As a full-time teacher and educational consultant, I have the opportunity to see many schools in action. It’s a joy to travel and learn about how other schools are making education work, and while there are many ways to make it work, sometimes you come across a site that clearly has gotten something right.
The Weilenmann School of Discovery, a charter school outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of those schools. Like many schools, the walls are covered by the creativity of its students. The building has natural light pouring through all of the windows.
Many schools invest in environment like this, but one of the elements that makes this school different is the relationship between its teachers and administration. This charter school’s administrators still spend time in the classroom.
Weilenmann’s school director, Cindy Phillips, explains, “The most significant contribution that is made at a school is teaching and in the relationship between the teacher and the student. I want to be a part of that.” Her administrative staff buys in to the model. Both the middle school dean and the assistant lower school director have some classroom periods of their own. The school’s director of special education spends a portion of her day teaching as well.
During my workshop, the administration wasn’t just sitting in the back and stepping in and out as needed, which is typical. The director and her school leadership team were among their staff, designing their own lessons and units to use in their classrooms. They went through the professional development, not just to show support but to actually implement what we were learning.
The Benefits of This Model
Walking the walk: Allowing administrators to remain, for at least one or two periods, in the classroom is a model many wish could be adopted more often. Jennifer Miyake-Trapp, assistant professor of education at Pepperdine University, sees many benefits in this model. “Administrators build their credibility as instructional leaders when they consistently demonstrate classroom expertise by modeling instructional practices, collaborating on curricular initiatives, and enacting the classroom culture they envision for the whole school,” she says.
Building school community: Miyake-Trapp observes that administrators in the classroom “can also openly engage in reflective processes by sharing moments of classroom success as well as challenges. Exhibiting this public vulnerability creates a culture of trust, values risk-taking, and most importantly, positions school leaders as learning partners.”
Staying connected: A good number of administrators would admit that it takes just a short time after leaving teaching to feel distanced from students and teachers. Returning to teaching as administrators “decreases the need to find time to interact with your teachers,” Phillips points out. “You’re in the copy room, you’re running to the bathroom. You’re accessible and available in a very nonthreatening way.”
Phillips also feels that taking on a teaching assignment creates a more efficient workflow. “It forces you to prioritize your own duties as an administrator,” she says, adding that “you are also the first one to feel your poor decisions, and that makes for a very dynamic turnaround!” She points out that this model sends a message that “teaching and learning are the primary activities of a school.”
Recharging batteries: “There is nothing more amazing,” Phillips says, “than going into the classroom and teaching those wonderful students after doing some grant writing or state-mandated something. You enter that room and you get to teach some kids something about a favorite topic—it’s just amazing.”
Challenges Do Exist
So what stops school leaders from joining their teaching staff? Well, for one thing, time. Teachers talk a lot about the hats we wear and the increased amount of work being thrust upon us, but administrators are also overloaded.
Miyaki-Trapp attributes some of the problem to past practice. She says, “Traditional views of administrator as manager prevent schools from implementing hybrid teacher-administrator roles” in such a way that their classroom time remains protected and valued.
Phillips admits that balancing both roles is a challenge. Even though this is a model based on “transparent leadership, there are times when you need to be the decision-maker,” she says.
Adopting This Model
To move to this system, schools would have to design a more pliable master calendar that allows administrators to flex their teacher muscles. Additionally, collaboration would have to rev up a few notches. Administrators have to actively encourage teachers to build their leadership skills. As Miyake-Trapp says, staff must be “empowered to handle issues that may arise while administrators are teaching.”
It truly does take a village to educate students. And as teachers and school leaders, we are all in this endeavor together. When a school approaches the mission of teaching with creativity and flexibility, as seen at the Weilenmann School of Discovery, something magical can happen.