So many of my colleagues appear professionally grumpy, but I don’t believe it. We get tired and complaining is easy. Pick one – long hours, low pay, lukewarm students and little appreciation. Listen more closely, and you’ll find them crafting new lessons, reorganizing their rooms, reflecting on the day, and even praying for their students. We end the day wiped out, but give us a little hope and we’re off and running again.
Look at it another way. We solve hundreds of problems every day from welcoming a new student to inventing a mental image for exponents to finding lost bus passes. By the end of the day, we are left to work on the pile of stuff that didn’t get solved between the bells. It can seem overwhelming. It can feel overwhelming. It can be overwhelming. So this is what we talk about. What we didn’t achieve, didn’t accomplish, didn’t finish. We are failures because we are trying to do a twenty-hour job in a ten-hour day.
We are not failures. Our job is impossible. We are not the only people on the planet with impossible jobs. But some of those people have better public relations. Some of those people have actual public relations staffs. We have to be our own.
During my second year of teaching, my husband pointed out that I had a planning period at school. Actually, I had two. Why couldn’t I get myself home at a reasonable time? Breathe, I told myself. Breathe. Here was my answer… Because when a teacher isn’t teaching, she (yes, I was mad enough to use the third person), she has to choose among six major job functions. She can
- Plan and prepare future lessons.
- Grade work from past lessons.
- Help students.
- Contact and/or conference with parents.
- Complete reports, write grants, finish paperwork, document meetings, order books, etc.
- Attend meetings, talk with colleagues, etc.
On a good day she can get two of these done. On a great day, three. On a day with a discipline problem or a call to Child Protective Services, none. So you tell me which of these you want me to drop, and I’ll get home earlier.
Admittedly, my public relations needed work. Fortunately, my husband is a forgiving audience. Well, mostly.
Teachers don’t go into the profession because they need attention. In fact, we tend to be suspicious of our attention-seeking colleagues. We want to live in that world where our great work shines through, where our sacrifices are valued, where our exhaustion is a badge of honor, where our creativity is applauded and where every parent requests us and every child loves us. Believing that hard work is its own reward, we alternately power and struggle through our day somehow managing to get through a long list of lessons, pleased when students learn, delighted when students get excited, disappointed when there’s a disconnect. We labor countless evenings and weekends, meeting each other in the dim and empty school hallways, trying to finish all of that planning, grading, writing, and documenting that got sidetracked by meetings, conferences, and discipline problems. We somehow expect all of this silent Herculean labor to be obvious to the rest of the world.
If it was obvious to the rest of the world, I wouldn’t get e-mails in the morning demanding answers by the end of the day. If it was obvious to the rest of the world, staff and parents who call my room during the school day would not be annoyed when I cut off their lengthy explanations. If it was obvious to the rest of the world, the district supply center wouldn’t send me a full page of single-spaced instructions on how to inventory my books to be counted on May 9th, no other day, and then not believe my count and send it back to be done again. If it was obvious to the rest of the world, parents wouldn’t write me notes questioning why I graded a test so hard when their son could simply fix the incorrect answers. If it was so obvious to the rest of the world, my second student teacher would not have been removed from my room.
That last one hurt. And it was ironic. On the very day, at the very moment, when we were talking about managing her PR, she received a text asking her to meet with her advisor. She was to receive a new placement. Despite my best efforts, I never got an explanation.
The truth is, I should have managed it better. Other than appearing the first day to introduce her, her advisor had never visited, never called, never checked in. I should have called her. I should have made an empty connection into a positive one, but I didn’t. And it cost me. It cost my student teacher as well. She had to start over.
That’s the trick about public relations. You have to get ahead of the wind that you don’t even know is blowing. You have to create positive relationships out of thin air. Most schools set you up at the beginning of the year with a Meet the Teacher night. This is a great place to start. See Chapter 19 – Parents for how to use that night well. Schools have other set points during the year like conferences (chapter 19, again), Back to School nights, literacy nights, math nights, etc. All of these are opportunities for you to chat with parents in a more relaxed setting. You won’t feel relaxed, but you will get lots of credit, and lots of hugs, just for showing up.
While you are creating those positive relationships, don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Be careful of how you behave in meetings. Put away your phone and quit chewing gum. Veteran teachers won’t mention it, but we do notice that you haven’t stopped texting or chomping, and we do not believe that you are simultaneously paying attention. We mostly find it rude.
Also, watch what you post online. Repeated references to margaritas are not so appealing to parents. Nor are photos of you and your mate playing tonsil hockey. Skimpy bathing suits aren’t doing much for your reputation, either. Even if you keep, for example, two different Facebook pages, one for close friends and one for acquaintances, it’s too easy for a close friend to cross post an item and get you in a lot of trouble. My current teaching contract contains a morals clause which basically states that I can be fired for any behavior that reflects poorly on the district. I don’t even know what that encompasses, but I do know that I post few comments online, that I carefully examine them for possible misinterpretation, and that I have had to unfriend at least one cousin for posting garbage on my wall. You may wish the world was more forgiving, but you chose a profession where you are a role model. Get used to it.
As a new teacher, you will be so slammed with work that you will have tiny shreds of time to manage your PR. Since you won’t have much time for positive PR, make sure you don’t create anything negative that will take mountains of effort to fix. Watch what you say in the teachers’ lounge. Don’t boast about drinking so much that you blacked out. Don’t keep saying you need a Xanax. Don’t brag to other teachers that you dumped a big pile of student work in the trash. Don’t joke about how behind on your bills you are. Don’t broadcast how much you spent shopping this weekend. Don’t suggest that some students should be arrested or suspended to lighten your workload. Watch what you say in class. Don’t let your students go home saying Mrs. Rimes yelled at us again. Don’t share your dim view of the president. Keep your road rage to yourself. Don’t threaten to shoot the neighbor’s dog. Don’t threaten to kill anyone at Microsoft for forcing another update nor anyone in IT for messing up your Smart Board. In other words, be careful of saying things that might have been funny, or at least permissible, among friends. The adults around you are not impressed, children tell their parents everything, and it might take years for them to change their minds about you. When you started, most of them gave you the benefit of the doubt. Make sure you keep it.
One great thing about helping with the car line at the end of the day is I get to check in with lots of parents. Mostly it’s a smile and a wave, but sometimes I get to remind their child to talk about that awesome thing that happened in school today. And if something not so good happened, we can quickly deal with that, too. Personal contact is your best protection against social media, especially if district policies require you to have no social media contact with the families of your students. Challenging children sometimes come with challenging parents who will trash you on Facebook rather than get in touch with you. If the notes and certificates, you send home end up crushed in the bottom of the backpack, personal contact is the best way for you to keep that parent relationship positive.