Over the span of my career, I’ve worked with outstanding principals, very poor principals, and all of those in between. Leadership in a school makes a difference! Arne Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, said, “There are no good schools without good principals. It just doesn’t exist. And where you have great principals, good teachers come, and they stay, they work hard, and they grow.” With the wrong leader, good teachers leave, mediocre ones stay and gradually (or not so gradually) the school declines. The Wallace Foundation and other researchers have found that principal leadership impacts student learning and the impact is much larger than previously thought. Leaders shape a vision of academic success for all students based on high expectations, create a positive, safe climate, cultivate leadership in others, improve instruction, and have organizational management skills. Effective instructional leaders influence others to keep the focus on students and student learning.
The task of creating and maintaining a high-quality school that students deserve is a large one. Effective principals leverage teacher leaders but ultimately acknowledge that the responsibility of the school climate rests with the principal. Less effective principals are unaware or dismissive of their overall responsibility as an instructional leader. They also often lack interpersonal intelligence skills and are unable to discern how they come across to people. As a result, teacher leaders are often left shaking their heads in disbelief about the actions and decisions of the principal. Gradually, the school climate begins to decline because of hiring choices and lack of leadership. The philosophy of the principal is to stay below the radar, and he does “just enough” to get by, “just enough” not to draw the attention of superiors, or “just enough” not to anger too many parents. Good teachers leave the school out of frustration. Student learning is at risk.
How can teacher leaders, who for a variety of reasons can’t or choose not to leave the school, still grow as a leader, provide a quality education for the students that attend there, and influence others to keep the focus on student learning? What can teacher leaders do if they feel like they’re leading with their hands tied behind their back?
Here are three tips:
Be positive. Don’t get trapped in the blame game and negativity. Every leader has strengths and weaknesses. Take the high road. While others whine, complain, and criticize the principal in hushed conversations, avoid those parking lot chats and remain positive. Your principal will make mistakes because he’s human. Be forgiving but advocate for the students in your classroom and the school. Being positive doesn’t mean condoning the actions of poor decisions or behaviors. Listen and show respect to others but don’t allow the negativity to poison your spirit. Look for opportunities to offer solutions to problems. Find the positive about your school leader. Build from there and try to find some common ground. Depending on your relationship, be courageous enough to have a crucial conversation that might change things for the better.
Work on yourself and your leadership skills. Surround yourself with great people who inspire you, lift you up, and challenge you to become a better leader. You’re the sum of the five people you’re around the most. Become a connected educator online and in person with other leaders who would love the opportunity to coach and mentor you. Read great leadership books and apply your learning into your practice. Lead through your example. You can’t give what you don’t have. Seek opportunities to volunteer and serve the community. Improve your communication skills. Set personal goals for improvement and celebrate when you achieve them. Keep learning! There might be things that you’ll learn not to do.
Develop relationships. Take the time to listen and show empathy towards others. Greet parents, staff members, and students with a smile and by name every day. Find the strengths in people and acknowledge their hard work and contributions towards making school a great place. Do the little things like writing a sticky note to celebrate an achievement or to express your gratitude. Add value to the people you work and associate with on a daily basis. Keep your “WHY” at the forefront of your thoughts. Make each day count for your students and advocate for the things that will improve their learning experience. Share resources and help your colleagues to improve. Ask them to help you develop your instructional practices. Build trust and do everything in your power to create a positive school culture.
There are many ways to exhibit teacher leadership, but overall it’s about having a positive influence in and beyond the classroom. Despite sometimes feeling as if their hands are tied due to poor school leadership, teacher leaders are resourceful and creative. An ineffective principal may be a barrier, but it will not stop them from challenging the status quo and improving the learning for all students.