How to deal with a principal who just doesn’t “get it”

I get a lot emails and messages from teachers about problems with administrators.

Some of these teachers feel like their principals place too much emphasis on testing and try to standardize teaching. There’s no freedom for the teachers to be creative or exercise their professional judgment, and there’s no freedom for kids to be kids.

Others simply don’t feel supported by their admins; they feel like workhorses who continually have more demands stacked on their plates without any acknowledgment or appreciation of what they do. One teacher put it this way: “I want to be a part of helping admin see that they should treat their teachers as though they are valued.”

Now it’s not my intention for this to be a principal-bashing post, and I’m certain that anyone with a principal’s blog could write an article about how to deal with teachers who just don’t “get it.” We all know there’s plenty of incompetence in every profession. So let me be clear: there are many amazing admins out there and I don’t mean to discredit them in any way. But the teachers who have great admins don’t need my help. 

This post (and podcast episode) is for the teachers who aren’t fortunate to work with those wonderful principals who are visionaries, those who “get it” and make them feel supported and valued. Here’s how to cope.

Tips dealing with a principal who doesnt get it

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1. Acknowledge that your principal “gets” things that you don’t

No matter how oblivious or out of touch your principal seems, she or he has insight into the big picture of running the school that you cannot possibly have. She or he has insider knowledge of things you simply don’t know.

The same way that students say to us “That’s not fair” or “Why can’t we just do it this way” because they’re so sure they have the same information we do and we’re clearly making the wrong decision about how things should be done? That’s how we are sometimes as teachers.

We forget that the principal knows stuff we don’t know and is looking out for a greater good. We don’t realize how the tiny change in policy we’re suggesting, which seems like it would benefit everyone, would actually have a domino effect in a lot of other areas and create new problems.

We also forget that many of the ideas that seem to be coming from the principal are actually mandates from the district or state. This is like our students assuming that every test we give them was our idea, and every rule we enforce was something we dreamed up ourselves. Students have no idea how many things their teachers are more or less forced to do because of admin, and likewise, teachers have no idea how many things principals are more or less forced to do because of parental pressure, superintendents’ mandates, or laws at the state level.

A lot of bad ideas may be implemented in your school, but I can guarantee that not all of them (and probably not even most of them) were initiated by your principal.

So, an administrator may appear to be oblivious or to oppose something that seems like common sense, but people always have reasons for doing the things they do. It may not be right–a good reason is not the same as a right reason. But if the person’s hands are tied and they have no choice, that’s a good reason even if it’s not right.

So start with the assumption that your administrators have reasons for deciding things the way they do.

Begin there, rather than with the opinion that she or he is a bumbling idiot with no leadership skills, and I think you’ll find that this move toward empathy lessens some of the frustration you feel.

In fact, whenever you’re trying to work with a difficult person or a person who thinks very differently than you, you always want to try to get to a place of empathy where you can appreciate the principle of separate realities.

I’ve written an entire chapter about this in my book Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. The idea is that people’s opinions, decisions, and values are based on their unique experiences in life.

You cannot possibly see the world as your principal does, because you haven’t had all the same life experiences as she or he has. You are truly living in separate realities and that will always be true.

And yet that doesn’t preclude you from working together.

Instead, you can work to understand and appreciate one another’s separate realities, those unique viewpoints, and realize that other people’s choices do make sense within the context of their separate reality.

Once you get to that place, it’s not nearly as irritating to deal with people who see the world differently than you do. You’re able to have a genuine understanding or their position.

2. Stop complaining and start creating change

Complaining does NOTHING but kill your energy and enthusiasm.

We as human beings have to stop justifying our love of complaining and pretending like it somehow makes us feel better. Maybe it would if we could do it in small doses, but complaining is like a disease which worsens over time and spreads virally to almost everyone who comes in contact with it.  

It’s time to get real about how this culture of complaining is rotting away our schools, our classrooms, and homes. You cannot let your frustration with your administrators poison the lives of everyone who spends time with you.

Complaining makes you feel like your situation is hopeless because not only are you upset, but everyone around you also sees there is a huge problem and is upset. You can work yourself into a frenzy together, and as each new tale of injustice and frustration and ridiculousness is added to the collective story, the helplessness and anger you feel builds with no healthy outlet for expression.

So guess where all that frustration goes–into the classroom, into your interactions with your students. And it probably goes home with you at the end of the day where you poison your marriage and the relationships you have with your own children, too. 

If you’re in a school where morale is already in the toilet, you cannot afford to waste a single day complaining about your administration.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re providing a sounding board for your frustrated colleagues; in reality, you are dragging them down.

Someone who is discouraged does not need to hear more stories of discouragement. They need someone to empower them. If you all sit around waiting for someone else to take on that role, change will never come.

Go ahead and confide in someone you trust and get things off your chest when you’re upset. But you don’t need to keep repeating your stories of frustration to everyone who will listen. You don’t need to keep going back and rehashing.

You’ve got to move into problem-solving mode as soon as you possibly can. Your job is just too important for you to allow your focus and energy to be drained by complaining and replaying conflicts in your mind and anticipating problems.

Shift from thinking, “This is ridiculous, I can’t believe I have to deal with this!” to “What are we going to do about it?”  Funnel the anger and frustration into something productive.

If you want your administrators to value the teachers, the teachers can start by valuing the administrators.

Any marriage counselor will tell you that if you want to create new patterns for how you treat one another, you can’t sit back and wait for the other person to take the lead, even if they were wrong and you were right. And you can’t do one nice thing and then say, “Well, I tried, it didn’t work. He didn’t reciprocate. It’s hopeless!”

In any relationship, with anyone, if you want to get out of the pattern of mistreating one another, the person who wants to create change can start setting a new precedent and be determined to shift the dynamic through his or her own actions.

So, get to that place or appreciating separate realities and show respect to your principal. Smile genuinely and give genuine compliments. Do things that make his or her job easier, and things that make him or her look good.

Stop the eye rolling, the muttering under your breath, the waiting until the last minute to do things s/he requested. Let your administrator feel your support and that you value him or her. That’s probably a pretty foreign feeling on his or her end, too.

Let the past be the past and YOU shift the dynamic, regardless of how she or he responds. Kill ‘em with kindness, and let it be genuine.

You can do that, even though it’s hard–remind yourself you’re not doing it for your principal, you’re doing it for YOU, your students, and your family. If you want to change a toxic school culture, let that change begin with you.

If the problem is that your principal is micromanaging you, mandating extra testing and data collection, and in general making it harder for you to focus on student learning, creating change is even more imperative.

If something you’re being told to do in your classroom is keeping you awake at night because you know it’s killing your students’ love of learning and making you and the kids miserable, then it’s worth taking a risk and figuring out a better way.

You cannot wait for school leadership to mandate or sanction what’s best for kids.

You may not even need to take a public stand, although if you’re showing more respect and a better attitude toward your principal lately, she or he is more likely to hear you and compromise, so it could be worth trying.

But what I’m really telling you to do is close your door and teach. Ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

This is the motto that tens of thousands of veteran teachers live by, the only thing that’s enabled them to stay in our profession as long as they have: the stubborn determination to do what they know their students need no matter how many different policies come and go which could interfere.

They smile and nod and document whatever’s supposed to be documented and then they do what their students need them to do.

You see, change doesn’t have to come from a mandate on high. Grass-roots change, made one teacher at a time, one classroom at a time, can be the most powerful way to transform school culture and have the biggest impact on students.

So, do what you know is best and prove your ideas work. Then you can bring the research and data to your principal, and back up your practices.

Next, see if you can get ONE other colleague on board to do what’s best for kids and provide even more evidence that the strategies you want to use do work with your school population.

Build from there–it’s simpler than you think to start a grassroots movement in your school, one teacher at a time, and let the change start with you.

right state of mind

3. Go work somewhere else

If you’re listening to this and thinking to yourself, “This could never work at my school. You don’t know MY principal. It’s hopeless. I’ve already done everything I can do” then quite frankly, it’s probably time to go work somewhere else.

If you really hate working for your principal and you just don’t see things ever getting better under his or her leadership, then leave. Let’s be real–there are some situations that are just not going to get better, barring a divine intervention. There are principals who don’t want to change with the times and the bureaucracy of the school system doesn’t force them to. There are principals who are grossly incompetent, and those who will make your job much more difficult than it needs to be. This is absolutely a reality, I know. 

When you get to the point where you feel like you’ve done all that you can do, you’ll know it. You’ll know in your heart if you’ve really done as much good as you can within your school, and it’s time to move on.

And when you get to that place, start exploring your options so you can make a thoughtful decision when the right opportunity comes along.

There’s a lot schools out there and many, if not most, of them are wonderful places to teach and learn. There are thousands of principals out there who are inspiring and supportive and care about their kids and teachers.

Don’t assume that it’s terrible everywhere else so you might as well stay where you’re at. There are places where you can love teaching again.

Now I know that finding another teaching position is easier said than done but remember, this is your LIFE we’re talking about. If your soul is being crushed in your current job, why in the world are you letting anything keep you there? 

There’s nothing more frustrating to me than to receive an email from a teacher who says she is killing the love of learning for her students and hates her job, but has a million excuses why it can never be another way, and she’s doomed to be stuck in this awful job working for this awful principal forever.

You get one shot at this life. Don’t waste it. If you’re waiting for your principal to quit or for the perfect job to fall in your lap, you’re wasting your life.

Go create the life you want to live.

Advocate for yourself and your students.

Go make a difference in another school, or make a difference in education outside the system.

Ultimately that’s what I decided to do.

I got tired of the restrictions and I wanted to carve out my own path. That’s exactly what I’ve done, and I’m not anyone special–I didn’t have any unique opportunities available to me. I just created a website to share teaching ideas and help other teachers, and let things grow from there. If I can make my own path, you can do it, too. If you’re miserable, go.

Don’t let obligations to your school community keep you from fulfilling your dream. Your students deserve to have a happy teacher, and if you’re unhappy and bringing that misery into the classroom every day, you’re not doing them any favors by sticking around and maintaining the status quo.

“So what’s the best course of action in MY situation?”

Often teachers want to share their horror stories with me and then ask my advice on whether they should quit. They want me to either be horrified with them and give them “permission” to leave, or they’re hopeful that I can offer some magic bullet solution that they haven’t considered which will make everything better.

I can’t do either one of those things, really.

I can only tell you to first make sure you are appreciating the concept of separate realities, and seeing things from your principal’s position. Make sure you are looking at the whole picture, and trying to empathize with why decisions are being made the way they are.

I can only tell you to make sure you are part of the solution, not the problem. If you’re complaining every day and walking around school with a sour look on your face, you are part of the problem. Make sure you are creating change within your own classroom and doing what’s best for kids, and make sure you are doing your part to build morale and keep your colleagues inspired. If you are waiting for someone else to do this, you have not taken responsibility for your own actions yet and moved into problem-solving mode. 

Create change in your classroom practices and in your attitude and actions toward your principal, and give it time for you to see results.

You need to do that whole-heartedly for many months before you can make the determination about whether it’s time to go. Cutting back on the complaining and saying one nice thing about your principal does not constitute giving your all to create real change. You’ve got a serious problem on your hands and you need to put in serious effort to solve it, because your livelihood as an educator is at stake, and so is the education of thousands of children.

Once those things are done, you–and only you–can make that decision about whether it’s time to go. Know that there isn’t any harm in exploring your other options rather than trying to wait out a bad principal in the hopes s/he will transfer or retire. I’ve seen close friends of mine go that route and lose years of their lives working for a boss they hate just because the school is close to their house or they didn’t want to start over somewhere else. It’s been heartbreaking for me to watch this. That’s not a trade-off I have ever been willing to make, personally. I will relocate, transfer, or do whatever else it takes to have a healthy working environment. I know my own worth and I believe that I deserve to work in a place where I’m appreciated and supported.

I believe you deserve that, too, so if you’re struggling with this situation, I hope you will start today to create change–in your attitude, in your actions, in your school morale, and in your life. Don’t waste another day being miserable. You can start the turnaround process today.

find a way

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!

This post and podcast episode is sponsored by Kiddom, a standards-based platform helping teachers personalize learning. With Kiddom, teachers gain access to an unlimited library of content, with beautiful, actionable reports. And the best part? Kiddom is free! Visit www.kiddom.co to learn more.

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go! A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

See blog posts/transcripts for all episodes

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Terence Sawtell August 29, 2016 at 4:47 pm

This speaks to me!! Great post and love the suggestions.

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2 Trish Trejo August 30, 2016 at 12:50 pm

I’m a former teacher and principal, and I think you make sense with your points. It’s especially true that each of us needs to concentrate on being part of a solution, even if it’s not the only solution. I’ve found that rarely is there one solution to any challenge.

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3 Angela Watson September 18, 2016 at 8:59 am

Such a wonderful point about there not being ONE solution to any challenge. That perspective makes it feel less daunting to try to solve the problem–knowing that you can just focus on solving one aspect of it, and not being responsible for figuring out how to fix everything all on your own.

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4 Robin September 3, 2016 at 8:00 am

Thank you for this post, Angela! Every word of this post rings true!! I came across your blog a little over a year ago. I was probably at my lowest point in teaching, wondering if I should continue in this profession. After spending a weekend going through your blog, I was able to start seeing things that were withing my control, things that I could actually change. I reminded myself that teaching was my “dream job” and little by little, I started making those small changes. Last year was incredible! It reminded me of my first year of teaching. I was able to enjoy my students and my profession once again. I couldn’t have done it without the inspiration from your blog. I really can’t thank you enough!!!!!

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5 Angela Watson September 18, 2016 at 9:01 am

Robin, I am so appreciative of you sharing your story. Wow! I love that you were able to put the pieces together and realize that you have so much more control and influence than you give yourself credit for (and that’s true for almost all of us!) Shifting your perspective is the first, most important, and most powerful step…and you’ve done that. I’m proud of you.

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6 Gill September 7, 2016 at 9:45 pm

Ouch! Thank you, Angela!

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7 Caroline September 17, 2016 at 8:59 am

Great ! Thanks. Great wake up call…..complaining..

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8 Joan Pawlikowski September 17, 2016 at 9:40 am

Though my principal is wonderful, I read this to see what I could take away from it. Even when one has positive administrators, we still have crazy requirements from our politicians that make us so frustrated. You’ve clarified some common negative dynamics, and you’ve encouraged us to think differently. I can, do, and will follow the advice you give here to deal with those things.

Thank you, Angela, for consistently being a positive leader in our field. You are a good teacher who I trust.

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9 Angela Watson September 18, 2016 at 9:01 am

Thank you, Joan. Your vote of trust and confidence means a lot. :)

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10 Karyn Fine September 17, 2016 at 12:33 pm

Thank you for this podcast. I teach in an urban middle school that is a 7th & 8th grade only building. I have a couple of questions that were not discussed. You talked about switching jobs. How does a teacher cope when switching jobs for financial reasons is not an option. I am at the top of my pay scale and would lose a lot of money if I switch jobs. Sometimes I feel trapped. Secondly, I am on my 3rd. principal in 4 years. Change is hard, I get that. This year not only do we have a new principal, who never had a building before, and 2 brand new AP’s fresh from classrooms in our building. I get that our principal has a vision, change is hard. I don’t need to understand every change, but need to follow through with directives. However, I don’t feel like decisions are being made that are best for children. I am a 22 year veteran, 18 in my current building. I have seen a lot come and go and have done as you suggest, close my door and do what is best for kids. Our clock schedule has completely changed so that 800 kids pass at the same time instead of only 400 passing and now have split classes with lunch in the middle. And all the little things we have experimented with as a team over the last 10 years that works has all been taken away. The best example I can give is our team has taken our kids off bells for passing time the last 5-6 years. Our tardiness were down, kids were using the restroom during that time, and our kids were not involved in a single fight during passing time. This year we are not allowed to do this and our tar dies are up, we had kids fight with kids from other teams, and constant loss of instruction time due to kids going to the bathroom. How do I deal with this type of stuff? I have spoken to my principal and he tells me let the kids outs for the bathroom and if they fight, then it is on the admin team. I HATE that answer. These are middle schoolers, they don’t know how to control their anger. Why set them up? How do I make those grassroot changes to do what we know is best for our population when I have an inexperienced admin team that thinks they know best? Our AP’s won’t contradict our new principal and certainly have forgotten what it was like when they were teachers, last year. I know I am complaining, but I really am trying to stay positive at work. How do I continue to be positive and help others do the same?

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11 Angela Watson September 18, 2016 at 9:06 am

Hey there, Karyn. I’m sorry you’re in a tough situation. I think all the advice in this podcast applies to you, but I can’t really tell you what that will specifically look like. (See the section above called “what’s the best course of action in MY situation?”) You have some tough choices to make for sure.

If you want help staying positive and encouraging others to do the same, you may want to check out my book Unshakeable (which is focused on how to enjoy teaching every day, no matter what) or Awakened (which is about how to change your mindset so that you can perceive difficult situations as less stressful and decrease their negative impact on you.) You can learn more about them both here: http://thecornerstoneforteachers.com/books All the best to you!

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12 Beth Callahan September 25, 2016 at 10:53 pm

I am right there with you, Karen. Top of the pay scale. After next year, I could retire. Financially, I can’t. My latest principal (yes, I am also on the 3rd one in 4 years) has ideas that are great in thought, but there is little planning. She truly does not see the Big Picture of a K-6 school with 700 students yet. I hope I can make it until she grows into her job. Praying for you….

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13 Donna September 17, 2016 at 1:33 pm

This was an extremely informative post. Though I homeschool now, I used to be in a private school setting, first as the Director and returning as a teacher and now an Auxillary support instructor once a week. While I haven’t had to encounter a lot of what you described, I immediately saw where this advice would fit into so many other work/social contexts. I plan on sharing this with non-teachers, especially about complaining and the impact it has on so many others, right into our very home lives. What a great read!

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14 Larayne Hall September 17, 2016 at 3:55 pm

Angela, as retired
teacher and principal, I tell you this is one of the best articles I’ve seen on a subject that hits home with almost every teacher at some point in their career. It applies to individuals in other professions and careers too. Thank you for this sound advice!

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15 Jill September 17, 2016 at 5:46 pm

I really appreciate point #1. I want to find a way to show my principal that I appreciate him! My principal and I disagree on some things but overall I like working for and with him.

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16 Grace Grant September 17, 2016 at 10:27 pm

Have you been eaves dropping! It is like you have heard me whining and complaining all week long!! I have said to my husband and several others that I am going to have to find my happy place with my principal. I knew in my heart I needed to stop complaining, but I love the strategy of empathy. I really heard myself in this podcast, I’m a bit humbled that I have acted like a brat (even though I do disagree with much of the way things are handled).

I am looking to get out of the classroom. I’m going to Graduate School to get a Library Science degree so I can still teach but may be relieved of some of the “stuff” that comes with being a classroom teacher. I know I’ll have a different set of things that may bother me, but, I’m looking forward to the change and new and different challenges!
Thank you for this timely post!! It really spoke to my heart!

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17 Anne September 18, 2016 at 10:27 am

Grace,

Are you in a school district with actual librarians or are you planning to be a librarian at a college or university? I have always loved the idea of being a “librarian” but any school district I have worked for employs library technicians which are part-time classified employees. They are overworked and underpaid, usually performing an 8 hour job in 3.5 hours per day at around $12.00 per hour. I certainly could not afford to change from being a teacher to a library technician.

This sounds like an amazing option for you. Best of luck and enjoyment!

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18 Grace Grant September 18, 2016 at 11:36 pm

I am lucky that my state (Go South Carolina) puts great value on having a certified Teacher Librarian/Media Specialist in each Media Center! I would like to stay at my school until my daughter finishes (she is in 3rd grade)…we will see!
Sadly, I hear a lot of stories about Library positions being cut or undervalued…They do so much more than check out books!

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19 Rebecca September 18, 2016 at 5:41 am

I was talking to my daughter earlier about how, when people complain, it is wearying and draining.
I realise, after reading this, that I can be one of those who complain. Truly. Hard to believe from Miss Pollyanna, I know!
Thanks for reminding me that whatever I do (especially teaching) I need to do cheerfully and as if I were doing it for God.
Teaching is my best offering. This week I’ll make that offering sweet.

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20 Carol September 18, 2016 at 10:26 am

Thank you so much for the inspiration you just gave me by listening to your podcast! I am laughing right now because throughout the entire podcast I was smiling and shaking my head thinking yep, yep, yep! You are sooooo right about every single thing you said. I just want to let everyone and myself know I will be working on this for the school year. Thank you, Angela for putting this out there!

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21 Amber September 21, 2016 at 9:11 am

Thank you. This is exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time. Thank you.

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22 Heather September 23, 2016 at 11:36 pm

Thank you! I just moved to a new state- and I have a very tough school! I was so happy at my last school but had to move due my husband getting a transfer.
So, now I work with poverty stricken reservation children, and am being micromanaged to the min. Of every day. Have no $$ allotted for my classroom and am only able to teach math and reading. It has been rough! The kids steal from me, don’t do work, crawl around the classroom and I have NO help. The worst was I becoming a teacher I hated in school. I smacked a table and yelled at a student! I have NEVER done that before!
I began complaining every night to my husband and everyone who will listen. Last week I thought, I hate teaching now. I have to yell at kids, they are not having fun, there is no creative moment for me…Ah the list seems endless. So, I began throwing in some fun social studies and science in my centers. I figured I can apologize later. Told my students I was sorry that I seemed so crabby but if they do there job and listen, we were going to make the rest of the year fun and learn a lot.
I’m more relaxed. One day at a time….
Thanks for the post! I needed some understanding out there! Hope my love of teaching never dies.

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23 Angela Watson September 24, 2016 at 7:31 am

Hi there, Heather, I wonder if this post about working with students in poverty would be helpful at all?

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24 Elizabeth Jackson October 4, 2016 at 8:32 am

Awesome! You shared terrific strategies for any struggling teacher. I agree with everything you said. Thanks for taking on a touchy subject and speaking so eloquently about it.

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25 J November 25, 2016 at 10:06 pm

That’s sound a like good intentions. This doesn’t effect teachers only but parents and students. Administrators can often feel like a governmental dictatorship and restrict parental rights at will, deceive as they need, and at the same time tell you they are right and you are wrong and there is nothing you can do about it.

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