It had been a long, hot and muggy Chicago summer. I was the principal of a private school that had decided to move to a new building, and I had spent countless hours over that summer overseeing the move. Unfortunately, I was not the only one whose summer was significantly disrupted. Each teacher was busy boxing his or her classroom materials, a task that could not commence until school had let out. It was a tedious job that did not do much to enhance teacher morale.
There was, however, a silver lining in the cloud of discontent. Our new school building boasted an expansive parking lot which would afford ample space for staff to park close to the building. Anyone who has lived through a Chicago winter knows that those extra few minutes from car to building can truly make a difference.
You can only imagine my shock and dismay when on September 1st the school board chairman informed me that teachers would not have access to the parking spaces closest to the building. Those spots, I was told, were reserved for the parent body, our most important resource. My objections fell on deaf ears. The board chairman reasoned that this was no different than the mall down the block, which mandated its employees to park far from the building entrance, reserving choice spots for paying customers. That January I resigned and became headmaster of a school in a city whose climate (both inside and outside) was much warmer.
I recently was invited to take part in a board meeting where a school budget ‘crisis’ was solved by increasing teaching loads. “Cutting the fat” and “sweating the resources” were the terms used. Over my strong objections, the motion passed. The school has since never been the same.
To this day I am consistently dumbfounded by boards that do not realize where their most important resource lies: in front of the classroom. School budget cuts frequently result in slashing teacher benefits without realizing the demoralizing effect this has on the staff and how this impacts the entire educational enterprise. Teaching is not the same as working at the mall, and ‘sweating the resources’ may work at a factory, but in a school it only nets you sweaty teachers. And no one likes sweaty teachers.
What’s most interesting is that it’s not necessarily about the money; it’s about teacher appreciation. Teachers need to feel valued; a parking spot in front of the school is one example. It’s about school leadership caring about teachers and looking for ways to show just how important they are. It’s about a genuine “How are you?” truly joyous “Happy Birthday!” or a short note saying, “Thanks for all you do.” None of the above costs a penny.
There is a statistic I read which reports that half of those who enter the teaching profession leave within five years. As the school year ends there will be thousands of educators contemplating fulfillment in other capacities. While there are many reasons people seek a change of profession, school leaders must make sure that they have not contributed to this disturbing trend. I would strongly suggest that board heads park far away from the school building and use the time spent walking to think about how they can best appreciate a teacher today.