Teachers file out of a staff meeting, many of them upset. In the wake of unprecedented absences during a third pandemic year, everyone has just been asked to give up one planning period a week to cover a colleague’s class. An assistant principal overhears one teacher say to another, “We’re already covering so many classes as it is. With so much on our plates, it’s not OK that they’re making us do this.”
As their conversation fades, the assistant principal turns to the principal, whose face reveals that she also heard the exchange. “It’s not like we enjoy making these requests,” the principal says. “Is helping out once a week so hard?”
As this scenario reveals, conflict can arise between teachers and administrators when teachers are not invited to directly give input into the matters that concern them most. My upcoming book, Lead Like a Teacher (W. W. Norton & Co., 2023), explores this question: Why are teachers so often excluded from decisions that directly affect teaching and learning? Three areas allow administrators to draw on teacher expertise to improve their schools: inclusive hiring, reciprocal coaching, and channels of communication.
When a new teacher comes on board, that can be cause for apprehension. What will it be like to work with this person? Will they be a supportive and flexible colleague, or will everyone be stuck with someone who doesn’t pull their weight on the team? Quite often, teachers are not given any role in the hiring process even though it directly affects their working lives. Even though it might be a little extra work to be included in the hiring process, most teachers will gladly contribute the time if they are given the opportunity to weigh in on prospective colleagues and their expertise with curriculum and instruction.
The following actions increase the likelihood of selecting and retaining qualified teachers:
- Include experienced teachers on the interview panel. It helps if these individuals have varied viewpoints on teaching.
- Target the selection process toward instructional expertise by asking teachers for help developing interview questions that dig into a specific grade level or content area. Otherwise, candidates might never speak to their specialized knowledge.
- If possible, allow the interview panel to see candidates conduct a mini teaching lesson, either live or via prerecorded video.
Interviews often fail to present a genuine indication of a teacher’s classroom expertise, but with the inclusion of more teacher voice, administrators can make decisions about the long-term success of candidates, and teachers can help select valued colleagues.
It may be tempting for teachers to keep instruction behind closed doors and not discuss classroom practice with administrators, but this results in a separation between school leadership and instruction. There is a significant benefit to reciprocal coaching, which allows teachers and leaders to engage in structured conversations that guide one another toward more thoughtful practice. Without the experience of sharing goals and observing one another in action, it is much harder for teachers to have professional empathy for administrators and for leaders to have the chance to benefit from a closer connection to classroom practice.
When school leaders outsource instructional coaches or assume that only those in supervisory positions are viable coaches, they miss opportunities to build teacher capacity. To create a culture that embraces coaching, begin by identifying strong teachers who hold positive influence in the building to act as the first round of coach trainers. Then, administrators and the selected teachers can practice coaching one another using a reciprocal protocol that includes three vital actions:
- Set a professional improvement goal based upon a need that is supported by data,
- Identify strategies that support the goal, and
- Determine what evidence will demonstrate whether the goal has been achieved.
Suppose the teacher wants to increase opportunities for student-to-student discourse, while the administrator wishes to spend more time conducting classroom observations. They can help one another backward-map toward achieving their targets by first determining what data will indicate the achievement of the stated goal and then selecting one or two strategies that are a match for the situation.
This approach allows each person to hold the other accountable and make useful suggestions during regularly scheduled meetings. When the process is honed and adjusted based on feedback from the pilot group of teachers and leaders, reciprocal coaching will be ready for implementation on a larger scale.
Channels of Communication
Administrators are often physically distant from teachers, even when they are in the same room, which can cause undue friction or misunderstandings. Increased opportunities for functional communication leverage teacher expertise by opening stronger interpersonal connections. The power of informal conversation is underrated.
I used to work with an administrator who brought his work into the teacher team room. He would sit down unobtrusively and remain focused on his own task until people engaged him in conversation, ranging from personal to professional topics. Teachers became more accustomed to seeing him in this shared space, and their trust in him grew. The benefit that came out of this was even more significant: Teachers had a place to air their questions and concerns to an accessible leader in a safe space on a regular basis.
Divided attention is another de facto norm of school leadership that acts as an impediment to clear communication because there are so many fires at any given time that require immediate attention. However, when teachers try to talk to administrators who are juggling multiple conversations or devices, it sends a powerful (if unintended) message that leaders are too busy running the school to care about their staff. To send the message that teacher voice matters, these moves make a huge difference:
- Put devices aside when talking to teachers, full stop. The walkie-talkies and cell phones should be silenced, or they will get in the way of meaningful interaction.
- Inner voices are distracting and rife with personal or professional agendas. Try to restrain that voice when listening to teachers.
The expertise of teachers and their role in building stronger schools cannot be overestimated. Including their perspective must be a consistent endeavor if administrators want to bridge the gap between skillful instruction and effective leadership. Starting with the areas of school leadership that call for an instructional lens will produce visible results that increase the shared collaboration between teachers and leaders.