By Miriam Plotinsky
Summer may be on the horizon, but the difficult circumstances of this school year will long be in the minds and hearts of educators. As this third year of pandemic-era learning closes, it is so important to recognize the heroic efforts that both teachers and administrators have made each day to keep schools afloat. Teacher appreciation may only be formally celebrated for one week in May, but the expertise that teachers have demonstrated in maintaining connections with students and continuing to promote opportunities for learning in the face of significant challenge is nothing short of remarkable. To further celebrate teachers and their vast knowledge base, the following is a short preview excerpt from Lead Like a Teacher (publication forthcoming in 2023), a step-by-step guide that provides school leaders with the tools they need to elevate the teacher perspective as they build and maintain collaborative leadership structures.
How can school leaders consistently bridge the gap between the classroom and the front office? One would think that having a background in teaching might give secondary leaders an advantage in their pursuit of effectiveness, but having the empathy of past experience does not matter as much in the present. To create a school that is genuinely collaborative, the ongoing inclusion of teacher perspective in key areas of instructional leadership is indispensable. Even if an administrator taught for 20 years, the transition in vantage point that leaders undergo when they leave the classroom is all-consuming. Once perspective begins to shift, it can be hard to recall what it was like to have a different point of view. Leaders may see or know more than teachers in many respects, but the reverse is also true, particularly where students are concerned. Teachers are the biggest window into helping students succeed, and that is where the shared purpose of all adults in the building comes together in a functional school environment. The journey to achieving collaborative leadership that elevates teacher expertise may be challenging, but it is worth every bit of productive struggle.
“Just being asked, ‘What do you think?’ can have such a positive impact.”Charlie Grossman, high school teacher
The Empathy Gap
Part of creating a more functional school climate and culture depends on closing what I call the empathy gap, which is a mutual lack of compassion and understanding between teachers and leaders. To achieve a more ideal state, first recognizing what others may be feeling is an important first step, painful though it may be. Figure 1.1 explores some common areas of dissonance between teachers and leaders with generalized but frequent lines of thinking.
|Teacher Lens||Leader Lens|
|Administrators have no idea what I do all day.||Teachers are so uncooperative and set in their ways.|
|Nobody listens to me or respects my opinions.||I wish teachers would respect my opinion more. I used to be a teacher!|
|I don’t have the time to go to this meeting and hear about one more thing they expect from me.||We need to change the way we do this work. Across the board, students are not successful. This is a crisis.|
|I’m doing the best I can, but my principal doesn’t get it.|
Nobody can force kids to come to class and do the work.
|Why do four teachers in the same content area and grade level have such different results?|
|Administrators really need to go back into the classroom and get a reality check.||How can we best improve outcomes for our underserved student populations?|
|My planning time is precious and I need it. Do not make me give it up for any reason.||Time for professional development is nonnegotiable.|
|All leaders care about is PR and appearances.||How can we get beyond surface-level conversations and make real change?|
|Nobody cares about what we think. Teachers are not asked for genuine input.||Why can’t teachers be more open-minded about the work we’re trying to do?|
|I am so tired of being micromanaged. Just let me do my job!||I am so tired of people not doing what I ask them to do.|
|I wish leaders would hear me more.||I wish teachers would listen to me more.|
Not all schools have de facto dissonance between teachers and leaders, but it is the rule more than the exception. Culturally speaking, people are conditioned to be suspicious of their supervisors. In a bureaucratic structure, this wariness intensifies. School systems are often mired in red tape, and as visible mouthpieces, administrators get the most flack for supporting norms they may not have created. Even when proposed actions directly affect school success and are not mandated at a higher level, school leaders often encounter skepticism from teachers, much of which is undeserved. However, when people expect to be jaded, it can be a struggle to change their outlook. That is why maintaining the perspective of a leader while looking through the lens of a teacher is vitally important to creating a more functional school environment.
“It was a freeing moment when I realized I didn’t have to have the answer. My team would help, or the staff would give me feedback to lead the next steps.”Jennifer Webster, public school director
Lead Like a Teacher
Understandably, school leaders spend a lot of time thinking about what does not work so that schools can make necessary adjustments for improvement. In the complex setting of a secondary school, much can go wrong in the course of just one hour, not to mention an entire school year. One leader I know jokingly refers to having a job in administration as “disaster management,” though there is more than a hint of seriousness under the humor. A personality characteristic that many leaders share is a desire to fix things, which may seem like an ideal trait for anyone at the helm of a middle or high school. However, if anyone gets too mired in “fix-it” mode, the constant reactivity leads to disillusionment.
Thankfully, there is a better way. The journey to an ideal state of school leadership lies in the very foundation of education: teaching and learning. Sometimes, to figure out where to go next, heading back to the beginning of a journey is a reminder of why education is such a complex area of work. At one time, most leaders were teachers, and that background provides a degree of much-needed understanding to helm a school. However, the longer time separates a leader from the classroom, the higher the chance that a divide will form between how teachers and administrators evaluate priorities. The simplest, most effective way to bridge this chasm is to lead like a teacher by eliciting the consistent engagement of their input, their involvement, and their expertise.
Miriam Plotinsky is a learning and achievement specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less (W. W. Norton, 2022) and the forthcoming book Lead Like a Teacher (W. W. Norton, 2023). Her writing is also widely published in Education Week, Edutopia, ASCD Express, The Teaching Channel, EdSurge and Education World. A recipient of the 2010 Marian Greenblatt Award for Excellence in Teaching, she is a National Board Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be found on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.