After a class one day, Physique 57 fitness studio cofounder Tanya Becker explained to me her ongoing dedication to teaching, even while running a successful international business. “You’re only as good as your last class,” she said. “Otherwise, you lose your connection and relevance to the work.” Becker’s philosophy applies outside of the fitness world: School administrators who teach can maintain a connection with the work of learning.
Find a Different Lens
For many years, Principal Damon Monteleone of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland, was eager to become a teaching principal. “I had been eyeing getting back in the classroom for a couple of years. Part of it is I love instruction. I’m a history teacher who wound up being a principal.” This year, a scheduling complication allowed him to return to the classroom for one period a day.
“Ultimately, I feel like I’m getting more out of this than the kids,” he says. “Selfishly, it’s the best 45 minutes of my day.” His teaching experience informs his work as an administrator. “I may be better at leading instruction because I have a very clear idea of what a teacher in 2019 is going through and dealing with as they try to work on behalf of every student,” he says.
When an administrator witnesses an issue in the classroom, he or she is better informed to create policies that address the concerns. For example, if a teaching principal observes a classroom in which students are not actively engaging, the principal can share a practice that she uses herself to improve discourse. If the principal can say from experience that this specific strategy is helpful, the feedback process becomes more genuine. Furthermore, the increase of dialogue about instruction during the observation and conference process benefits all participants.
“You never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do,” Principal Dana McCauley of Crellin Elementary School in Oakland, Maryland, says. “When I sit in meetings and hear about initiatives, I really analyze any new bandwagon or new program because I’m also the one doing it.” While it might be tempting to teach in a comfortable area of expertise, administrators may learn more by placing themselves in classrooms that present challenges, such as those that pilot a new curriculum or serve students with different needs.
Be cognizant of communication around the teaching experience. While participating as a member of the teaching team, step back as a school leader to both elevate the capacity of teachers and inhabit the perspective of a teacher rather than an administrator.
Administrators who share their teaching expertise while being open about their struggles create powerful opportunities for reflection. I once worked with a principal who advised me to share what I knew, but to be frank about what I needed to learn.
“First and foremost, any good administrator has got to be well-steeped in instruction, and if you’re not, you won’t be able to lead people to hone their craft,” Monteleone says. “Kids and teachers know when administrators don’t know what they’re talking about in terms of instruction.” As part of regular team meetings, the teaching principal could encourage a Problem of Practice protocol whereby team members take turns sharing a challenge. Then team members can collaboratively provide possible solutions to the problem and learn from one another. This collaborative model allows for the development of a community of professionals who respect the administrator as a teacher who, like them, does not have all the answers.
Create the Possibility
When McCauley goes to school each day, she spends three hours teaching in the classroom. In her absence from administrative duties, she empowers her teaching staff to monitor school operations. “Thank goodness I have teachers who understand that while I’m teaching, I’m teaching. The teachers take on a lot more responsibility and wear a lot more hats, so everyone has to pull together,” McCauley says.
Prepare for an absence from your regular routine as an administrator by collaborating in advance with teachers. For example, if a principal is in the classroom and a staff member suddenly becomes ill and leaves, teachers may need to take control beyond their classrooms to arrange class coverage. Prior planning can help maintain smooth operations.
Proactively train a core team of teachers to take on more responsibility. Offer opportunities for teachers to shadow administrators and learn by observation so that they can spend a dedicated amount of time in the day following the principal, taking notes, and recording questions. Then, at the end of the day, the principal can set aside time to talk to the teachers, provide insight about the day’s challenges, and share the rationale for making particular leadership decisions. This process will both enlighten and build the capacity of teachers to make positive steps forward in their own leadership.
When the work is shared, the benefits go beyond adults simply understanding one another’s daily routines. Teachers who take on administrative responsibilities develop a great understanding of the rationale for school initiatives. Administrators who spend time teaching develop a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the classroom.
Stronger relationships between administrators, teachers, and students help each group develop an understanding of how school participants shares in the work. Realistically, there are significant and continuous demands on an administrator’s time, and classroom teaching may become a wish-list item that cannot be fulfilled. Monteleone has responsibilities outside the classroom that he must prioritize: “I have to be a principal before I’m a teacher. Safety and operations of the building have to come first.” Even if teaching as an administrator is not possible, prioritize classroom visits and engage in frequent conversations with teachers to retain authentic ties to instruction.