Central Offices: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Part Two

This is the second part of a blog series in which two former central office administrators recount their experiences and make recommendations to improve the effectiveness of central offices. In Part 1, Edjacent co-founder/Chief Design Officer Meghan Raftery asked fellow designer and regular blog contributor Doug Wren to answer a few questions. In this installment, Doug asks Meghan the same questions.

Doug: How did you end up in the central office?

Meghan: I had a very short career as a classroom teacher. I had only taught for four years before moving to Virginia Beach in 2009 during the great recession. I needed a job and the first one offered to me was a coaching position, supporting classroom teachers with gifted students, as a gifted resource teacher. I knew nothing about gifted education but I enjoyed my course work, especially the models and strategies course, and got really hooked on curriculum writing. I became a K-12 instructional specialist because I honestly believed (incorrectly) that I could write the perfect curriculum.

D: What were your goals for supporting teachers?

M: I wanted to be a voice for teachers. I was frustrated by the dramatically decreasing sense of agency the teachers I supported were feeling. These teachers and I felt “they” were making important decisions that affected the daily lives of students and teachers, but no one knew who “they” was or how they came to their decisions. I wanted to work transparently to support teachers and offer as much autonomy as the position would allow. I also wanted to break down the traditional boundaries of subject areas and offer more authentic opportunities for students that mirror life outside of the school walls. I knew how to stretch the boundaries of standards in my own classroom and wanted to do some of that work at a systemic level.

D: What was it like when you first started working in the central office and how did your viewpoint change over time?

M: My first months in central office were actually kind of utopian. I worked with an incredible team of women who were passionate and knowledgeable about teaching and learning. We had big ideas and big dreams and a lot of freedom to create. There was a lot of tension, however, when we started implementing some pretty dramatic changes. I own a lot of responsibility for the tension – I did not ask enough questions or learn enough about what people wanted or needed – but I was shocked by how afraid everyone was to try something new. That resistance was really new to me professionally. I was used to a high degree of risk-taking and optimism. It was really defeating to me, especially when a lot of the work that mattered deeply to me was no longer supported. I spent the next few years learning some hard lessons about bureaucracy and the glacial pace of systemic change.

D: What were the rewards and challenges of your central office roles?

M: The best and worst part was getting to know so many people in leadership roles and in instructional roles. It was wonderful because I met folks I still have deep connections with, people passionate about teaching and learning who had brilliant specialized knowledge and interests. My network grew deep and wide in a very short time and there are still educators I can call at a moment’s notice for very specific things. Through their example as well as formal and informal mentoring, I learned a great deal about who I am as an educator and who I strive to be. However, it was also challenging to get to know so many stakeholders. I often felt the weight of all their hopes and dreams on my shoulders. Big decisions were made at tables where I sat and I did not always feel like the people making the decisions understood the full cost and opportunity they held in their hands. I could be a frustrating teammate in those days, I imagine, because I was always raising awareness of the stakes.

D: What recommendations do you have for people who currently work or who want to work in the central office of a school district?

M: There is a contradiction to working in central office: your span of influence is vast and also quite weak. You have to hold two truths in your heart and mind at the same time. One truth is that the decisions you make can affect the future of hundreds of teachers and students. The other is that you’re not so important or powerful after all. You have tremendous responsibility and also very little ability to affect outcomes. It can be quite maddening! I recommend that anyone who works in central office or wants to arm themselves with a thick layer of humility, curiosity, and tolerance for ambiguity. Get clear on what you value and who you want to be and be ready to make tough decisions that reflect those values, even when the consequences come at a high personal cost. 

Find people who challenge and support you. Seek like-minded colleagues, but also cultivate a network of people who see things differently than you do. Get good at deep discussion and don’t be afraid of discomfort. 

Get out in the field as often as you can. Don’t be an observer, be a participant. Find a class you can consistently cover in a building where you can experiment. Test out curriculum and new ideas before pitching them to teachers. This can create deeper levels of empathy for the people you serve and shows them the level of trust and admiration you have for the work they do. Humbly express curiosity and ask teachers for feedback based on your performance. In this kind of partnership, the teacher is an expert and the central office staff is simply uncovering patterns of need and addressing them on behalf of teachers. If you don’t believe teachers are experts, please do not take a central office job.

I also recommend that you try not to adjust your quality of life to higher pay. Be ready to live on a teacher salary again and pay or retirement incentives will be less of a “golden handcuff” as fellow Edjacent designer Jethro Jones once called it.

D: Last question – how can central offices better support the work of schools?

M: As I see it, public education is in crisis. Public trust in schools is severely eroded and a lot of the burden for that falls on schools. No matter how challenging it is to work in central office at this time, it is 100 times more difficult to work in a school. It is important to project clear knowledge of this, while also not wallowing in guilt. Instead, get to know the challenges schools are facing. Identify trends, then look for ways to provide resources and support or remove barriers and policy that could provide relief to teachers and building administrators.

I think we have two different ways to view the next few months or even years of schooling. One view is to say that we all must do “whatever it takes” to support students, to reduce so-called learning loss, and solve any number of major societal crises. This is the default mode of central office policy. It asks school-based staff to completely sacrifice their well-being, personal life, and values for the sake of the system.

The other view is to acknowledge that our greatest assets are high-quality, caring, capable classroom teachers. We are losing these folks at an alarming rate. We are losing teachers in general, but far scarier for me is the number of educators who are teachers in the depths of their souls who are walking away. The needs of excellent, experienced educators are often entirely different from the less competent teachers we have been forced to hire in the past few years. We need to nurture and care for our best teachers. Most of all, we need to get out of their way.

Ask good questions. Demonstrate respect and awe. Share support and gratitude. Listen carefully. Act accordingly. Small acts of humanity and dignity can go a long way.

I’ll end with an example. A central office administrator I have known for some time has grown tremendously as a leader and educator over the years I have known him, while staying crystal clear about his values and why he does the work he does. Recently, when asked to substitute teach to help address teacher shortages, he insisted on only subbing in schools as a way to relieve the specialists he supervises so they could do their jobs instead of subbing. He complied with the mandate, but also stayed true to his values and the people he serves. This is the kind of central office leader that we need. I’d love to see folks sharing other examples in the comments below. If anyone needs (and rarely gets) a compliment, it’s central office staff!

Doug: I have to say “Amen” to your answers to the last two questions. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Meghan:  It’s easier to say than to do, but I believe you and I are two people who consistently tried to lead in our values and learn from others whenever we could. Edjacent has quite a few designers currently serving in central office positions or with central office experience. They know what it is like to be a “they” – often quite isolated from other caring educators or misunderstood for a variety of reasons. For any of our readers who are interested in bespoke support, please do reach out. Our coaches would love to work with you and welcome you into our educator community.

2 thoughts on “Central Offices: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Part Two”

  1. Thank Meghan for sharing your perspective. I have agree. I had the opportunity to work in three different schools divisions in central office. Making sure that you didn’t leave the school because you were tired of it and you think central office is less stressful is so important. The stressors are different, but staying connected with intentionally to schools is so important. I would often schedule my day to start at a school while at central office. I would also pick days just to stay at a school and ask for a small space to work. I enjoyed getting into classrooms in between working.

    1. Veleka, thank you for sharing your thoughts! You were always a great mentor and model for me of how you can stay connected, involved, informed, and empathetic about what is happening in schools. You have a gift for filtering what is most important and communicate that where you are is exactly where you want to be.

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