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Teaching Profession Opinion

Who Drives the Bus at Your School?

April 18, 2019 3 min read
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If a school is metaphorically a bus, who drives it?

Traditionally, a principal does. He or she provides direction and motivation, presses the gas and brake when needed, and lets passengers--or teachers--on and off.


  • Sometimes this driver ignores the calls for more or less heat in the back, tunes the radio to his or her own preference, and takes the bus somewhere undesirable to its passengers.


  • In other cases, the principal takes a break from driving and a teacher-passenger jumps in the driver’s seat.


  • In some rare instances, there is no single driver but rather every passenger has their hands on a wheel and they all drive the bus together.


  • In others, the driver is simply passive and it’s the passengers who provide forward motion and essentially keep the bus from wrecking, but there is no true sense of direction.


  • Sometimes two wheels hit the gravel and the passengers have to rush to the front to ensure the driver is still awake.

Which bus represents your school?

Does your driver actively promote an efficient, enjoyable ride, or does he or she make you want to scream or pull out your hair?

Teacher Perceptions Tell a Story About School Leadership

Once at a teacher leadership workshop I asked the participants how many of them keep their school moving forward because of their principal, alongside their principal, or in spite of their principal. About one-third of participants said “because of” and the rest said, “in spite of.” In other words, most teachers in that group found themselves working harder to keep their bus on the road and moving in a productive direction because their driver was negligent, passive, or the opposite: power-hungry.

We’ve all heard horror stories about building leaders who insist on full-template lesson plans aligned exactly to textbook-mandated page numbers, turned in two weeks in advance. We’ve heard about the ones who take their teachers’ best ideas and claim them as their own. We’ve heard about the incompetent ones who misinform, mislead, and double-deal their teachers. We’ve heard about the ones who essentially shut their doors and refuse to participate in the school.

The Best Leaders Have a Shared Sense of Responsibility

It doesn’t have to be this way. For example, in my building, teachers--alongside our principal--designed the honors diploma program. We voiced our desires for such an option, developed a plan, and refined it with feedback. In another example, a colleague in South Carolina built a hybrid position for himself when, after his administration asked him to direct professional development for his district, he insisted on retaining at least one instructional period; they granted his request. Friends in a nearby rural district tell me stories of their principal’s tireless dedication to their needs as a staff; she listens to their ideas for restructuring schedules, takes them on retreats together, secures high-quality professional development for them, and generally fosters a sense of belonging and trust. These are examples of administrators who know how to treat teachers.

They offer teachers opportunities to drive--or at least navigate--the bus without abandoning them, which is important because most teachers appreciate leaders with a shared sense of responsibility rather than someone who just lets the bus coast off the cliff or drives it aggressively into traffic. Like the best drivers, the best principals balance the needs of their passengers--more heat, less wind--with scenic views and a sense of purpose.

Anna E. Baldwin is the 2014 Montana State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches English at Arlee High School in Arlee, Mont. During the last school year, she served as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Photo Credit: Steve Harvey on Unsplash

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The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices 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.

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