Ethical Educator

Intercepted Communication
School Administrator, June 2021

Scenario: The superintendent/principal of a small rural district in the upper Midwest relies on his skilled and dedicated teachers to provide a top-flight education to students. One morning, he receives a voice mail message intended for one of the teachers from a staffing firm that suggests she may be seeking a new position. The superintendent wants to do everything possible to retain her and wonders if it’s appropriate to broach the subject, having intercepted the call intended for the teacher.

MaryEllen Elia:

We all know that the greatest asset a school district has are the teachers who work to provide success every day for their students. That is why this superintendent/principal would feel disheartened by the thought one of the high-quality teachers might be leaving. 

The administrator should approach the teacher in an upfront and  truthful way—explaining how they got the message and how it disturbed them. This provides a great opportunity to find out what is precipitating the possible move, give feedback on the teacher’s great performance and to share his sincere feelings about the potential loss to the students.   
The school leader might be able to suggest some changes or additional supports the teacher might want that could possibly influence their consideration to depart for a job elsewhere. Regardless of the reason for a possible move, everyone loves to feel valued.

Max McGee:

A classic Think, Act, Do. Our leader needs to take time to THINK and reflect on the why before deciding on the what. Why did the call come to him? Why does the teacher want a new position? Why would a staffing firm be recruiting a teacher? If she desires to leave, is it a systems issue or personal issue?  

The superintendent/principal’s first ACT should be to visit the teacher in her classroom when she has a break to let her know he picked up the call and to share the firm’s contact information as well as invite her to talk informally about her career goals.  Through this conversation, he will learn a lot about both the personal and systemic reasons the teacher may be looking elsewhere.  

As for the DO, the administrator needs to propose a systemic solution to his school board that draws on abundant research about teacher retention. The solution should include opportunities for teacher leadership and tangible ways for the board to show how teachers are valued, perhaps through added supports the staff may need. The board ought to consider ways to engage teacher voice in decision-making and additional options for supporting career paths.  

Maggie Lopez:

Although the voice mail was not intended for the superintendent/principal, it has provided him with a heads-up he can’t ignore. He needs to let the teacher know of the voice mail interception. During the discussion, hopefully the superintendent /principal will find out if in fact the teacher is seeking other work, has a family situation that is requiring her to leave or look for other jobs or something else. Speaking openly with her about the voice mail will show the teacher his transparency and allow the superintendent/principal the opportunity to convey to the teacher how much he values her skills and how important she is to the team.  

This discussion also may be a good time to remind the teacher of opportunities in the district present or future. Whether or not she is seeking other employment, sometimes staff simply look for change to reenergize themselves and may not realize those very changes are possibilities in their current school district. 

Honest communication will give both the superintendent/principal and the teacher a chance to talk through this matter without having to keep secrets from each other and better prepare for whatever decision she makes. 

Shelley Berman:

Honesty is the best policy. Given that the superintendent received the voicemail in error, it’s best that he let the teacher know the staffing firm left a message that implied she may be seeking another position. 

The approach he takes should focus on affirming and supporting her interests or concerns rather than attempting to convince her to stay. He should let her know that he appreciates her talents and skills and wants to support her professional growth. He also should convey that he respects any decision she may be making for personal or family reasons. He can offer to talk with her about directions that she is interested in pursuing and concerns she may have about her current situation to see if those interests or concerns can be accommodated within the district. He can also offer to provide her with a letter of reference if she wishes to pursue positions elsewhere. 

Such a demonstration of positive support could mean a great deal to her, while signifying to others who know of her situation that the district is a caring community that is invested in the professional aspirations and interests of its employees. If the district can support her or address her concerns, such actions would represent the best way to encourage her to remain with the district rather than pursue a position elsewhere.



The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates in Schaumburg, Ill.