Education Opinion

Relationships: The Key to Moving from Teaching to Leading

By Starr Sackstein — September 23, 2018 6 min read
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Guest post by Greg Fredricks

I love being a teacher. There is something powerful about the idea that each day brings new moments and possibilities for students.

I thrive on the interactions with the people that make up my school community; whether it is the students, teachers, teaching assistants, administration, or support staff. I suppose that this is why I chose to pursue becoming a school leader.

A little over a year ago I came to the realization that I had reached a point in my professional career where I wanted something more. I was looking for a new challenge. I did not want to give up teaching, however. My hope was that shifting to leadership would give me the opportunity to continue teaching (albeit in a different capacity), and to broaden my own learning.

I am fortunate that in my new role I now spend my days interacting with more adults and young people than I ever had the privilege of connecting with when I was in my own classroom. My experience has also been unique in that I have transitioned to this new role in same building in which I spent the last four years teaching in and the same district that I have had the privilege of being a member of for twelve years.

For those unfamiliar with the process of becoming a school building or district leader in New York State, I’ll include a brief explanation.

Most individuals who pursue certification do so after earning a master’s degree. I enrolled in an advanced certificate course which carried thirty credits beyond my master’s and included a requirement for over 700 internship hours at both the building and district level in addition to teaching my regular class load.

Needless to say, this last year was the most challenging of my professional career. Balancing coursework and the new responsibilities at school as part of my internship with time with my family created unique challenges. The struggle of fitting eight full college courses into a year and the additional requirements in my school and district forced me to examine my limitations and rely on others for assistance.

My family, coworkers, and even my students supported me and showed tremendous patience and empathy as I completed the process. I also became very close with members of my program cohort. We would continually reach out to each other and support and commiserate through the challenges of classes and additional responsibilities. This taught me how important fostering a broad support system is.

One of the silver linings of the last year was that I had a truly ideal administrative internship. The three administrators in my building took me under their collective wing. They were patient as they trained me on the various responsibilities and coached me on my leadership skills. I also was able to work closely with our deputy superintendent who was leading an initiative in the district to examine how equitable the experiences were for all students within our school community.

These four school leaders were my teachers, mentors, and ultimately friends. Their time and investment in my success left an indelible mark on me. I also owe an incredible debt to my coworkers. While they supported me in my teaching, they also gave me the space to lead as an administrative intern. It is a unique position in that you are asked to exercise leadership without truly having the formal authority to do so. This meant that I had to focus on trust.

I had been a union building representative for years and this helped me to connect with others, but even more so I focused on earning the chance to exercise leadership. I nurtured and strengthened the relationships that I already had and worked to build new ones. I wanted the approval of my colleagues because I really respect them on a deep level. This is something that I still focus on as a daily priority.

When spring came and the end of my program was in sight, it was time to begin to look for positions. I interviewed in a few neighboring districts but something felt amiss. I began to realize that while I was invested in moving onto a new role, I was even more invested in my school and the people who made up that community.

That deep sense of connection gave me doubts about whether or not I was ready to move onto a new role in a new school. While the prospects of new roles, adventures, and challenges were attractive, I would have to leave my school with work still to be done.

I spent many hours reflecting on what became a true ethical dilemma for me. I was fortunate enough that fate would step in. In May there was sudden movement in my building and school district and one of my mentors shifted to a new role in one of the district’s elementary schools. This opened up the position of assistant principal in my middle school and I applied for the position.

Never in my professional career had I wanted something so badly. I interviewed for the position in June and was honored to accept the job in July. I ended the school year as a teacher and would begin the next as an assistant principal in my school, with the community that I care for so much.

The shift from teacher to administrator within the same school has been an interesting transition. The reactions from colleagues from outside the building have run the full gamut. Many have expressed their expectations that my familiarity with the culture of the school and the community that we serve would be an asset and assist in the responsibility shift. Others expressed apprehension and reservation.

How would I transition from being a peer to a supervisor was the question that I heard the most?

The hardest part of that final question was that I really did not have an answer, nor do I now. It is an ongoing process. I had spoken to what I would do during my interviews, but in all honesty, the movement in the role was largely dependent on support from my colleagues.

At that point, I resolved to keep people and relationships in the forefront of my transition. I had wanted to remain in my school more than anything because of the students and staff in it. Those same people had trusted me to fulfill a leadership role in our building community.

As I moved through my work this summer I tried to always approach it from how this would impact all the members of our school community. Looking at challenges and decisions through that lens has kept me grounded and reminded me that I am in service to all of those in our school.

As I write this article we are three weeks into the school year. I don’t know what the next period, day, or week will bring, but I know I am where I belong. The most critical components of moving into the new role have been keeping the focus on doing what is right for students, and continuing to honor, learn with, and actively support my colleagues.

I have always approached relationships with fellow teachers and staff from a familial perspective. These are the people that I all too often spend the majority of my day with. I have developed deep and meaningful relationships with them. I have celebrated birthdays, graduations, weddings, and the births of children. I have also consoled others during times of personal or professional difficulties, the deaths of loved ones, or various other challenges that manifest in our lives. I have become deeply invested in the people in our school.

I don’t always agree with them or their actions, but it doesn’t change the core feeling of connection and caring that underlies our professional and personal relationships, some of which go back beyond a decade. I am sure that the dynamics of many of these relationships will change inevitably as the interactions and connections that I have with my colleagues will be different in some ways. What won’t change is my dedication to them and work they do each day.

Have you switched roles in your school? What did that transition look like? Please share

Greg Fredricks was a social studies teacher and is now an assistant principal in LaGrange Middle School. In his spare time he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughters.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.