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Principals, You Aren’t the Only Leader in Your School (Opinion)

As a teacher, I worked directly with kids. As a school leader, I work on behalf of kids. My days aren’t spent entirely in the classroom. My job is no longer 120 students in one classroom but 1,800 students, 200 staff members, and a community that needs me, too. So, yes, the adage that administrators are disconnected from the classroom has truth, but the reality that administrators are also more connected to the school community is true, too.

I learned that lesson my first week as an assistant principal. I was determined to be a supportive administrator; so, when a teacher reported a student concern to me, I worked quickly to solve it. I worked with the student’s counselor and even endured a particularly passionate parent meeting. I let the teacher know I had fixed her problem—I wasn’t one of those unsupportive administrators.

The teacher, with whom I had a decadelong positive working relationship, did not agree. She told me that she felt “unsupported by admin.” The response was odd to me. My longtime work colleague was now calling me admin, not as an endearing nickname but as some newly trending swear word.

Stunned, I said, “By admin, you mean me, Shayla. Does it feel true that I wouldn’t do my best to support you?”

She responded, “Of course not, but how would I know?”

The question “how would I know” left me silently reflecting and, then, apologizing. I never shared all the steps I had taken to support her and I never asked her what support she needed. I simply communicated a solution. My failure was not treating the teacher like a school leader, too—letting her see the organizational view of the problem. When I shared my vantage point of the situation, the conversation changed.

I had found myself at a leadership cliff, that gap between my global understanding of the school and the teacher’s view of her classroom. On the top of the cliff, I sat with my knowledge of the school community, and at the bottom sat my teacher with her knowledge of the classroom. I had taken her viewpoint and then left her in the dark, never allowing her to see beyond her classroom and lead with me.

I learned another truth that first week in the principal’s office: Great principals are ladder builders. They share systems-level knowledge and decisionmaking with teachers. Teachers, in return, share classroom-level knowledge and decisionmaking with principals.

Leaders who do not invite their teachers up to see the organizational view can never truly grow teacher leadership. And leaders who never spend time in the classroom with teachers can never truly know what is best for students.

To truly support students, everyone in a school building must operate as both leaders and practitioners, seeing all angles of their school’s landscape.

So, how do principals build ladders? The first step is obvious—but the hardest to accomplish. All parties must recognize that no one person has the right answer. Just because someone from a classroom or principal’s office believes a decision is best for kids doesn’t mean that’s true. Yes, even principals who see “the full picture” or teachers who “see the student every day.” The decision of the team that represents a variety of viewpoints will feel most true.

To partner with teachers, principals must get off the cliff and model intentional listening. Instead of walking into a meeting with an answer, they must first listen to understand.

As a new leader, I often asked my mentor what decision I should make, desperate to check off a task and clear a slice of mental space. His response was, frustratingly, always the same “I would seek to understand.” Hours sitting in classrooms later, I usually found he was right: There was a lot I didn’t understand about the situation, even when I thought I did.

While listening to educators is important, principals cannot stop there. Teachers who are relied on for their knowledge, but never invited to decisionmaking conversations, are not treated as leaders—and they know it.

Teachers also must be allowed to seek to understand. Although I recognize some information is confidential, sharing appropriate information prior to decisionmaking allows teachers to be decisionmakers, too.

As a leader, I want to value my team in demonstrable ways. So, after listening to understand, I often say things like, “Here is what I know; what would you want to see happen?” or “Here are my options; what would you do?”

While I cannot always enact every recommendation, I have gained solutions from teachers that I would not have found on my own. Conversely, my teachers see the complexity of situations that are sometimes unsolvable.

The assumption that teachers can’t see the “larger picture” or that “they can’t see outside their classroom” is not a truth but a symptom of ineffective leadership. Principals and building-level leaders who are serious about teacher leadership and supporting all students must check their egos at the door and get intentional about building ladders between the classroom and the principal’s office. Because both perspectives are valuable, but neither can operate alone.

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