If you’ve ever had the unlucky experience of teaching in a school with a difficult principal at the helm, then you know the nightmare such a leader can create in a school. I’m blessed that I’ve worked for 14 years at a school whose leadership has always been supportive, engaged, and champions of the teachers and students who attend. However, I’ve also been witness to some school environments that are toxic to all, including the leaders who initially created the havoc.
In my discussions with teachers in classrooms across the nation, I’ve come to realize the importance of having principals and heads of school who are mentors to and cheerleaders for their faculty and students. These talks have uncovered six main characteristics teachers want in their leaders:
- Teachers want leaders who trust them. Too often, teachers are dictated to and mandated by others outside the classroom. Teachers want to be seen as professionals and experts in their field. This doesn’t mean they don’t want coaching and feedback–the really great teachers are always seeking ways to improve their craft. Yet, when teachers are micromanaged, they become overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted, and eventually detached, none of which contributes to a productive learning environment. Teachers want to have their strengths recognized, to be encouraged as teacher-leaders, and to be coached through their challenges.
- Teachers want leaders who differentiate for their particular learning needs. Relevant, purposeful professional development that speaks to teachers’ needs should be the mantra of every school leader. Just as no child is the same, no teacher is the same. A one-size-fits-all week of PD is brutally painful. Even more painful is PD conducted by someone who hasn’t been in the classroom in a decade (or more) and who doesn’t really understand the needs of students or teachers today.
- Teachers want leaders who listen and allow their voices to be heard. No business can become successful if the people carrying out the daily operations are ignored and their opinions about how to improve are not solicited. Schools are no different. Teachers have a wealth of knowledge and insight into a school’s population and working with students as closely as they do provides them with a point of view that is radically different than those who aren’t in a classroom for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Bring teachers and other staff into the discussion, have a shared vision for what the school should be, and work as a unit to create an environment that learns and grows together.
- Teachers want leaders to be visible on campus. Yes, we know principals and other administrators have duties that often keep them in meetings and in their offices, but in order to keep a finger on the pulse of a school and ward off the “Ivory Tower” syndrome, school leadership must interact with students and teachers in meaningful ways every day.
- Teachers want leaders to visit their classrooms. There are some really awesome things happening in classrooms all across this nation, but in order to know that, our schools’ leaders must be in the classrooms to see it. I’ve never heard a teacher say about a great principal, “Principal X is always in my room participating in the lessons and joining in my students’ excitement. I wish he’d just stay in his office for a change!”
- Teachers want leaders who have their back in hard times. Probably the most common lament I hear is how a principal or administrative team doesn’t support the teachers, especially when it comes to parent conferences and complaints. I’ve heard countless times that teachers try to enforce the school’s code of conduct, late work policy, cheating policy, dress code, etc., but when a parent complains about the teacher’s enforcement of those policies, the administrative support collapses like a house of cards because it’s easier to cave to parent pressure than it is to stand their ground and back their teachers. This breeds mistrust, confusion, contempt, and a whole host of ill-feelings that infect a school and affect learning. Consistency is key for everyone at every level. Teachers want leaders who stand by their word, their policies, and their faculty.
Pre-back-to-school is an excellent time for reflection for school leadership. Call on your teacher-leaders to help shape the vision and goals for a school and move forward with every school’s greatest interest in mind: the students.
What do you think are the most important the traits of effective school leadership?