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In education, no relationship (besides that with your students!) matters quite as much as the one you have with your principal. A principal is your evaluator, the person who controls your budget, and the instructional leader in your building. In the best of scenarios, they are also a friend, confidante, and a strong local advocate for your art program. March is Youth Art Month and a time for us to refocus our energy on professional advocacy.
Roland Barth authored an interesting article titled, “Improving Relationships within the Schoolhouse,” in the March 2006 issue of Educational Leadership. In Mr.Barth’s article, he explores how the relationship between teachers and principals affects overall school climate. He says, “The relationships among the educators in a school define all relationships within that school’s culture. Teachers and administrators demonstrate all too well a capacity to either enrich or diminish one another’s lives and thereby enrich or diminish their schools.” Our positive rapport with our principals is vital to everyone!
But what can you objectively do to build and improve a professional relationship? Instead of speculating, I went right to the source. In my modest teaching career, I have taught for over fifteen principals and assistant principals in a single school district. For this article, I reached out to my current and former administers. The results were a fascinating trip down memory lane that offered some surprising insights into the principal perspective. After hours of revealing conversations, I began to see several common threads that translate into smart interpersonal strategies.
It is important to recognize that sometimes, principals are not “art people.” Administrators who began their educational career in the art classroom are few and far between. So, it is reasonable to assume your principal has had limited experiences in the arts. But, that doesn’t mean they can’t be converted!
One principal shared that his FIRST experience making a painting came recently, as an adult. He had attended a staff outing to a “paint and sip” party. This principal was so proud of his artwork; he hung it outside his office. Regardless of how you feel about prescriptive paint parties, this story is revealing. We capture the hearts and minds of our kids with the artmaking process, why wouldn’t this translate to our principals, too?
The joy and pleasure were evident in my former boss’s voice as he described this recent painting party with his staff. I couldn’t believe I had missed the opportunity to provide him with this experience when I worked for him. He visited my classroom regularly. But why hadn’t I invited him into my classroom to make art?
Moving forward, I will be mindful when a lesson pops up that could potentially be a good administrator fit; not because of dynamic pedagogy, but because an adult would be comfortable participating and making art right alongside my students.
If you regularly consume social media, it doesn’t take long to identify one of the major challenges in art teacher/principal relations: “extra duties as assigned.” Regardless of how your district’s contract language defines it, you know the type of “extras” I am talking about. There are posters, bulletin boards, homecoming floats, and giant checks. (No, seriously. I once worked for a principal who asked for giant-sized lottery checks ALL the time. It was hysterical).
The art teacher “ask” came up in almost every interview I conducted. Principals are aware that art teachers get requests above and beyond what other teachers might be asked to do. They are a bit ambivalent about this. They do value you and your time. But also, they know you are talented and capable; and sometimes they just don’t feel like they know anybody else who can match what you do.
As my current principal, Robert Battey, said, “You have a certain skill set, and I have a certain need.” In our school, this belief works both ways. Mr. Battey has a skill set I need from time to time, too. And I know from experience I can trust him to support me when it is required.
So, next time your principal comes to you with a “big ask,” try to reframe it as a compliment and an opportunity. Remember, the thing about doing big favors is sometimes they are returned.
Relationships are built on understanding, and it is almost impossible for a principal to understand a program he or she isn’t a part of. I am fortunate that my principal and assistant principal like to drop by the art room when they are free; they have an insider’s view of what really goes on. But what if you can’t seem to get your administrator to show up? Another of my former principals, Dave Ascolani, has a genius strategy. Dave believes that it is much harder to say no to a child than an adult. “If they don’t or won’t come into your class, send a first grader to invite them!”
When I interviewed another former principal, Steve Megazzini, I asked what factor contributed to our strong working relationship. I was shocked to hear him first identify flexibility. Could it be that simple?
When Steve talks about flexibility, he is referring to times I accepted last-minute art schedule changes to accommodate an unexpected assembly or state testing. Sometimes, this meant missing a few minutes of art class.
During our conversation, I wondered why I had been so flexible with him in the first place. Why hadn’t I balked or taken it as a personal affront on the few occasions that Steve had to cut art short for my students? Why wasn’t I more protective of my program?
Well, I realized it was because I didn’t have to be. My flexibility was born out of professional confidence, which my past and current principals have helped foster. I know from their words and actions they see the importance of art within our school, and I feel noticed and valued. So, when they asked for flexibility, I know they have exhausted all other options. It doesn’t mean my program is any less important to them; it is just a reality of our public school system.
The best way to develop professional confidence is to engage in work you are genuinely proud of and to share it regularly with your administration. They, in turn, will recognize the value of your content. Then, when the system requires occasional flexibility, you can accommodate with confidence and without fear of larger impact on your program.
Of all the conversations about art teacher-principal relations, one of the most empowering occurred with my current administrator, Robert Battey. He spoke at length about trying to foster positive school culture within the staff. “When it comes to culture and climate, it’s not up to a single person; it takes a village.” He went on to explain his belief that staff members, and particularly specialists (like art teachers), can have a significant impact on a building.
How can we, as art teachers, positively impact school culture? The same way that we build a positive culture in our classrooms! Dedicate yourself to relationship building. Demonstrate empathy when interacting with teachers and administrators. Choose professional projects you are passionate about, and share them with your learning community. Above all else, strive to be positive and proactive in your school. That energy will be noticed and reciprocated by your principal.
Mr. Battey also shared some insider tips on getting your principal to “say yes” to your special projects or requests. He talked about the increasingly limited public school resources and mentioned that he has to maximize his spending to positively impact as many students as he possibly can.
His advice when requesting extra money from your principal is to find creative ways to make your project interdisciplinary. Involve as many students as you can (it is often a numbers game), and highlight the natural social-emotional aspects of the projects.
Demands on principals are high in today’s educational climate, so don’t forget to consider things from their positions. As my former principal, Sylvia Torto, so eloquently put it, “Art teachers understand perspective and how it changes with the point of view in a picture. Apply this to interactions with colleagues and students.”
Ultimately, these relationships don’t happen overnight; it takes several years to build authentic trust and rapport. But, the good news is administrators want to foster successful working relationships, too! A little extra effort on your part can be the start of a positive change. Take the first step; it will be some of the most important interpersonal work you do.
What do you think makes a successful relationship between an art teacher and a principal?
What is the kindest or most supportive thing an administrator has ever done for you?