Education Opinion

Seven Suggestions for Teachers to Make Their School Leaders More Effective

By Nancy Flanagan — July 07, 2012 4 min read
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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.