Little Things: Principal Moves To Faculty Room

Little things in schools. We love thinking about those. Here is a little change we found interesting. First, an intro. Scott McCue was founder of Boston Prep Charter School. It's a BES school. He was director there until last June. Now he's my colleague here at Match.

Meanwhile, BP hired 4 Match Teacher Residency graduates, who are rookie teachers there this year. It wasn't exactly a 4-for-1 trade. But it sort of was.

We have been calling Scott "Big Tuba." But this weekend I read an NYT story about the world's largest tuba player. The dude quit the LSU band, and now plays basketball for them. In all fairness, that guy is probably the legit Big Tuba. So we may need to rename Scott.

Now the "Little Things" story. The middle school principal at Boston Prep, Michaela, decided not to have a traditional office anymore. She moved a desk into the faculty room.

In certain schools, this move would likely be spectacularly disastrous: perceived as Big Brother. But BP has a strong culture, both among kids and faculty. I am a big fan. Plus their high school principal Elsie has long had this desk-in-the-faculty-room set-up. So this wasn't perceived there as a huge deal.

Scott asked Michaela and a couple teachers a few questions.

Q: Michaela, why is your desk in the faculty room?

A: Mostly for collaboration. To be on the ground level with teachers. To help more in the moment, organically when things come up. I want them to bounce small ideas off me.

Q: How did you feel about this move?

A: Nervous. I thought there might be a benefit in having a separation between the principal and the teachers. But my colleague Elsie (our high school principal) had done this for a while. She thought it would be a good idea.

Q: Has your authority been compromised by the proximity?

A: I don’t think so. There’s a bit of a sense of casualness. But I don’t think this minimizes the work I do with teachers. This probably has to do with context as well. All the 1:1 check-ins I have aren’t in the faculty room.

Q: What if somebody is checking Facebook or something? (For example, here at Match, Goldstein is always wasting time on the Internet). Or what if someone is having a negative conversation about kids?

A: Facebook isn’t immediately corrosive. I try to respect privacy and know folks will sometimes have downtime.

However, if staff members were to say something "bad" about kids, I would need to make sure the tone in the room is professional and appropriate. If my remarks can wait until a later moment, then I wait to talk 1:1, to preserve the collegiality in the room.

Q: Are you doing this because you don’t trust your teachers?

A: Not at all. I’m not looking over shoulders; quality controlling everything people are doing. It’s definitely not about micro-managing. It’s about a collegial, collaborative work environment. It’s more about “we’re all in this together.”

It’s also easy for teachers to work elsewhere, in the conference room, the cafeteria, etc.

Q: How does this affect new teachers?

A: It’s much more positive, personal—gives me a much greater sense for what’s happening in the moment to moment. Getting a better sense for the daily lives of teachers. It makes the check-ins more meaningful, because I can see their work styles.

Q: Do you deliberately place young teachers next to you? Like preferential seating for a student with an IEP?

A: I wouldn’t want to be quoted saying that! I think this is good for all staff. Good to see people. Newer staff might have more questions for me, but this is beneficial for all.

Q: Yes, Veronica (rookie teacher, interviewed below) said you’re always happy to answer questions. So you’ve improved peoples’ immediate access to you. Has this compromised your productivity in other ways?

A: Yes it has, to be completely honest. I want Veronica to be able to ask me a question, but it certainly hinders my ability to work in large chunks of time.

Q: What advice would you give to a Principal who is considering making a similar move?

A: I feel like I’m “around” the middle school more than I ever have been before. I feel very close to what’s happening in the school. However, if you’re at your desk in a communal work environment, expect to be interrupted. I could always say “I don’t have a minute now,” but wouldn’t want to. I tried for a while to keep headphones in. But even if I have them in, people ask me questions. You want teachers asking questions. Go elsewhere to hunker down.

Scott then interviewed Veronica, a rookie math teacher, and a grad of our program, and my former assistant, and an all-around Chilean mensch.

Q: How far is your desk from the Principal's?

A: Three feet.

Q: Do you know what she had for lunch today?

A: She frequently brings this meat stuff she eats with chips. Not 100% sure what it is.

Q: Do you like the close seating?

A: She interacts with all of us in a healthy, jovial way at times, at other times in a work way. She balances very well.

A huge benefit has been that she’s taught my exact class before (as the co-teaching special education teacher).

So, if there’s not enough detail on a lesson plan that I have from the previous teacher, I’m able to go to her and ask her “what does this mean?” She’s very familiar with the materials.

Q: Would that be different if she wasn’t seated next to you?

A: Yes. She’s always super willing—even to answer questions the 50th time. For her, I’m sure it’s a different experience getting to see all the teachers she manages. It’s been useful in holding me accountable. She sat down and helped me create a work plan—a plan to avoid working on the weekends. She does an awesome job encouraging me to go home and not stay here late. It’s cool to have her that close.

Q: How many distinct conversations do you have with her?

A: Between 10 and 20 a day. Might be work related, might be student related, might be “here’s a funny thing that happened today.” Short. I try to save the bigger questions for our 1:1 meetings every 2 weeks.

Q: Does the tone in the room change for teachers when the principal is in the room?

A: I don’t notice it. People might joke around a little more when she’s not there—might be some jokes people wouldn’t say. (Not because she can’t handle it, but just because she’s our boss.)

Q: What surprising fact have you learned about her?

A: She knew the tagline for that really cheesy bar downtown—“Tequila Rain.” We were all like: “What?!”

Q: Advice to a school leader considering making the move to a faculty room?

Scott also interviewed David. He is in his second year teaching at Boston Prep, so he can compare to last year.

Q: Michaela now sits in the faculty room. How is it going?

A: Good. Obviously, the face time you get with her is higher. You have more random conversations. If she overhears conversations, that can result in somebody getting pulled in—starting a conversation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Q: Tell me about a conversation where proximity helps.

A: I tend to go to my Department Chair, Laurie, for "subject" questions.....but for a challenging 7th grader that I was struggling with, I asked Michaela...because she was sitting right there. And she made some great suggestions -- like past teacher efforts that have worked with this particular student, and how to enlist a colleague (this student's advisor).

Q: What’s changed about the tone in the faculty room this year?

A: You’re a little more conscious of what you’re doing when your boss is right there. Last year, the faculty room felt a little more loose. Obviously, there’s a bit of a downside. The professional moments have value for camaraderie. But it hasn’t felt dour. Nobody feels any lack of trust. My sense is we all have pretty good relationships with her. There might be one or two who appreciated the "more downtime" environment. Sometimes when you feel you’re really tired or have had a rough day…you have less space to retreat. But most people would say it’s been more positive than negative.

Q: What’s something she’s learned about you?

A: What a messy person I am. Especially where my desk was last year, I could hide my mess.

And I think it’s more apparent when teachers, including me, are having a bad day. People are more likely to cover things up when you pass them in the hallway. She has a better read on my emotions. There is some banter between a couple colleagues and me -— she hears and sees that now -— so she’s probably learned that I’m less introverted than I probably seemed to her last year.

The whole MTR team -- 8 folks -- works in a small office. I benefit.

Proximity is helpful, I think, but if and only if you remove yourself fully for large blocks of focused time. Our office has 2 stellar nearby locations equipped with wi-fi and great coffee: a popular cafe and an unpopular one. Annie Murphy Paul touched on this in a column for Time Magazine:

The original promoters of open-plan offices also hoped that the setting would make co-workers available to help one another. That’s great for the help seeker; not so great for the help giver who has her own work to do.

In a study released last month by a group of German and Swiss researchers, participants who requested help with a task performed better, while those who supplied assistance did worse. Frequently alternating between helping others and doing one’s own job imposes a heavy “cognitive load,” the scientists concluded, as the help givers are forced to repeatedly reacquaint themselves with the details of their own task.

They recommend that workers set aside a block of time each day when they are not to be disturbed.