable for ensuring that everything else enhances the work or life of someone, or supports my own learning and reflection.

Truth be told, writing this blogpost was indeed in my JunePile. It definitely did not have to get done prior to school ending! But then it was Memorial Day weekend, and I had some time, and was in the mood for reflecting. So I went for it.

Of course, summer is much, much more than a time to catch up with work. For me, it is also reading in a hammock and walking after dinner with my husband and exploring Chicago neighborhoods with my daughters and going to Botanic Gardens with my parents and eating on a patio with friends and completing the Summer Challenge at my yoga studio and if I’m lucky, some traveling. Many years ago, inspired by a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich (or perhaps Eric Zorn? — I cannot find the column, I’ve tried!), I was motivated to capture my summer memories by buying a pack of notecards, numbering and dating them, and every day of the summer writing down at least one summer activity that I enjoyed that day. I still have those cards in my nightstand, and occasionally use one for a bookmark, finding peace, adventure, or luxury in a summer memory. I just pulled one out; it reads, “7/3: Getaway to Wisconsin — Lazy Nap, Lovely Anniversary Dinner, Movie — Spiderman!”

And there you have it — those summer pleasures are what really belong in the JunePile. So, what’s in yours?

Work Team Lessons While Singing Doo Wop – Who Knew?

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When I finally completed my dissertation almost exactly a year ago, I promised myself that I would find time to go back to singing, something that I have missed terribly. So, for the past few months, every Saturday my husband and I have traveled into Chicago to the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he takes guitar lessons, and I’ve joined a harmony singing class called Doo Wop to Early Rock.

This class, I thought, would have nothing to do with work, or with the leadership thinking that focuses me throughout the work week. So, I was pretty surprised a couple of weeks ago when in the middle of a song, I became consumed with how similar experiencing this harmony singing class was to participating on my leadership team at work. (I guess you can take the woman out of work, but you can’t take work out of the woman… )

Why am I bothering to write about this, or to think that a reader might benefit from the quick analysis? Because it seems to me that we get our lessons from anywhere and everywhere. Thinking about how my singing experiences match my work life helps me to find new meaning and appreciation for both. Whether your own “away from work” group time is a weekend softball team, a monthly card game, a family vacation, or, like me, a bunch of people with different backgrounds and somewhat mismatched voices coming together to make music, perhaps thinking of your own metaphor may help you consider a gift or problem in a new light.

Here’s a short list of my comparisons:

  • When harmony singing, like working on a team, voices must blend. One voice shouldn’t be louder than others. If all you hear is one voice popping out over and over again, then something is way, way wrong.
  • In doo wop (Yes, yes, feel free to mock me that it is a doo wop class! Really, I don’t care!), there is often someone singing the lead. Sometimes that is you! On some songs, you carry the lead and it feels like a great fit (“Up on the Roof”) and other times you are asked to be up front and the key or style feels a little out of your comfort zone, or you just don’t love the song (“Let’s Go to the Hop”).  And, let’s be honest: occasionally someone else will take the lead, and you’ll think that the part would have been perfect for you. But oh well! It wasn’t your turn, and you blend in with the rest of the group in back up.
  • Sometimes you sing a song that you love, and sometimes you sing a song that you don’t particularly like. But you will sing that unfavored song with gusto, and no one ever needs to know. (Can you think of a work project that sounds like this?)
  • You really do have to listen and pay attention, or you will miss something. In fact, when I got distracted thinking about this work team – harmony singing comparison, I turned my music over and started scribbling notes. Moments later, I realized that some of my singer friends were looking at me, waiting for me to notice that we were making a new seating arrangement for a song. So.
  • There are times when there really is no plan, and you have to improvise. Try a few things out, and see what might work best. Or, you start out thinking it will be one way, and it turns out to be completely different. (Getting the work comparisons here? I thought so.)
  • There is always something new and wonderful to learn. Why in the world had I never heard the absolutely gorgeous song “June Hymn”?
  • Sometimes the end product is great! Sometimes it is just good enough, and you move on to something else.
  • There can be value to moving out of the large group for some projects, such as when my new friend Rose pulled me aside and taught me a duet that she loved (“They Can’t Black Out the Moon”). A third singer wanted to learn the song, and the three of us improvised and learned from each other.

I could go on much longer, but I’ll stop here, rather than bleed this metaphor to death.

Yesterday was the last day of the most recent class session, and I didn’t register for the next one, as I have too many Saturday events planned over the next few weeks. I’ll miss my harmonizing buddies and cheerful, encouraging teacher. And, doo wop class or not, I’m sure I’ll keep thinking about leadership and teamwork in many contexts.

Reference Calls — Listen for the Truth (8 Tips)

I was a newer principal, and I had recently dismissed a pre-tenured teacher. She wasn’t terrible, just not good enough for my students. I had written her a reference letter, the kind you write for just this type of situation — strengths, as everyone has them, with lots of holes that I hoped other interviewing administrators would find. Then I took a call from a principal in a nearby district. We knew each other by association, but that’s all. He was eager to hire her, and this call was his final stop. I answered his questions, and thought, “I hope he listened carefully, and realized that I wasn’t really recommending her.”

Years later, this principal and I landed together in a new district. Early in our professional relationship, he told me, “You know, I had to let that teacher go after one year. I couldn’t believe you had recommended her to me – I was always so annoyed about that!” “What?” I said. “I didn’t recommend her! I was trying to tell you NOT to hire her!” It was a perfect example of what happens over and over again. He was listening only to confirm his decision to hire her, and I was being positive, and hoping he could read my mind.

I share this story often in my current role as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. Administrators (and hiring executives in other organizations, I am sure) work diligently to find the very best person for their opening. They carefully comb through applications and resumes, conduct screening interviews, 1:1 interviews, and often team interviews. By the time they get to the reference checks — well, that’s what they are often doing — checking a box. This is the last step in the process of finding the Perfect Person. They are already sold on the candidate, and, if they brought in a team to interview, so is the team! Who wants bad news at this point? And so, like my principal friend from many years ago, they miss what a reference might be trying to convey in an oh-so-indirect way.

Hiring is one of our most important administrative tasks, particularly when hiring teachers and principals. This is the time when we really need to get it right, because getting it wrong can make for a very, very bad year. (And, depending on a whole bunch of variables, one mistake can be prolonged for much longer than a year.) So, how do we get it right? Here are a few tips:

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  1. Before starting to make those calls, promise yourself that you are open to hearing bad news. Honestly, that’s what is most important. In fact, when I interview with a team, I ALWAYS talk about how important reference calls are, and let team members know that sometimes we have to go another way after we’ve made those calls. Experienced interview teams know that the person who came to the interview is not always the person who “shows up” at work, even if it is the same person! When I remind my team of that, they are understanding if we end up going with our #2 choice, or even if we have to interview more candidates.
  2. Try to establish rapport with your reference at the start of the call. Yes, yes, everyone is busy, but find a way to connect with the reference as a person. It will be harder for your reference to evade your questions or straight out lie to you if he/she likes you on the phone — even a little bit!
  3. Do you have flexibility with your questions? If so, make sure to ask, “Would you re-hire this person?” Or, if you are speaking with a colleague, you may get useful information with, “Why do you think X would be interested in coming to a new school/district/organization?” And if the first answer you get seems bogus, find a way to dig a little.
  4. Even if you have to use a standard set of questions, surely you can ask follow-ups. When I sense that someone is choosing words very carefully, or is trying to brush past a question with a pat answer, I may ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” Often, they will.
  5. Pay attention to the reference’s tone of voice, and listen for the pauses. Your reference may be trying to figure out how to answer a question in a way that is semi-truthful without hurting the person’s chances for getting the job. This is the perfect place for those follow-up questions.
  6. What about those references who ask you to simply email them the questions, and they’ll email you the answers? Yes, they might just be really busy, but they MIGHT be trying to control the situation by carefully wording their answers. You can’t see pauses in an email, you can’t hear tone of voice, and asking follow-up questions is then even more time-consuming. I try very hard to get people to talk to me on the phone. When they won’t, I don’t necessarily decide that there is a problem with the candidate, but I don’t put much stock in that particular reference.
  7. Think carefully about who you are calling. For the most part, avoid calling your candidates’ colleagues, or only do so if you are also calling a supervisor or two. A teacher’s teammate is rarely going to tell you that his/her colleague had classroom management problems or didn’t communicate well with parents, and an administrator’s lateral co-worker is unlikely to tell you that projects were not finished on time. I won’t hire anyone without speaking with his/her current supervisor, although certainly I will agree to make that call last, after I’m satisfied with the results of other calls. Also, you may be able to glean quite a lot of information from a supervisor from 2-3 years ago. Sometimes, the supervisor won’t remember much — but sometimes he/she will remember A LOT, and will be ready to talk when no longer in regular contact with the candidate.
  8. Finally, use your resources. The best reference call is with someone you know. Even if you don’t know any of your candidate’s references, someone else who is part of the hiring process might! If so, hand that call over to your colleague to get the most truthful information.

I still enjoy a friendship with that principal colleague who hired that marginal teacher. We still talk about this. We both learned. We are both still learning.