Advice for a new principal?

Our new principal, who used to be a language arts teacher, doesn’t seem to understand what it’s like to be a science teacher. He’s a good guy, but what can we do to “educate” him on what we do?  L., Massachusetts

I posed your question to a colleague who is a middle school principal. He shared some good insights and suggestions, based on his experiences. He described how as a new principal he had to get up to speed on English as a Second Language and Special Education requirements. He noted that teachers in other departments such as science, art, physical education, or music also had situations that were beyond his background as a social studies teacher. It was a learning curve!

It’s hard for non-science educators to understand what science teachers do unless they’ve walked a mile in our (sensible) shoes. They may not be aware of the science teacher’s responsibility for lab safety and security in storage areas. Sometimes principals see how organized you are and don’t realize how much time and effort is behind the organization. My colleague suggested it might be helpful for your principal to see your challenges in a setting that is informative and non-threatening for him and non-evaluative for you.

Ask your principal to observe lab classes (bell to bell, not just a brief walkthrough). When you meet later, you can describe what students learn from lab activities with examples of student work, the amount of time it takes to set up and put away the materials and read a report from each student, the safety and cooperative learning procedures you taught students, and the fact that the students could not have done the activity in a “regular” classroom that did not have appropriate safety equipment, running water, lots of electrical outlets, room to move around, and flat tables. Give him a guided tour of your storage areas, emphasizing the necessary safety and security.

Ask your principal to observe your formative assessments first-hand, including how students use science notebooks to organize materials and reflect on their learning. If your students are involved in projects, it would be helpful for him to observe these activities, too. Share a copy of the Next Generation Science Standards and/or your state’s science standards.

All teachers use planning time for writing lessons and evaluating assignments. But your principal should be aware of the additional demands on your planning time as a science teacher. Keep a log of the amount of time you spend setting up your lab activities, including time before and after school. Also log the time spent on ordering supplies, organizing and maintaining the storage areas, repairing or servicing equipment, and complying with local and state regulations. Show him the inventory of equipment and materials and the Safety Data Sheets you have to keep up to date. Also share the safety acknowledgement form you send home each year with every student.

Invite your principal to come to a department or team meeting to discuss any concerns. Frame your suggestions in terms of what is better or safer for the students rather than what is easier or more convenient for the teachers. For example, describe the hazards (and possible liability) of scheduling non-science classes in lab classrooms. If you think that homeroom or study hall students would interfere with your lab setups, suggest that in lieu of these, you could take on a different duty. If you ask for more planning time, emphasize that it would be used for these additional responsibilities (and then be sure that it is).

By acting as a professional colleague and focusing on student learning and safety, you may help your principal become the science department’s best advocate.


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