Educational Leadership: A Teacher’s Perspective

This post was originally written for Tony Baldasaro’s Educational Leadership series, which will be published on his blog.

When I first heard about Tony Baldasaro’s blog series on educational leadership, I was very interested to say the least. I saw a lot of familiar names as well. Will Richardson is a highly influential speaker and author. John Carver, Deron Durflinger, and Pat Larkin administrators who I have a great respect for. There are other influential administrators contributing as well and I honestly believe from following their blogs and conversing with them on Twitter, that working with them would be a wonderful experience. What I did not see, though, was an abundance of effective teachers (I have since learned that Mary Beth Hertz, an outstanding computer teacher from Philadelphia, will be contributing as well.). I wanted to contribute because I think this voice is important and relevant. The administrators in our schools need to understand what teachers want, expect, and need in a leader. When someone has been out of the classroom for an extended period of time, it is important to keep in constant dialogue with teachers to maintain sense of what the teachers go through to keep from becoming disconnected. While I will go into more detail below, I recently read a blog from a principal where he stated that he tries to serve lunch at least once a week because it lets him see how hard the cooks work and helps him to realize how polite the students are. That, to me, is the mark of servant leader.

To give you a little background, I am finishing my third year of teaching and just got my first professional license. I am formerly an English teacher, and currently a high school library media specialist. A fair question and honest question is, “What does this kid know about educational leadership?” A year and a half ago, I would not have been able to give you an answer. Several things have happened recently that have put me in a much better position to answer. At the beginning of last year, I was made technology coordinator at my school level and put on the school improvement committee because of my facility with technology. This put me in a position to help teachers craft more interactive lessons more regularly. At the end of last year, I began using Twitter. This has been an amazing fountain of wisdom for me. In addition to just learning by reading, through interacting with the community by writing on Twitter and on my blog, I have been better able to explore and articulate my own views, as well as help others to implement successful ideas and strategies.

The culmination of all this was a regional conference called TeachMeet Nashville. It was an amazing experience with over 40 presenters and over 900 people watching online. John Carver and Deron Durflinger, along with their librarian Shannon M. Miller, were actually our keynotes speakers. I was amazed at the caliber of speakers we had (Really, Philip Cummings, Steven W. Anderson, Sweetie Berry, Nancy Blair, Angela Cunningham, Melissa Smith, Adam Taylor, Monte Tatom, Tom Whitby, and many others really are outstanding educators.) and completely humbled by the fact that they would come to an event I organized to help teachers. TeachMeet Nashville has already spawned similar TeachMeet conferences in Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana for next year. This made me realize how much power 1 person has for change when that power is properly utilized and directed.

This leads me to my first pair of complimentary points. Tony asked us to discuss a few key issues, one of them being how educational leadership has changed in the last decade. First, though, I think it is important to recognize the difference between leadership and position. I currently work under several “leaders.” I find my principal to be outstanding in both vision and practice. I find my senior leadership at central office enacting policies that are often not in the best interests of the students, which is a major contributor to why I am not staying in the district. A leader is not one who is hired as an administrator. A leader is one who leads others and is still willing to learn. Anyone in the building can be a leader. I am a leader in my school because the staff trusts me to help them build lessons and discuss pedagogy. I am by no means the only or best leader in my building.

I see educational leadership changing because these leaders who have somewhat smaller circles of influence now have an equal voice because of the Internet. I have made close to 1000 connections on Twitter, but I regularly am influenced by about 50. Of those who opinions I hold in the highest regard, I would estimate that about 75% are classroom teachers and librarians and about 20% who are administrators. There are other important voices who do not work in traditional schools as well. The reason is simple; there are simply more teachers than administrators. These teachers have experience leading often over 100 people a year to individualized goals and successes. We need to harness this wealth of knowledge. Educators all can share what is working for them and work together to find solutions on what is not. That is the biggest change I am seeing in educational leadership. Regardless of the amount of over one has in a building, everyone has a voice online. Similarly, everyone starts from scratch and builds their reputation based on the value of what they share. Those who share consistently valuable information will see change happen and will also reap the rewards thereof. Because of the interactions I have online and the information I share, I have been offered several speaking engagements this year and, possibly, a better job for next year.

In schools, it seems that everyone is both a leader and a follower. In fact, it needs to be so. Even with students, we strive to put them in positions that will further develop their leadership capacity. So, then what are teachers looking for in an educational leader? While I cannot speak for all teachers, I can speak for many in my district who have not yet found their own voice. Looking at the administrators that I have worked under (4 principals and 10 assistant principals, as well as countless other people such as department heads, curriculum supervisors, technology directors, superintendents, etc…), here are some qualities that I have identified as being important.

  • Put students first – This should go without saying. You need to make sure that your teachers know your passion is for helping children. Regardless of what subject you like or program you want to start, the main objective needs to be helping children. It is the only theme that can unite a faculty even among grossly differing opinions.
  • Embrace change – In my admittedly limited experience, administrators often know that change is important but do not know where to start. It is much easier to turn a small ship than a barge. It has been much easier for me to communicate innovations to teachers individually and help them to implement them than it has been with administrators. We all, teachers and administrators, need to be cognizant of the latest in educational technology, pedagogy, theory, learning styles, etc… We need to continually learn or we will become obsolete. Just as the teacher needs to be the master learner in the classroom, the administrators need to keep learning and show that to their staff.
  • Trust teachers as professionals – Teachers are professionals; unfortunately, they are the only professionals whose job everyone seems to be an expert in. However, if there is one person who should value teachers as professionals it is their supervisor. Principals and superintendents mostly have all been teachers. What I am referring to when I say trust teachers as professionals is that the teachers have the skills to know what is best for their students. Of course, offer professional development; don’t go so far, though, that you micro-manage every aspect of instructional time. This breeds resentment among teachers and limits the creative potential of teachers and students. George Couros wrote an interesting post about this concept recently. Now a principal, he remembers a time when his principal explained that the teachers were allowed to leave on planning periods because they were trusted to always do what is best for students. That says a lot about the culture in that school.
  • Show appreciation/recognize success – There are some things that seem small that make a big difference. In speaking with a teacher yesterday, she was so happy that an administrator asked her how her day was going. It was the first time that happened all year. Showing concern for people and recognizing successes, whether privately or publicly, can go a long way in building morale among the staff. This is why I try all the time to walk around the school and talk with teachers all over the building about both academic and non-academic issues. We have to show those we work with, as well as our students, that we care for them as people.
  • Collaboration – Policies enacted in a school effect a lot of people. A leader cannot be an island anymore. While the leader’s vision has to guide all that is done, stakeholders need to be involved in major decisions. While it goes without saying that teachers should be involved in decision-making, student and parent input should also be sought.
  • Vision – The vision for what the school or district needs to become has to come from the principal/superintendent. People are drawn to a vision, not to a building. Before I decide to work for someone, I want to know what you believe in. If I can believe in the same thing and find it worthwhile, I will kill myself working for you in pursuit of that common vision. If I find myself working under a glorified MBA at Test Prep High, I do not believe that I will be able to work as diligently.
  • Consistency – I am working in a brand new school. It has been interesting seeing things start from nothing. One thing that would have helped tremendously, though, is if we were consistent on policies from the start. At times, teachers have gotten mixed messages from the administration or policies changed several times. This confused the teachers and resulted in confusion with the students. Similarly, when some teachers enforce a policy and others do not, it creates a poor culture. Administrators need to be consistent and stress the importance of that to all of their teachers.
  • Flexibility – Teachers have the difficult task of adapting to the needs of all their students. Administrators have the difficult task of adapting to the needs of all the students and all the teachers. This may seem counter-intuitive to the last point, but we need to recognize when something, however valuable it might be, is not working and reassess.
  • Support – Teachers need to feel like you support them, which includes not undermining them in front of students, peers, and parents. Of course, teachers need to consistently do the same. When teachers do not feel supported, the climate becomes hostile and motivation suffers.  The primary motivation should always be helping students, but realistically, few people can give their best effort every day in a hostile environment.
  • Hands-on – It is imperative that leaders never ask those in their charge to do something that they are themselves unwilling to do. Please make sure you are in the classrooms as much as possible. It may make teachers uncomfortable at first. When they see that you are there constantly and are offering feedback to help, they begin to appreciate that. This is one concrete way administrators can impact the students in the classroom.

One other idea that is slightly harder to quantify is perception. It is one thing to believe in some of these ideas. However, in education, perception is very important. It’s unfortunate, but it does not matter how hard you work if no one realizes that you work hard. It is essential that we are transparent. It builds trust and it helps to improve what we do. At any time, anyone is welcome to watch any of my classes. My lesson plans are open to anyone who wants to see them, as are my assessments. This allows me to get valuable feedback on what I’m doing and, if I’m doing something worthwhile, allows others to learn new ideas. It is my hope that administrators would adopt the same open, sharing philosophy.

I would love to hear your responses in the comments.

  • http://cybraryman.com/cooperative.html Cybrary Man – Jerry Blumengarten

    This should be required reading for all administrators.

    I always felt that administrators should as I would say, “Take the chalk!” and teach classes regularly. They should also listen to the students, parents and teachers and be open to suggestions.

  • http://jasontbedell.com Jason Bedell

    Thanks Jerry,
    I find myself more and more drawn to the idea that administrators should teach at least one class per year. How else can they really stay connected to what goes on and needs to happen in the classroom? How can they best support teachers if they no longer teach?

  • Debra Ann Gottsleben

    This is an excellent post! I have often wondered why administrators seem to forget what it was like to be a teacher. And by that I don’t mean that they have to accept the status quo or not look the other way when a former colleague is slacking. Too often it seems like administrators are more interested in making sure that everyone knows that they are the boss! If every administrator followed your advice, Jason, I think there would be a lot more effective change going on in schools. I’m fortunate to be working with a great group of administrators right now.
    I got my supervisor’s certificate at Seton Hall Univ. and I felt that they did a great job of instilling the advice that you have above to all of us in the program. Hope other schools do the same.

  • http://georgecouros.wordpress.com George Couros

    Great post! I really believe that some schools are easier to have administrators teach than others, but it is definitely important that we are visible in the classroom, not only for the teacher, but mostly for the students. I think that you have many great ideas on how an administrator should be. It is definitely great to hear that from a teacher. As a principal, I aspire to have the qualities that are on your list. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    .-= George Couros´s last blog ..Professional (Leader) Development =-.

  • http://allkidscanflourish.blogspot.com Joan Young( @flourishingkids)

    Great post Jason! I think it is time teachers spoke up more about what makes a good leader. It seems at times that there is a double-standard: teachers must differentiate with students, make class engaging, maintain flexibility, trust students, yet administrators can hold a staff meeting, talk standing by a projector for 45 minutes straight, and no one says a word. As teachers and administrators are more under the public eye, we must all raise the bar and put forth our best! Thanks so much for being such an inspiration with your TeachMeet this year!
    .-= Joan Young( @flourishingkids)´s last blog ..Got Kids? Help Them Learn to Self-Regulate! =-.

  • http://jasontbedell.com Jason Bedell

    Debra,
    When are you going to start using that admin certification? We could use more like you. I hope that we all can move past the idea of being the boss. Teachers don’t need to be the boss in the classroom and administrators don’t need to reaffirm that have that position. Teachers, administrators, and students all need to be partners in education; each has a different, important role.

    George,
    You’re right in that it could be very difficult for an administrator to teach in most elementary schools. I was thinking specifically of high schools. Regardless, I hope that all administrators try to be visible in the classroom and give helpful feedback. From reading your blog, I think you embody many excellent qualities in an administrator and I’d love to work with you.

    Joan,
    I hate faculty meetings for that reason. Too often they degenerate into hour long PowerPoints (with lots of small text) that don’t take teacher differences or prior knowledge into consideration. Professional development can be so powerful if we just take best practice from the classroom and apply it.

  • Kelalford.

    What a wonderful post for all leaders to read. I also think it is important for the principal to know the level of the students. Our principal and the one before has had no elementary experience. This leads to many bad choices in every area! I think admin needs to be highly qualified to lead the building they are in!

  • http://jasontbedell.com Jason Bedell

    Kelalford,
    I’m sorry to hear that. I hope to one day be an administrator, but I don’t think, without much training, I would even accept a job in elementary as I know I would not be the best candidate for the job. All of my experience is in high school and I think I could be effective in a middle school with more research, but if I am really putting the kids first, I would have to set aside my pride and allow someone more qualified to take an elementary position. I hope you get a principal more suited to the position soon.