Friday, June 08, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Crossing Over to the Dark Side

A longtime reader writes:

I'm the math department chair of a high school. I was
promoted from within. I recognize that HS isn't your
usual domain, but I think there's a kernel here that's
broadly applicable which I'd love it if you could

There's some weirdness happening here about a senior
who didn't pass math because of being a jerk

The admin made a decision to offer the opportunity to
revise and resubmit some work. This was not really a
decision made in consultation with the affected

The teachers were talking to me, sort of as a
colleague/friend, but it seemed like also as math
dept. chair. So, I go ask the principal, "hey, what's
going on? People are talking..."

He sends out a kinda nasty email, "The decision has
been made... I don't really care what you think."

One colleague wanders into the hall, "I wish I'd never
said anything to you because now I'm getting nasty
email from my boss."

The question becomes, how does someone who has/had
friends who they now supervise negotiate the very
different roles that are "friend" and "administrator"?
What kind of decision rules do you use? How do you
decide when to seek more guidance?

In my Proprietary U days, I too made the leap. I had come up through the ranks – first an adjunct, then a full-time prof, then administration. It was hard not to notice that some people were utterly unaffected by my title at any given time, and others completely blinded by it. It also meant that some folks who knew me as a junior colleague had to get to know me as a manager.

It was a disorienting experience. As long as I was on the faculty side, I was able to dodge most nutty or destructive behavior. As far as I knew, everybody was pretty good or better at what they did, and unprofessional conduct was something I read about in other places. At worst, some folks could be a little annoying, but I didn't see anything out of bounds. The folks to whom I was close saw me as a friend, and the rest saw me as a relatively quiet, low-maintenance guy.

When I crossed over, though, for some people in both camps it was as if I'd committed a crime. For others, it was as if they could suddenly get away with murder, since they were friends with the dean. (To their credit, the largest group didn't change either way.)

Over time, I (and they) had to learn to separate the person from the role. That meant sometimes saying no to friends. It also meant sometimes having to confront idiotic (or worse) behavior that, in my faculty days, wouldn't have been my problem. It was disillusioning, for better and worse.

Luckily for me, I draw much of my emotional support and stability from my family. I've also maintained some close friendships for decades now. Those sources of validation made it easier for me to endure the offended-at-the-betrayal cold shoulders from faculty when I had to call them out on whatever the latest offense happened to be. Tense periods at work didn't leave me friendless.

I think this gets harder as people settle into managerial roles for extended periods. When you've been in charge of the same group for a very long time, 'person' and 'role' tend to conflate. The inevitable erosion of the distinction leads to personal quirks getting written into the DNA of a department. (This is part of why I favor some form of term limits for department chairs.) Eventually, people start trying to read the mind of the chair, since the department comes to reflect the mind of the chair. Even with good intentions, a single person's blind spots will go neglected for longer than is healthy. With reasonable turnover, the distinction between 'person' and 'role' is reinforced.

(The distinction can get kind of silly. When TB was born, one of my favorite people at PU sent me a congratulatory card with a small check enclosed to buy him something cute. I had to return the check, since I was responsible for writing her annual review. We were both a little sheepish about it, since she recognized afterward that she shouldn't have done it, and I recognized that any untoward intent was the farthest thing from her mind, but the roles dictate what the roles dictate. When TG was born, after I had left PU, I got a card from this same professor with a bigger check. I laughed out loud.)

I'd first recommend tending to your emotional life outside of work. If you're lacking a lot there, you'll be more vulnerable to emotional manipulation at work. Be clear on which needs can be met where.

Then ask yourself if you're willing to be the bad guy. If you're the type that can't bear to pass judgment and would rather simply walk away from toxic behavior, then management isn't the job for you. If you aren't willing to endure vicious personal attacks from people when you call them out, then management isn't the job for you. (That's not a criticism – management isn't for most people, even very smart, very capable ones.) If you need to be liked, step down. A certain loneliness comes with the gig, if you're doing it right. If you're doing this to make friends, I shudder for your underlings.

Hope that helps. Wise readers --- your counsel?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

An observation about "sort of as a colleague/friend, but it seemed like also as math dept. chair":

Should the context of the conversation have been clarified with a question at the time, say "Is this a concern you would like me to take up with the principal as dept chair?"

It would seem the principal interpreted it as a complaint from a specific teacher that was conveyed officially through the chair. No surprise there. If the chair wanted to protect the teacher, the question could have been raised regarding the role of the chair in this situation, and his/her need to clearly convey (the new?) policy to the math teachers in the school.
With all of the above noted and agreed to - understanding roles in a situation like that is huge - it also seems to me, from the observations of secondary ed that I've done, that department chair title isn't traditionally one that carries any kind of weight in a high school - they're just the person who's responsible for the paperwork for the department, nothing less, nothing more. There's no power in the position whatsoever.

Which is why you can have high school situations where the administration essentially overrules the teacher's grading perogative, and what appears to be a friendly attempt simply to gather information can turn into a whole department being insubordinate.

(If I was this math department chair, I'd seriously be considering my position after this episode.)
I think if you are going to be a really good administrator, you have to develop the ability to be, for lack of a better word, "sneaky". You need to learn how to use informal, undocumented communication to get information you want.

For example, in the future I would avoid putting something in writing if it isn't an official complaint (e-mail is a form of official communication / writing). If your intention was to feel the administrators out about the issue, you need to do it in a context that allows them plausible deniability - they can be more open with you that way but deny everything or "forget" the conversation later if what they said becomes a problem. Phone calls are not recorded. Casual conversations - that sort of thing are also not part of an official record. It would appear that your administrators are a bit sensitive about this and over-reacted some. But to get more information about the situation, I would talk to them in person or on the phone so that there isn’t the issue of an official record of the conversation.
From this article in the Toronto Star:

She has skipped 30 classes in a row and hasn't handed in an assignment all term, but the principal wants her teacher to cut this Grade 12 student some slack.

"He told me, 'Look, the student says she's finally willing to hand in all her work, so I want you to mark it and don't take off points for being late,'" sighs the English teacher at a west Toronto high school.

The kids have learned to play the political game… and if they haven't, their parents have. To get what you want, go to the administration and they will overrule the teacher.
FWIW the principal appears to feel guilty about what was done. What you don't know is the pressure that was brought to bear. You might find out one day at lunch or over a cup of coffee. Either that or he is a controlling jerk. Just let it come out.
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