Special Report
Professional Development

How Taking a Turn as a Teacher Can Sharpen a Principal’s Leadership Skills

By Elizabeth Heubeck — November 02, 2021 7 min read
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Wearing a Baltimore Ravens jersey over his khakis and button-down shirt (in recognition of the season home opener that night), Steve McManus starts his 10th grade History of the Modern World class promptly at 12:05 p.m. from his perch on a front-row desk.

He leads the students during the 65-minute period with apparent ease: standing at the front of the room as he lectures, moving through the aisles during a brief period of small-group work, returning to sit on a front-row desk while listening to students share their opinions on the European attempts to take over the spice trade. As the students file out of the room, a few thank McManus before ducking into the busy hallway.

Their show of respect is to be expected. He is, after all, also their principal.

McManus, in his 11th year as principal at the private Friends School of Baltimore, has taught one class every semester during his entire tenure. It’s a perk he negotiated prior to accepting the job and one that he uses as a professional development tool to keep both his school leadership and his practical teaching skills sharp.

For principals, the benefits of teaching can transcend those experienced by even the most successful classroom teachers.

Not only do teaching principals have an opportunity to connect with students; they also can build trusting and empathetic relationships with their teaching staff members, as they experience similar classroom challenges and rewards. Further, they can apply what they observe in the classroom to the leadership decisions they make in their broader role as principal.

As McManus said, he actually thinks about his teaching as professional development.

Data on teaching principals, those who intentionally and routinely spend time teaching in the classroom, isn’t readily available. But, given the demands of a principal’s job, plus the extra work and pressure of the pandemic, “I can’t imagine many principals choosing to take on a class in addition to their duties,” David Morrill, spokesperson for the Association of Washington School Principals, wrote in an email.

Steve McManus, the Upper School Principal of the Friends School of Baltimore, teaches his modern history class on Sept. 24, 2021.

A study in “Research in Rural Education” from 1990 analyzing the practice of teaching principals showed it was common in the late 1800s, but began to wane in the early- to mid-1900s as principals’ overall responsibilities increased.

The study did, however, identify 70 teaching principals in Nebraska between 1986 and 1987. Of those, more than 90 percent were asked by their supervisors to stop teaching because of competing priorities. Nevertheless, 80 percent of the teaching principals said they would recommend the dual position to others.

That same recommendation comes from the principals who shared with Education Week about their experiences in this dual role.

Benefits include deepening relationships, different perspectives

Effective leaders often point to trust as central to their success. And teaching, say principals who make a habit of it, is a concrete way to garner trust from their teacher colleagues. “They see me in the classroom struggling with the same challenges,” McManus said. “They know that I’m going to be doing whatever the school is asking all teachers to do.”

Building trust among one’s teaching staff can feel particularly relevant in times of turmoil, such as the pandemic. Amy Fast, the principal at McMinnville High School in Oregon, learned this firsthand as she chose to teach 9th grade advisory for the entire 2020-21 school year. Each adviser acts as a point person within the high school for an estimated 15 families, a responsibility that, during the pandemic, included weekly meetings with students to teach lessons on navigating distance learning and other strategies for school success.

“I think I’m a better principal, more focused and deliberate and intentional about what I’m doing because of it.

In stepping up to teach last year, Fast also took her own advice. During the height of the pandemic, when students were in remote learning and classes were being conducted through Zoom, Fast, a prolific user of social media, tweeted a “call to action” urging principals to spend some time teaching.

“We needed to know what it entails,” she said. “It’s easy to be kind of dismissive of [teachers’] concerns if you haven’t lived them.”

“It [teaching] helped me to understand teachers’ struggles, especially at the secondary level—screens black, not being able to see your students,” Fast said. “Trying to get kids to engage though that kind of platform was challenging, for sure.”

Steve McManus, the Upper School Principal of the Friends School of Baltimore, teaches his modern history class on Sept. 24, 2021.

Spending time in the classroom, principals get a firsthand sense not only of the challenges teachers face, but also those affecting students. McManus said, for instance, that during his career he has witnessed increasing levels of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. He joins school leaders nationwide in expressing concern about how the pandemic may have exacerbated these.

“I think this year’s going to be a really great action research project for us all. We’re going to see how much of what impacted kids during COVID is going to endure,” McManus said.

As a teaching principal, McManus will be able to see the impact up close. It’s particularly fitting that he teaches 10th graders. “That’s the grade that we as faculty have talked a lot about. They have not experienced high school in its fullest form,” he said. “They’ve not had the traditions, rituals, and community events that are so much a part of high schoolers’ acculturation.”

Time inside a classroom affects leadership decisions outside of it

Teaching in the classroom can make an impact on the broader decisions that principals make outside of it. Jessica Cabeen knows this from experience. Currently the principal at Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minn., Cabeen formerly served as principal at Austin’s Woodson Kindergarten Center, where a teacher suggested that it was important for administrators to spend time in the classroom. Cabeen, who had never taught kindergarten, heeded the advice. Almost immediately afterward, she began rethinking some of her practices as a principal.

“You barely have time to go to the bathroom as a kindergarten teacher,” Cabeen said. With this realization in mind, she began limiting the email communication to teaching staff. Rather than filling their inboxes throughout the workday, she transitioned to delivering a weekly email to teachers.

In her more recent stint teaching, this time to middle school students during the pandemic, Cabeen said it was the students who steered some of the changes in her decisionmaking.

“The students felt very comfortable speaking up about things that didn’t make sense to them,” Cabeen said. “They were blunt and made me see things in a new way.”

For instance, Cabeen’s students told her that her schoolwide announcements and updates, via email, were “long and confusing.” She now uses Instagram routinely to get across important messages. Recently, Cabeen went so far as to be featured in a YouTube video to take a stance against poor “copycat” student behavior popularized by the social networking service TikTok.

Cabeen’s awareness of students’ communication preferences played into the decision to create the video, which likely resonated far more effectively with her students than lecturing from a podium or in print would have.

Making teaching-as-PD work

The “whys” of teaching as a principal are fairly evident, from the opportunity to form deeper relationships with teachers and students to gaining new perspectives on leadership decisions. The “hows” may be more baffling, especially given the increasing demands on principals and their subsequent rising stress. But principals committed to teaching find a way.

McManus acknowledges that teaching requires him to be highly organized. He says he does the majority of preparation for his class on weekends, as planning time for his class simply “doesn’t exist” during the weekdays.

He also acknowledges that he can’t do it alone. “I do rely on my team, my department,” McManus said. Cabeen concurs, explaining that in order to teach a class, she had to do a lot of delegating which, in hindsight, she acknowledges was good for the growth of those employees she leaned on.

Steve McManus, the Upper School Principal of the Friends School of Baltimore, meets with a school counselor in his office on Sept. 24, 2021.

These teaching principals recognize the sacrifices they’ve had to make to lead in the classroom, from giving up free time on weekends to relinquishing some control. But ultimately, they say, it’s about prioritizing.

“As a principal, you can fight fires all day,” Cabeen said. Intentionally removing yourself from the everyday chaos common to a school leader’s day in order to step into the classroom allows principals to recommit to their calling as a leader, explains Cabeen. “It’s not just more work, but it’s really important work,” she said.

McManus agrees, referring to the few hours he spends in the classroom each week teaching as “sacred time” well-spent. “I think I’m a better principal, more focused and deliberate and intentional about what I’m doing because of it,” he said.

He urges other principals to try it. “Do it if you can,” he said. “I think it preserves a little bit of balance and sanity.”

Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Taking a Turn in the Classroom Can Sharpen a Principal’s Skills

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