Opinion
Education Opinion

Seven Suggestions for Teachers to Make Their School Leaders More Effective

By Nancy Flanagan — July 07, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Recently, I’ve been asked to review several books--new publications, second editions and drafts in the pre-publication process--about teacher leadership. Since my life’s passion is bringing the voices of experienced teachers into the policy process, at all levels, this little cottage book-review industry has been really gratifying and fun.

Most interesting are the books’ underlying perspectives: I’ve read a string of books that assume, often without explicitly saying so, that it’s school leaders who engender and nurture real teacher leadership. Most books on teacher leadership are written by people who aren’t in the K-12 classroom--administrators, researchers, scholars, professors--although nearly all authors take pains to share their teacher credentials and experience. A significant percentage of teacher leadership books begin with the premise that school leaders can and should identify and develop leadership in teachers--because doing so will make schools run better.

I’ve never read a book on the reverse idea: that teachers are already experienced leaders who could engender and nurture more effective leadership in their administrators. The word “leader” implies a formal role--principal, instructional coach, association president--but anybody who’s paying attention can tell you that the most influential teachers in any school frequently don’t have a title or role. I imagine many school leaders would bristle at the concept of ordinary teachers improving their administrative leadership skills.

I’ve actually seen this at work, however--groups of veteran teachers guiding an administrator to make good decisions (in one case, without the administrator even aware she was being led). How did that work? Here are some thoughts for teachers who’d like to build their own collaborative influence:

1. Don’t go to your school leader with complaints only, or the expectation that administrators should solve all problems in the building. Grievances that are accompanied by proposed solutions-- or at the very least, your own detailed analysis of the issue--are more likely to be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction.

2. Seek your own professional learning, and find networks of colleagues who do the same. Stay on top of current issues in practice and policy. Talk publicly about those issues--in staff meetings, in the lounge, in e-mail groups. Invite administrators to be part of your professional discussions; share ideas and concerns about programs, trends and policies. Everyone’s sharper and better able to serve students when they’re well-informed--and you’ve made it clear that it’s not the principal’s responsibility to “develop” you, as a professional.

3. Give credit where credit is due. Sincerely acknowledging a school leader’s accomplishments and skills creates room for new capacities to emerge: Nice job on the newsletter! Thanks for helping me think about that grading issue. I appreciate your support in getting the library opened on Wednesday nights.

4. Give school leaders some cover and support when they make unpopular but necessary decisions. Controversies always emerge in school life, but don’t hang your administrators out to dry when the situation is sticky and they’ve stuck their neck out for what is right. Co-accept responsibility and co-own problems.

5. Be willing to ask thorny, step-on-toes questions in front of your colleagues and administrators: Why do we start the high school day at 7:15 when research and the kids’ zoned-out behavior tell us they’re not ready to learn then? Would it be better for students’ mental energy to add a second recess--and what would it take to staff and schedule that? Our building policy on homework doesn’t make sense for the kids we have now--can we find a better answer?

6. Whenever possible, bring all players into solution-finding, even chronic grumps. There’s nothing more irritating to teachers than the thought (true or not) that the principal or superintendent has collected a group of sycophants to make decisions. It’s messy to deal with schoolwide issues when everyone’s involved--but it builds trust.

7. Approach every issue with the mindset that teachers and administrators are co-equals, working together to solve problems. Don’t mentally position teachers and school leaders on opposite, adversarial sides when difficult change is needed. Begin with the assumption that teacher perspectives will be valued, even if you think that seldom happens. Collaboration is not the default problem-solving approach in most schools, despite happy talk about collegiality. The goal isn’t getting what you want--or preventing the “wrong” solution. Whatever the problem is--it’s everyone’s problem until it’s solved.

Postscript: Yes, I know. In a growing percentage of schools these suggestions will be seen as naive and silly. When the situation resembles the deck chairs and the Titanic (and the ship’s being piloted by clueless, even malevolent, leaders), proposing that teachers reach out to their administrators, carving out their own leadership niche, feels like a Pollyanna response.

But. There are still lots of successful, functioning public schools--and lots of experienced teachers whose ideas would make their schools run better, if they were willing to step up.

More importantly, if school leaders and teachers can’t get past hierarchies, roles and adversarial thinking to work together, they won’t be able to re-shape our national approach to public education. And that’s the Big Kahuna of reform.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education California Makes Ethnic Studies a High School Requirement
California is among the first in the nation to require students to take a course in ethnic studies to get a diploma starting in 2029-30.
4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Democratic Assembly members, from left, James Ramos, Chris Holden Jose Medina, and Rudy Salas, Jr., right, huddle during an Assembly session in Sacramento, Calif. Medina's bill to make ethnic studies a high school requirement was signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Education California Requires Free Menstrual Products in Public Schools
The move comes as women’s rights advocates push nationwide for affordable access to pads, tampons, and other items.
1 min read
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Education Florida to Dock School District Salaries for Requiring Masks
Florida is set to dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.
2 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Education More Than 120,000 U.S. Kids Had Caregivers Die During Pandemic
The toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans, a new study suggests.
3 min read
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 file photo, a funeral director arranges flowers on a casket before a service in Tampa, Fla. According to a study published Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, by the medical journal Pediatrics, the number of U.S. children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic may be larger than previously estimated, and the toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)