Why Your Administrator Appears to be Under Communicating or Not Listening

Stay in education long enough and you’ve likely either heard or said one of the following:

My principal doesn’t listen.

My principal doesn’t care. 

My principal doesn’t communicate enough (or well enough).

These are legitimate concerns, and effective communication is vital to the success of any organization. Most administrators truly are good people who are well-intended. However, their communication, or lack thereof, can become misinterpreted, misunderstood, taken personally, or perceived to be rooted in malice.

Below are a few reasons why administrators may appear to be under communicating or not listening:

They are trying to prevent more stress.

We all know teaching is stressful. Sometimes administrators choose to not share certain information to avoid adding additional stress onto teachers. It is important that teachers are able to maintain their focus on teaching. Some information will generate worry and stress that reduces a teacher’s effectiveness during planning and instruction. 

They are trying to respect your time.

Most administrators understand how demanding teaching is. There are demands placed on time, emotions, and energy. Administrators may attempt to keep from overburdening their staff by respecting and protecting a teacher’s valuable minutes during the day. 

The answer is no.

Sometimes an answer of “no” is interpreted as not listening or not caring. If the reason for a “no” was not shared, it’s okay to seek understanding. Seeking understanding is better than living with an incorrect assumption. 

They have poor body language/nonverbal communication.

Administration is a social position which requires building and maintaining relationships. Some administrators are natural introverts and live outside of their comfort zone each and every day. Their body language and nonverbal communication can sometimes be misinterpreted as not listening or not caring. 

They forgot.

Administrators are human, too. In the craziness of a given day, it is easy to forget something important. Sometimes I can’t even get out of my office before distractions prevent me from remembering where I was going. I often ask staff to send me an email reminder because I know how easy it can be for me to forget. This has proven to be helpful. 

They are stressed or busy, too.

Fulfilling a large number of responsibilities and obligations can be stressful and time-consuming. Teachers definitely understand this. Administrators often have to triage needs or requests as a teacher’s emergency may not be an administrator’s emergency at that moment. Critical discipline issues, central office directives, etc. can often dictate the degree of urgency for any given situation.

A lack of communication, or its perception, can only be improved by better communication - from both sides. While it is the responsibility of any leader to constantly work on improving his or her communication skills, there are some things that teachers should do when left feeling frustrated.

Practice patience.

Extend grace.

Follow up.

Assume good intentions.

Administrators and teachers serve on the same team, and good team members practice effective two-way communication. The four strategies listed above aren't just for teachers. Teachers need their administrators to practice patience, extend grace, follow up, and assume good intentions as well. If both sides are effective in these four areas, communication and culture will be greatly improved.

If communication is a struggle for you, it is important to develop an effective system. Emailing myself works for me. Whenever I have a thought or need a reminder, I pull my phone out and send myself an email which serves as a constant reminder each time my inbox is open. If I'm unable to email myself, I ask staff to email me a reminder. Your system may be different, but the important thing is developing something that will work for you (and those you serve).

Doug Dunn is currently athletic director and junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. Doug can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

3 Books to Enhance Your Teaching Tomorrow

Teaching is incredibly challenging and tiresome, and that’s often the result of many additional responsibilities which are not directly related to actual lesson planning and instruction. Teachers work hard, and there is not enough class time in a school year to adequately teach all of the expected standards. I don’t like to say “cover” the standards. Truthfully, it’s not about “teaching” the standards either. The ultimate goal of a teacher is to facilitate learning - not to teach or cover standards.

So how can we maximize the time we do have to achieve the greatest impact? 

I’ve been a firm believer for years that enhancing classroom instruction doesn’t have to take a major overhaul of what’s already occurring. It is possible that only a few minor tweaks are needed for tremendous impacts on learning and achievement.

Leaders often tell teachers to increase the amount and quality of student writing, become better questioners, or teach in a way that makes learning stick beyond the test. In some cases, there may be little to no support in helping educators grow in these areas. 

The three books below provide great blueprints for maximizing the time teachers have with students.

Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2nd Edition) by Mike Schmoker

Focus is one of my personal favorites, and even John Hattie has said Schmoker “lit a fire” with this book. In the first part of Focus, Schmoker shares what he has learned from his extensive research of schools that have made incredible gains in student achievement. He discovered three different areas of focus that schools have had throughout amazing turnarounds: guaranteed, viable curriculum, formative assessment, and increased literacy. The most impactful part of the book, in my opinion, is the 2nd half where Schmoker had dedicated chapters by content area. These chapters explain how teachers can increase the quantity and quality of reading, writing, and discussion/debating in reading, math, social studies, and science. His strategies are simple, applicable, and impactful. They can deepen learning, reduce grading, and increase student engagement.

At the end of last year, I purchased each of our teachers a copy of this book. Knowing it was unlikely every teacher would read Focus in its entirety, I encouraged them to read the chapter pertaining to their content area at some point prior to returning to school in August. Elementary teachers were to (at minimum) read the reading/ELA chapter. During one of our back to school meetings, we had a good discussion about literacy in our school. Specifically, we began to develop a plan to increase expectations for ourselves and our students in regards to the quality and quantity of writing students would produce. This was the starting point to addressing a gap we knew existed in our curriculum. 

Hacking Questions: 11 Answers That Create a Culture of Inquiry in Your Classroom by Connie Hamilton

Questioning is truly an art form, and it’s critical to increasing our students’ cognitive engagement. Unfortunately, it’s often a forgotten component in teacher prep programs and professional learning opportunities. For years we have been told as educators to increase the Depth of Knowledge (DOK) in our content standards while receiving very little, if any, quality training in how to effectively do so. Improving the quality of our questioning, and being purposeful with the type and timing of our questions, will move student thinking and learning deeper than we might have imagined was possible. 

Hacking Questions helps us learn how to:
  • Become more aware of the unintended messages we send to students through our current practices
  • Cognitively engage each and every student through our questioning
  • More effectively and efficiently gauge student learning and understanding
  • Avoid a culture of disengagement
  • Match our questions with our purpose
  • Engage our shy students
  • Respond to students who do not know an answer (or simply say “I don’t know”)
  • Become more intentional with closing a lesson and maximizing learning when students return the next day
  • Increase student reflection
  • Model how to use questioning to seek understanding
  • Help our students become better questioners
  • Help students break through struggle
  • Transfer ownership of questioning and learning to the students

Connie Hamilton does a terrific job of sharing her experiences while providing many applicable, effective strategies that can be implemented to improve questioning in the classroom. It’s a book every teacher should read before their first day of teaching, and it’s also one we should revisit regularly to finetune our questioning and move student understanding to deeper levels. More importantly, it’s a book that can help us teach our students how to become better questioners and learners themselves. 

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain

How often do we encourage our students to study for a test? How many of us have scolded students when they didn’t study? 

Do we teach students how to study or simply instruct or encourage them to do so? And, if we do teach them study techniques, what are those techniques based upon? How we studied when we were in school? Strategies we learned from our own parents or previous teachers? Research?

Yes, there is research about what works best to make learning stick. While some of the strategies proven to be effective by research may be unconventional, many traditional methods of studying simply do not work. 

Well, they may work for a test. But, as the authors of Make it Stick have said, “cramming leads to faster forgetting.” 

The authors of Powerful Teaching do a wonderful job of blending the science of learning with applicable, proven classroom strategies. In addition to providing teachers research-based methods to use in the classroom to make learning stick, the authors share effective studying techniques to teach our students to use in and out of the classroom. 

The biggest premise of the science of learning has to do with the purpose of the strategies. Many teachers have long thought the purpose of teaching was to impart knowledge to students. Learning science, and Powerful Teaching, stress that we need to focus more on pulling information out of our heads. We typically spend too much time trying to put information into students’ heads rather than have them practice pulling information out. We often view retrieval as a way to assess students, but Agarwal and Bain suggest that retrieval is a learning strategy - not an assessment strategy.

Powerful Learning details four main techniques based on research: retrieval, spacing, interleaving, and feedback-driven metacognition. The authors provide a myriad of classroom strategies that will help us maximize learning and take advantage of what research has shown to be more effective. Not only will students retain more, but their anxiety levels will decrease as well. 

Doug Dunn is currently junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

We Talkin' Bout Practice?!?

Yes, I’m going to talk about practice for a moment. Not about skipping practice as Allen Iverson famously did in 2002, but rather the importance of maximizing our time while in practice. As is the case with many things, there are parallels between the sports arena and the classroom. Whether you are a coach, classroom teacher, or administrator, my hope is that this post prompts reflection as we consider how to best utilize the short amount of time we actually have with our athletes, students, or staff. 

I was blessed to coach some extremely talented players and teams during my time as a head basketball coach. We experienced a great deal of success but had to do so in unconventional fashion. The year we won a state championship we only had seven players. That made it extremely challenging to practice in true, game-like conditions. But, we found a way to make it work. 

One of the reasons we were so successful during our two Final Four trips in 2004 and 2005 was due to free throw shooting. As a team, we shot over 75% both years during the Final Four. This was truly amazing! 

We must have made free throws a priority in practice, right? 

Not exactly.

Before I share a story I’ve never shared publicly before now, I must preface by saying this post is in no way intended to diminish the quality of individuals and players on the teams I coached. They were incredible young ladies who were very talented at basketball. They were tremendous kids, from tremendous families, and are all very successful in their own right today. I was extremely proud of them then and even more proud today. They are fine people and wonderful spouses and parents. 

This post is about acknowledging a weakness and then guiding a team through that known weakness. It’s also about having the courage to steer away from tradition in a pursuit of excellence. 

We were terrible free throw shooters. Our opponent in the state 3rd place game in 2004 knew that. Midway through the 4th quarter, I made the decision to hold the ball at halfcourt while on offense to force Mound City to get out of their suffocating 2-3 zone. Our 4-5 point lead seemed like much more, but I wanted to generate a larger lead to close out the game. I felt they couldn’t guard us man-to-man. Knowing we were 50% as a team shooting free throws, the opposing coach instructed his players to foul us rather than change their defense. We went to the free throw line and made both shots. 

Thinking he wouldn’t foul us again, we held the ball the next trip down the court. I was wrong. They fouled us to force more free throws.

Again, we made them both.

After this happened for a 3rd time, my mind was off to the races. What should I do? Everybody in the arena on the University of Missouri campus was watching and critiquing my coaching decisions in one of the biggest games in school history. Not much pressure!

Here’s a rundown of some of those thoughts…
  • We only had one senior, a non-starter, on our team. I knew we’d be favorites to win the state championship the following year. 
  • We were terrible free throw shooters, and I didn’t want free throws to keep us from winning a state championship next season.
  • I had been hounding our team about spending extra time before and after practice to address their weakness. Doing so was a rare occurrence, and I had grown frustrated during the season.

So, what adjustment did I make after being fouled on three consecutive trips down the court?


In that moment, I was thinking about next year. Crazy, I know! We were in the 3rd place game in the state, and next year had no guarantees.

I leaned over to my assistant coach and said, “If we can’t make our free throws we don’t deserve to win.” I can’t believe I actually said that in the biggest game of my life. In my first season as a head coach. In a huge game for our school and community. That moment presented what I felt at the time was a win-win scenario. Either we win the 3rd place game in the Final Four, or our girls learn the hard lesson that they need to put in extra time shooting free throws. My efforts to convince them had fallen on deaf ears, so maybe the pain of losing and the hunger to return to the Final Four would motivate them. I still cannot believe I was okay with using that game as a teachable moment.

The game ended with us shooting a perfect 12/12 from the free throw line in the 4th quarter, and we won the game.

How in the world did that happen?

I was asked about that in the post-game press conference. How could we go 12-12 in the 4th quarter when we had been 50% as a team the entire season? It was a great question, and my answer revealed publicly that we had quit shooting free throws earlier in the season “because it wasn’t working.” 

Yes, I quit spending (wasting) practice time on free throws. If it wasn’t going to help us, our time needed to be spent on something which would have a greater impact. 

This is where I believe the lesson lies for teachers and coaches. As world-renowned educational researcher John Hattie likes to say, “It’s not about what works...it’s about what works best.”

Just as a teacher has limited time in a classroom with students, coaches have limited time with their players. We must maximize that brief amount of time with instruction, practice, and learning which will yield the greatest results.

For our team, there were more impactful drills we could be running than shooting free throws. The goal was to be as good of a team at the end of the season as we could be, and our practices needed to be designed for that purpose. I failed at inspiring them to put in the extra work on their own, but I could control the practice schedule.

Studies indicate that we grow more from focusing on our strengths than focusing on our weaknesses. I believe our teams were a true reflection of this. We used the time that would have been spent shooting free throws on things which would help us become better at what we were already good at - defense, rebounding, offensive efficiency, passing, and layups. 

There was still the occasional time in practice to shoot free throws in pressure situations, and this may have helped us during our state playoff runs. However, there was no longer time allotted for the mass shooting of free throws. This was difficult for me because I thought that is what coaches had their teams do. I played and learned under multiple hall-of-fame coaches and tried to mimic as much of what they did as possible. But, as is the case with every new team or class of students, we must adapt and evolve with the individuals and groups we lead. Their talents and needs are different, and we must be able to meet them where they are - not necessarily follow a prescribed recipe that may have worked with a previous group. 

There are times when that recipe should be replicated, but it’s important to recognize when it should be aborted. 

I began coaching stuck in tradition. That tradition was simply mimicking the way I had been taught. We frequently see this in sports and in the classroom. Coaches and teachers often do things for no other purpose than that’s how they were taught. Mass free throws? Piles of worksheets? Whatever the case, there are often better ways to utilize the time we have with others and maximize the growth of those we lead. The same is true for administrators leading teachers.

Tradition doesn’t always make you better. Oftentimes, it’s a roadblock to excellence. As administrators, coaches, and teachers, it is imperative that we do not allow our stubbornness to become a roadblock for others.

Choosing to not focus on something doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Free throws are definitely important. However, we should focus our time and energy on those things which are most important at that moment. Those things which could make us even better. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We know there’s no silver bullet in education or coaching. This worked for our team, but it may be something totally different for your team (or classroom). 

The key is knowing where your team is and being able to take them from where they are to someplace greater. The methods and strategies may differ for each group, but the common theme is the pursuit of excellence. There is no particular step-by-step roadmap for excellence. It’s all about starting from where you are and finding a way to maximize the talents of those you serve.

I was privileged to coach an incredible group of champions. Yes, they did win the 2005 state championship - the only state championship in the history of Chadwick High School. They became champions because they pursued excellence. Their path may not have been the same as other teams, and that’s okay. They pursued excellence through their effort, teamwork, vision, commorardarie, and hunger to understand the game of basketball at a deeper level.

Their pursuit of excellence has carried them well through life. They’ve become leaders in their homes and communities. Earned advanced degrees. Become published authors. I am extremely proud to have played a small part of their lives.

As educators, we hope to prepare our students for life. Oftentimes, it is our students who end up doing the teaching. Those Chadwick teams taught me a great deal about leadership and life. And for that, I’ll be forever thankful that I got to be their coach. 

One lesson I learned is to not be afraid to step away from tradition in a pursuit of excellence. Making the decision to quit shooting free throws wasn't easy, but it ended up helping our already good team become an even better team. That particular group needed something different, and it worked.

I'm not sure we would have become state champions had we continued with the status quo and tradition. 

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.