(This is the first post in a three-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What is the one thing a principal can do to support his/her teachers, and why is what you’re suggesting so important?
My simple response to this question would be that principals, and all administrators, are best advised to lead with their ears, instead of their mouths.
Teachers have a wealth of experience and, though none of us is right all the time, many of us have pretty good judgment based on years in the classroom.
Use that knowledge and don’t assume that you are the smartest person in the room.
Today, Wendi Pillars, Aisha Christa Atkinson, Robert S. Harvey, and Jessica Cabeen add their suggestions to the mix.
‘Love What You Do’
Wendi Pillars, NBCT, leans on decades of teaching in varied global settings, with a special place in her heart for English-language learners and visual creativity. She is the author of the newly published Visual Impact: Transform Communication in Your Boardroom, Classroom or Living Room. Find her on Twitter @wendi322:
Dear Principal ________,
Remember above all else that your staff is comprised of human beings. Many of us are driven by a passion for lifelong learning and serving others, so please take our work as granted rather than for granted. Sometimes, we need you to remember the power of the process of our work rather than pure outcome(s); take time to dig deeper into what’s happening and view what happens with curiosity rather than judgment. Be aware we most likely won’t ask for help because it’s still considered a weakness, even though our baseline of expectations has skyrocketed in recent years. Your humans just might be broken behind those masks of competence. Take a minute before you respond, or assign, or expect more.
Allow us to grow. We are in the business of learning, optimizing, and growing others, so it is only natural for us to hold that value for ourselves. Just because we want to grow and improve our skill sets doesn’t mean we aim to usurp your power. We are in this together. We want to do better, so please take the time to see the potential in each of us and help find and support ways for us to expand our talents. Skip the “check-the-box-PD” and allow us to individualize our pathways, acknowledge what we bring, and reap the benefits in the school and community.
Be a leader who creates leaders. Provide space for tough conversations rather than bestow a mere handful with a “leadership title” to pass along what we need to know. Every single one of us has ideas, garnered directly from our classroom experiences. Find a way to let everyone share their ideas, push back, and pull forward, as you model pursuing purpose to make a difference. Know that more of your staff will follow you as the messenger before we follow your message.
Approach a challenge with realistic gusto and enthusiasm. Leaders who know they’re up against the odds in a given scenario, yet can prioritize what’s essential now, will inspire confidence in followers. You know that challenge is just part of the game and you’re here to play it well, equipped with moral charisma. You’ll still need to be able to balance that gusto with the mindful appraisal of what’s happening to choose a more empowered response.
Love what you do and why. See and believe in the potential for making progress in your vision for our learners. How will you sell that to us and our varied perspectives? Show up fully and give us all you’ve got in gratitude. Teaching is “heart” work as well as hard, visceral work when done right. Love the fact that you have this opportunity to lead our school, our staff, our learners. It requires humility and courage and a daily recommitment to roll up your sleeves and get busy.
If you’re all in, then welcome to our school family.
Image by Wendi Pillars
‘Shared Instructional Leadership’
Aisha Christa Atkinson, M.S., is a high school educator with nearly 10 years of teaching, curriculum design, and instructional-leadership experience in secondary English/language arts and English as a second language. You can connect with Aisha on Instagram or Twitter at @TheLitSensei and by visiting her website: www.aishacatkinson.com:
Educational leadership in post-pandemic America will be characterized by the dynamism of the innovative, instructional school leader. The expectations and demands of informed forethought and creative solutions development, as well as intentional efforts to improve upon the initiatives of diversity, equity, and inclusion will all be additional responsibilities attributed to the title of principal. Deficit-thinking in regard to teacher efficacy and student capacity will be nothing more than a relic of the leadership styles of old and replaced by an approach that views these two collectives as valuable assets to “getting the work done.”
In her 2019 article entitled, “Toward Shared Instructional Leadership,” leadership coach and school improvement consultant Jill Harrison Berg forewarned readers that “regarding the principal as ‘the instructional leader’ may hold schools back from improvement.”
While the lone instructional leader had its function during an era of increased accountability and an emphasis on instructional quality beginning in the 1980s, the challenges of contemporary American society and the expectation for schools to be a key component of the resolution to those challenges have made school leadership an increasingly complex profession. As identified by award-winningformer principal and education consultantBaruti K. Kafele, there are indeed “special, visionary, and driven people who have devoted their entire lives to their craft of school leadership” who are capable of achieving school turnaround relatively on their own through targeted, data-informed initiatives. But these types of leaders, as Kafele discusses, are indeed a rarity in positions of influence when compared with the “well-intentioned” school leaders who are “struggling to stay afloat.” These leaders undoubtedly found themselves further compromised by the challenges of campus leadership through a global pandemic and other educational equity concerns. Simply put, the expectations of the job have become far too great for one person to manage on their own.
The solution to handling this will require divergent thinking in respect to the way one approaches campus administration during the post-pandemic era of American compulsory education. Furthermore, it will also require a discarding of the veil of “fixed, superior expertise” in favor of a continuously improving mindset moving forward. Fortunately, the resources for making this happen are readily available through the contributions of teachers and students.
For classroom educators, Harrison Berg identifies their contributions to be in the modes of “formal” and “stealth” positions. She posits that in addition to “teachers shar[ing] their expertise as mentors, coaches, professional learning community leaders, or curriculum directors,” teachers also provide instructional-leadership support through their influence upon one another through shared communication and amplification of ideas, and honest, constructive feedback exchanges. These very same, powerful interactions can serve to benefit the well-intentioned school leader when teachers of all experience and expertise levels are “invited to the roundtable” to share their observations and solutions to campus-climate concerns. For that which is transformative within a singular teacher’s classroom could prove to be a monumental strategy for school improvement at the campus level.
Pedersen, Yager, and Yager supported the notion of shared instructional leadership through their findings for the report, Student Leadership Distribution: Effects of a Student-Led Leadership Program on School Climate and Community for the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration. The publication specifically determined that the implementation of student leadership produced positive results in respect to school climate, student development, and peer influence. When we consider the growing expectations for schools to address student exposure to social and emotional learning (SEL), anti-racism, and ability inclusivity, who better to turn to for guidance on the directions to take than those who are directly affected by these policy and mindset shifts?
Resistance to change is an occupational hazard that is to be expected when tradition is rectified by innovation. Understandably, there will be some who will argue against the ideas of shared instructional leadership, but much of these arguments will be rooted in the groundless fear of losing authority. However, as American researcher Brene Brown has taught us, we must “choose courage over comfort” by leaning forward into fear.
Confronting fear rather than resisting or avoiding it prevents us from exploring possibilities unforeseen. Moving forward, campus administrators, in support of their teachers and students, should commit to getting the work done alongside the members of their school communities. Remove the veil, get rid of the glitter, and replace it with vulnerable authenticity.
‘Making Themselves Available’
Robert S. Harvey is the superintendent of East Harlem Scholars Academies, a community-based network of public charter schools in New York City, and the chief academic officer of East Harlem Tutorial Program, where he manages an out-of-school-time program and teaching residency. He is the author of Abolitionist Leadership in Schools: Undoing Systemic Injustice through Communally Conscious Education and is a visiting professor in public leadership at the Memphis Theological Seminary:
School leaders are tasked with leading, coaching, and supporting their teachers to ensure that the young people in their schools are held and taught well. In order to do that, teachers must be held well. To do so, school leaders must: make themselves fully available and seen—in spirit and in schedule, create opportunities for community and collaboration, offer multiple feedback loops, focus on keeping the main thing as the main thing, and prevent barriers to instruction.
Of all these ways to support teachers, making themselves fully available is the highest leverage support a school leader can offer their teachers. As a leader of adults, one of the top priorities of a meaningful and effective school leader is to be available for teachers to see them.
To see them [their school leader], literally, as in being seen around the school, in classrooms, during duties, and as a vital participant in the fabric of the daily school experience. And to see them [their school leader], figuratively, as in experiencing the fullness of who they are emotionally and cognitively. Being available, being seen extends beyond the conventional approaches of open-door policies and recurring office hour appointments, though both of those are mutually critical, and exacts courageous vulnerability through being present, active listening, and humble agility.
The burden and expectation of teachers will indistinguishably demand a need to be seen, heard, and held by their school leaders in order to create a space for teachers to show up fully human and fully available for young people.
School leaders, then, should make themselves fully available as an exemplar for teachers to know that amid the demands of collaboration, instruction, assessment, engagement, and evaluation, that they have a person with whom they can be seen. By school leaders making themselves available and being seen, they create the conditions for trust to thrive; and when trust is thriving, teachers can be well.
Create ‘Safe Landings’
Jessica Cabeen is the principal of Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minn. She is the author of four books including Unconventional Leadership (2019). She loves to connect with other educators on Instagram, Facebook, Voxer, and Twitter (@JessicaCabeen) and her website (www.jessicacabeen.com):
COVID gave educators an opportunity to jump into the deep end of changing practices and sharing new ways of learning moving forward. But if the school principal isn’t a supportive sounding board, the landing into the deep end of change can become more scary than safe.
As leaders, be clear in the nonnegotiables and intentional in identifying the places to be innovative. When everyone has a solid understanding of the plan and the goals, they can start to make it their own. When we reviewed our new schedule for the upcoming year, our leadership team focused on the nonnegotiables, how they would be measured, and then opened it up for questions. Let teachers know what things are out of bounds or off-limits, provide opportunity to ask for clarity, and then step aside and let teachers shine by making the learning experiences their own.
When leaders give up the micromanaging and control of the details, they model the innovation and individuality we want our students to experience in the classroom. This could be as simple as working with grade-level team leaders on upcoming events and giving the controls over, to a more extensive opportunity such as making space for a conference or genius-hour-style professional development during the year.
And finally, when you have provided clear direction, move away from micromanaging, though it is important to be a visible and positive presence in the school.
When a teacher is trying something new, go into the class and participate—not just observe. Get a sense of what it feels like as a student and then recognize the teacher for not only stepping out of their comfort zone but also having the confidence to invite you in to participate as well. For me, I utilized a principal Pineapple chart.I asked and encouraged teachers to invite me to participate in a lesson. During the class time, I participated, took pictures, and shared out on social media and our weekly newsletter. After the classroom time, I went back and wrote a thank you note with specific learnings I gained during the lesson. This practice really has opened up opportunities to see learning as growth, not just a “good” or “bad” lesson.
Leaders are influential and essential in shaping school culture and enhancing learning for all. How you support safe landings during implementation will show how you support your school culture and those you serve.
Thanks to Wendi, Aisha, Robert, and Jessica for sharing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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