Administration & Leadership

How School Leaders Can Help Teachers Flourish in the Classroom

A teacher and coach offers strategies to help ensure that educators will feel supported as professionals.

December 6, 2023
shapecharge / iStock

One of the many responsibilities of educational leaders is to ensure that teachers work with fidelity in service of their school district’s mission, goals, policies, and board-approved curricula. Yet sometimes it can feel like a herculean task to guide the work of passionate, creative intellectuals (who are leaders in their own right) without making them feel at best stifled, or at worst, infantilized.

In my experience as a teacher and coach, I’ve observed a few strategies that can support teachers to grow and flourish, while at the same time increasing the likelihood that they’ll remain in the profession.

Be a servant leader

Educational leaders often verify teacher compliance with district policies and programs through careful tracking of lesson plans, regular classroom observations, and targeted professional development.

The irony here is that although the leaders make these decisions, it is the teachers who are charged with implementation; and too often, teachers are not even involved in the decision-making. A question worth considering is, aren’t teachers the real leaders in these initiatives who need support, instead of being positioned as the subject of monitoring and measuring?

Here’s where it can be instructive to consider the philosophy of servant leadership, in which leaders listen to their teams, lead with humility, and prioritize the greater good. Educational leaders who are servant leaders always begin with prioritizing teacher input when making programming and scheduling decisions. Then, in support of these endeavors, instead of seeking compliance and control, servant leaders ask questions like “What is going well?“ “What challenges are you facing?”  “What solutions do you propose?” And, even more important, following up with the question, “How can I support you?” 

Teachers are more likely to abide by mandates and guidelines when they have a voice in the decision-making process and feel liberated to design innovative approaches based on what they know works for their students. Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks, offers a phrase that’s good for educational leaders to remember: “The person who sweeps the floor should choose the broom.” And not only should teachers be involved in “choosing the broom,” but also they should then have the power to reflect, adjust, and provide feedback to leadership if “the broom” seems insufficient. 

In the absence of this level of autonomy, the restraint required for teachers to ignore their intuition, harness their good ideas, and silence their voices is one of the many reasons why teachers leave the profession.

Give fewer answers and ask more questions

Certainly, there’s a time when it’s a leader’s job to provide answers. Teachers need guidance about best practices in response to disciplinary situations, academic integrity, and student and parent communication. Often, however, when teachers seek direction from leaders, what they’re really looking for is a sounding board and a collaborative partner.

When working to resolve conflicts, therefore, leaders can demonstrate respect and develop trust by supporting those they lead to find answers for themselves.  Consider brainstorming possible outcomes together and asking questions like these: “Can you tell me more about that?” “What has worked in the past?” “What do you think would happen if...?” What resolution would best honor your values and meet students’ needs?

Of course, offering advice can be helpful too, as long as you include a follow-up question that clearly demonstrates that you don’t believe you have all the answers.  For example, if you suggest, “What I might do is...” or “One idea could be...,” the  follow-up question might sound like “How does that feel to you?” or “What do you think about that?” Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown write about what they call a “multiplier” mindset, encouraging leaders to “use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them.” I like to think that this kind of advice operates as a stimulus to inspire those you lead to develop their own ideas.

Admittedly, this approach may require intentionality and restraint, but what makes it easier is the fundamental understanding that the most effective solutions are the ones that people come up with themselves. Leaders who ask more questions also support teachers to tap into and leverage their professional expertise rather than depleting their energy by silencing their voices in deference to leadership.

This kind of partnership and mutual respect has the capacity to help teachers feel more energized and inspired, which fortifies their desire to remain in the profession.  

Implement Best Instructional Practices 

A common refrain I hear from teachers is “Where is the SEL for us?” or “Where’s my choice and voice?” and “How is this responsive to my needs?” As these are valid questions, a powerful way that leaders can both demonstrate respect for teachers and model best instructional practices is by leading teachers the way they are tasked with leading their students.

For example, faculty meetings and professional development sessions shouldn’t only continually model best classroom practices but also should offer teachers resources they can use in their classrooms the very next day. 

You can begin as a leadership team by clarifying the district’s goals and asking yourself, “What practices do we expect teachers to implement in order to meet these goals?” “In what ways are we modeling these practices?” “How are we designing experiences for teachers to engage with these practices?” and “What actionable strategies or resources are teachers taking away from this meeting?”  

You can use the answers to these questions to create a list to guide you when you create professional learning experiences for teachers; they will certainly notice and appreciate the shift.

Teachers might enter the profession not for money or prestige, but for the opportunity to make a real difference in the students’ lives and intellectual freedom. If leaders consider these underlying values as guiding principles that underpin their decisions, increased teacher retention is a very likely outcome. 

Even better, this approach is a win for everyone because as researcher and thought leader Brené Brown writes, “Daring leaders fight for the inclusion of all people, opinions, and perspectives because that makes us all better and stronger.”

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