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Three Mistakes Teacher Leaders Can Avoid This Year

By Jennifer L. Barnett — August 06, 2013 4 min read
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Rather than counting sheep when I cannot sleep, I choose to count my many mistakes as a teacher leader.

Since 2008, I have led my rural Alabama district’s 21st Century Technology Initiative, helping 300 classroom teachers learn to integrate technology in their classrooms. I am amazed at what we have accomplished in spite of my mistakes!

Allow me to share a few of my missteps (or as I prefer to think of them, portals of discovery) as you consider your leadership goals for the coming school year.

Mistake #1: Presenting an Idea, Not a Plan

For years, I’d been intrigued with figuring out how to share classroom teachers’ technology-integration experiences with other teachers. What if we had a teacher-led technology training program? Great idea, right?

When the district’s director of instruction asked to meet with me about another district project, I thought it was the perfect time to tell her about my idea—which I may have even called a “plan.” Big mistake.

I was devastated that she wasn’t interested in developing my idea, until I realized something important: She was there to discuss her business, not mine.

Worse yet, when I told her my “plan,” I didn’t show her anything. To seriously consider my proposal, she needed to know details: costs, benefits, timelines, dates, agendas, and goals. All I gave her was an idea.

Upon reflection, I realized my director might have assumed that I was asking her to do this. Wow. I’d have turned me down as well. This mistake inspired me to prepare properly.

I got my act together, developing a full proposal, complete with all the details a district administrator would need to consider. A month later, after our school was chosen to attend Microsoft’s Innovative Teachers Forum, the school board honored us for our selection. I had my moment: I asked the district administrators to remain after the board meeting to hear the proposal. We were ready for their questions, and the plan was very well received.

What I learned: Be prepared with a thorough plan and carefully choose the best time to present it.

Mistake #2: Putting a Death Grip on a Vision

So, I wrote the plan.

But unless you’re eager to see your work fall short of its potential, being a leader doesn’t mean you are solely responsible for the development and implementation of an idea or plan.

In the early years, I just didn’t get it. I placed a death grip on what I thought teacher leaders should be presenting, how classroom teachers should be applying the new learning in their classrooms, and how we should celebrate the progress.

I created the agendas and activities. I decided what would be learned and how much time was needed to learn it. Finally, after a year or so of trying to navigate angry seas on my own, I begged the leadership team to own the project.

Looking back, I’m amazed that teachers were as excited as they were to conduct and participate in the training that I had dictated. I’d been leading teachers in studying concepts like collaboration and creativity but—ironically—I had not made the connection to my own work. I realized that leaders must practice what they preach, including me!

So everything changed. I stepped back and encouraged our leadership team to conduct surveys and gather regular feedback on the initiative. This crucial feedback changed how we mentored and supported teachers.

Today, our program has enormous flexibility to better serve the current needs of our district’s teachers. They (not me or my original plan) drive the initiative.

Mistake #3: Failing to Focus on Feedback

And ... I’m still making mistakes.

Recently, a teacher’s compliment of our program revealed a major deficiency.

At our year-end celebration showcase, a teacher said to me, “I’m thrilled I was a part of this initiative! I learned so much, I think. I know more than I used to about technology, but have no idea if I’m doing it right.” Ouch! Teachers, like students, beg for constructive feedback. They want to know how they are doing and what they need to do to improve.

Failing to focus on providing high-quality, thoughtful feedback to teachers and other teacher leaders has been one of my biggest mistakes.

After all, teachers place themselves in a vulnerable situation when they commit to acquiring and applying new skills and knowledge. I must acknowledge and respect the challenges these tasks present to those with whom I work. I recognize the challenges for my young students and provide them with frequent feedback—why haven’t I been doing the same for adults?

I needed to think about which formative feedback strategies work best with adults, and I narrowed it down to these. Two feedback goals for this year:

Ask high-quality questions to prompt reflection on teachers’ practice. I’m going to share good resources, such as this chart that explores the difference between using technology and integrating technology. And I’ll be using strategies from resources like Leading Through Quality Questioning, a practical guide for leaders to foster a culture of continuous improvement.

Use technology to make deeper and easier connections about the work. Spread across 17 schools in rural Talladega County, teachers in our technology initiative only see the leaders and other participants a few times a year. We use email, a wiki, Facebook, and Moodle—but we need even more ways to connect with one another. Immediate communications tools like Twitter can provide information and feedback to teachers seeking immediate support.

Mistakes happen. Embrace them for the instructive opportunities they provide. Reflect on your leadership experiences as you set leadership goals for the coming year.

And, if you’re willing, share your mistakes and lessons learned with others. Maybe someone else can learn from your discovery. At the very least, they’ll respect you for examining what you say and do.

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