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Three Differences Between Teaching and Administration

Voice of ExperienceEducator Arnold Pulda reflects on his move from the classroom to administration. There are big differences, he says, but the most important thing administrators need to know is that they can never -- must never -- forget where they came from. Included: Three differences between the classroom and administration.


Arnold Pulda


I enjoy writing for an audience of teachers. Writing for this particular audience gives me the chance to communicate -- as if I'm talking to a small and friendly group -- things that can't always be said to a more diverse group.

Here, for example, I can write that nothing else in life can compare to "doing the 5-by-5" -- meeting five classes of students for five days each week.

Here, I can write that teaching is wonderful -- rewarding in ways that people who do not teach cannot possibly imagine.

Here, I can write, with 100 percent certainty, that teaching is exhausting and exasperating -- physically and mentally, the most demanding job there is. (Raise your hand if you believe otherwise. Seeno hands. Case closed!)

I know these things to be true, in part, because I worked for 15 years in the "real world" -- in a variety of jobs in diverse professions and industries -- so I do speak with some authority when I compare teaching to other careers.


In my first teaching job, I taught high-school history, doing the 5-by-5 for eight years. I was 45 -- older than most new teachers -- when I began teaching. Because I already was getting a late start, I didn't begin teaching with an eye toward moving out of the classroom and into administration. I did have an MBA, however, and some experience in business management, so looking back, I can see that I had the background and some of the tools and skills for making that move. It wasn't long before I also had the desire to do so.

After four or five years in the classroom, I started to take note of the administrative job postings. I began to apply for positions that seemed to match my abilities and interests. I interviewed for several jobs without success. Then, about three years ago, I was appointed system-wide liaison for gifted-and-talented student programs. Since that appointment, I have taken on the leadership of other departments as well.


As a classroom-teacher-turned-administrator, I often have reflected on the differences between the two positions. I see three primary distinctions:

Time. I expected that, as an administrator, I would be spending less time at work than I did as a teacher. That has not proven to be true, however; I am working longer hours now. The key difference is that now I have control over my time. Simply put, the administration building has no school bell. When I was in the classroom, lunch period always was exactly 22 minutes; in administration, lunchtime often is non-existent; other times, it will last an hour. In the latter case, lunch is usually a working lunch with a colleague. I have learned quickly that a teacher who can't master his or her own schedule and those of others on the team, shouldn't aspire to administrative work. A teacher who is not comfortable with flexibility and last-minute changes, or who is chronically late, should not aspire to administrative work.

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Student contact. Many administrators say they often and regularly work directly with students, but that contact is simply not the same as doing the 5-by-5. That close, personal, and thorough interaction with students is what I miss most since making the move from classroom to administration; there is nothing like that student contact, and nothing in administration can replace it. On the other hand, administrators don't have time-consuming homework to toil over or grades to log. I certainly don't miss either of those aspects of the teacher's job.

Scope. As a teacher, I was accustomed to being directly and personally acquainted with 125 students each school year. As the poet Billy Collins expressed so perfectly in his poem Schoolsville, over the years teachers instruct enough students to populate a small town; and, as in any small town, the "mayor" gets to know many of those students very closely. Put another way -- borrowing the words of Henry Adams -- "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." Administrators, on the other hand, live in the city. Although exposed to many more "citizens," they get to know very few well. The influence an administrator has on the education of children is broader -- but not as deep.


If you are a classroom teacher who aspires to become an administrator, I have one last thought to share: administrators must never forget where they came from (and where they might return to). When a school administrator makes a decision or commits to an action or policy that makes even one teacher's job the tiniest bit more difficult, he or she has made a mistake, and has done a disservice -- not only to the teacher, but also to his or her students. When we forget, even for a moment, what it was like to walk the classroom floor, we have forgotten what years of teaching experience should have taught us.

Teaching is difficult, and administration work is challenging in its own way, but there is no reason why both groups should not be able to work together toward the same goal: providing the best education possible for all students. If administrators become distracted from that objective, perhaps they need to go back and spend some more time doing the 5-by-5.

Arnold Pulda is a liaison for gifted and talented student programs in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Article by Arnold Pulda
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