More often than not, teachers are left out of decision-making processes in schools. Even though teachers are the ones who have to implement instructional changes, leaders often don’t include them in discussions where those instructional decisions are being made.
The Social Discipline Window is typically used to illustrate the importance of restorative practices with students. The same figure can be used to discuss the importance of allowing teachers to be part of decision-making processes. When a principal makes decisions, demonstrating a high level of control and then dictating them to teachers, these decisions can sometimes feel punitive in nature. It can feel neglectful when principals leave everything to the staff and provide little support.
However, when leaders provide teachers with a high level of control, but also a high level of support, teachers become part of the process because they are now working with the administration instead of for the administration.
Form an Instructional Leadership Team With Teacher Representatives
I’m the principal of a small elementary school in an urban district. As a former elementary teacher myself, I understand the importance of working with my faculty. I’m fortunate to have a veteran staff who work well together and have students at the center of every decision. That said, as the instructional leader of the building, I also understand the importance of inviting classroom teachers to have a seat at the table where instructional decisions are made. Our Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) is a perfect example of this.
At the team’s inception, it included only administrators and instructional specialists. These specialists are essentially coaches, who work with teachers and support small groups of students. One of the first things I did as the new principal was ask that the primary and intermediate teacher teams get together and nominate one person to represent them on our ILT. I needed the teachers’ perspective to ensure that we reduced blind spots when it came to decision-making. It has been enriching to have many voices and perspectives on the team, and I believe that we are better for it.
Classroom teachers know what barriers we’ll run into and have ideas for how to communicate with faculty about suggestions for improving instruction. They also have a sense of how programs are being implemented and an important perspective to share when we’re digging down to root causes of particular issues. Teachers know what day-to-day instruction looks like and how their colleagues feel about the demands they’re facing. Having this perspective on the team allows us to make better and more informed decisions so that we can constantly improve teaching and learning.
Additionally, when teachers are on instructional leadership teams such as this, a sense of community is built along with the important instructional work being done. Teachers feel a shared sense of responsibility to one another and to the students. Being able to see and interact with schoolwide data helps teachers break out of their classroom perspective and begin to better see where their piece fits into the big picture.
Including teacher voices on our ILT has influenced my work as principal to ensure that we’re continuously working to improve student outcomes and refine teaching practices across all grade levels. We have honest, sometimes difficult, conversations with each other about what is going well and what we could be doing better.
One such conversation centered around our students’ low performance on the New York State math test. After presenting the data to the team, we discussed the fact that our students were unable to write coherently about the strategies they used to solve problems and why. This realization led to a more difficult conversation about why that skill deficit existed consistently in grades 3–6. Our team concluded that we weren’t giving students enough time to solve problems together in partners and small groups in order to engage meaningfully with mathematics.
The problem we identified was in our teaching, and while it was difficult to confront that reality, it also allowed us to put effective practices into place, like the use of math journals, the addition of more problem-solving, and time for students to engage with each other in mathematical discourse and productive struggle during the math block.
Encourage Teacher Innovation in Programming and Activities
Beyond the ILT, it’s important for principals to allow teachers space to innovate. One example of this is our after-school club program. Two years ago, my school received a grant to provide after-school enrichment. I let my faculty know about the opportunity and asked them to submit proposals to run after-school clubs. One of my faculty happens to be a beekeeper outside of school, so she proposed that we purchase hives and start a beekeeping club. We now have two beekeeping clubs, one for our primary students and one for our intermediate students.
The hives produce enough honey for us to sell to faculty and families. The beeswax is rendered by the students in the clubs and turned into lip balm and soap. These products are also sold to our faculty and families. All of the money is put back into the hives so that we can purchase new queens, if necessary, and other materials we need to sustain the club. Watching students learn about beekeeping has been absolutely amazing.
I have seen our students go from fearing bees to developing a deep understanding of their importance to the ecosystem and becoming strong advocates for their protection. These types of unique enrichment opportunities allow students to engage in authentic learning that is hands-on, is cross-curricular, and requires critical thinking and research skill development.
Shared Instructional Leadership Keeps Us Moving Forward
I recommend that principals allow teachers to innovate, because innovation brings fresh, new ideas to our school environment. Teacher innovation allows for the development of rich, engaging units of study that help stretch students’ critical thinking skills and encourage the development of discourse like debate and argument. Students learn how to research, explore new ideas, and have conversations about their learning. They learn how to cooperate, to disagree respectfully, and to support an argument with facts. Students learn to take risks and get comfortable with failure if things don’t work out on the first try.
Allowing teacher innovation also helps keep teachers from experiencing boredom and burnout. The more we can engage in shared leadership in our schools, the better the outcomes are for everyone. And ultimately, isn’t that what we are all striving for?