Professional Development Opinion

Shining Light on the ‘Dark Side’ of Leadership

By Starr Sackstein — December 03, 2017 4 min read
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Here is an example of recent interactions I’ve had with former colleagues and respected friends since the new school year started.

“Where are you teaching these days?”

“Oh, I’m not in the classroom anymore. I’m working as a lead learner in a different system now.”

“So you’ve gone to the dark side?”

“It’s not what you think....”

When I was a classroom teacher, I had a certain perception of administrators based on the ones I had worked with. Some were good, some not so much, and some were wonderful people that leadership positions challenged in a way that eroded some of their positive human qualities.

So I understand the whole “dark side” metaphor. That being said... I promised myself that if I was going to leave the classroom, I’d be the administrator/leader I always wanted as a teacher and when I thought of it like that, it became a wonderful opportunity instead of a deep gut feeling of selling out.

However, now that I’ve stepped out of my own classroom and into 44 other ones, I’m learning things I didn’t realize about the challenges of being a team leader that I couldn’t really appreciate as a classroom educator.

For example, I deeply empathize with teachers needing more time or resources and when I can provide them, I do, but it isn’t always in my power to provide either. Limited by constraints that aren’t always as simple as budgetary challenges to explain, I need to be creative and still try to meet everyone’s needs.

That’s another part that has been tricky.

Getting to know each of the people on my team in a way that I can understand who they are and what their “why” is. Knowing this makes it easier for me to empathize with them and be more available and personalized to their needs.

Perhaps it was foolish of me to think that my old administrators were dealing with a lot of teachers who behaved the same way I did in the classroom and therefore was sometimes easily annoyed when they didn’t respond to me the way I wanted. I realize now that every person has a different reaction to things and as a leader, I’m trying really hard to make as many of them happy as I can.

The flip side of that is the realization that I will probably not be able to make them all happy all of the time, so in moments like those, I have to know that the decisions I’m making are for the benefit of the students and that is the greater good.

One of my favorite administrators was very good at listening to me. He didn’t always understand my approach and also didn’t always agree with it, but he saw what my students were doing and therefore gave me the leeway to do what I felt I needed to do to push the kids. He asked a lot of questions but didn’t visit as much as I had hoped he would. I’d even send pictures of the amazing things happening or videos. I implored him to join social media to really get a full picture of the learning.

Whether he didn’t have the time or inclination, I found others who could support me and validate the work I was doing.

So what I took away from that is that when I listen to a teacher tell me what he or she is doing, rather than wait for them to invite me (although with some of them I do), I ask if I could come see. Genuinely excited by the risks they are willing to take for the benefit of kids, I want to be there to support them and get to know the youngsters we support.

Being a leader doesn’t have to be an “us against them” situation, but rather a collaborative opportunity to bring all of our areas of expertise together for a more robust learning experience for the children. We model the behaviors we want to see, both as leaders of a team and a classroom when we can all see ourselves as learners.

The most challenging struggle I have as a leader is the same as the one I had as a classroom educator: assessment. When I was in the classroom, however, I had more autonomy over how I assessed students and was more able to allow them to be in charge.

Ironically, while I was writing that last statement, I realized that I could also have teachers even more involved now. Since APPR is beyond what we only do at school and are responsible to the state with our results, an “evaluation” of different areas must be done. Having tried to make this an equitable process, when I’ve done formal evaluations, I’ve communicated with teachers both in the pre and post observations, listening to them challenge my assertions of what I saw.

I invite the questions and the challenges and the necessary confrontations because, for me, it isn’t about the final “score” at the bottom of the evaluation, but about what is happening in the classrooms every single day. The most important part of my job is being an instructional leader so that each child gets what he or she needs and the lead learner in the room feels supported to do it.

No darkness there, just possibilities. I don’t want to judge, I want to assist. I just want to be a part of the learning with the kids. So I don’t have an issue coming into a classroom to model a new strategy which would mean coming by to plan a lesson, co-teach it and then follow up after. In fact, I relish the chance to do it.

Eagerly and excitedly, I jump at the chance to help plan a new project or brainstorm ideas with a teacher about using technology in the classroom and most importantly, I follow through.

When I tell a teacher I’m going to be present for something, I do my very best to be there. Showing up is the most important part of my job. It’s the only way I can build credibility and trust with my team. If I don’t do as I say, then they shouldn’t trust me and I truly will have gone to the dark side.

But no one says that it HAS to be that way and I choose ‘different’.

How do you shed light on dark places in your learning community? Please share.

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