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Tips for School & District Administrators

What I’ve Learned from the Great School Leaders I’ve Met

By Brian Gatens

I have incredible colleagues. Not just the ones I have the honor of working with in my district, but school leaders whose work I’m seeing in neighboring districts. I can’t help but admire their steady, consistent leadership, forward-thinking ideas, and knack for managing complex situations.

Here is a list of what makes them so great, giving us all something to strive for and keep in mind every day.

They hack away at the ‘undergrowth’

Many teachers grumble — rightly so — about being weighed down by administrative expectations that interfere with their ability to plan lessons, consider the needs of their students and actually teach their classes. The trouble is, they don’t have the option of simply not complying with a required expectation (which often originates outside the district).

To offset this, my best colleagues are careful about the non-teaching paperwork they ask the teachers to complete and are very cautious before bringing in any new systems or requirements. They also try to find time for the teachers to complete this work inside the school day.

If teachers want to work on their lessons and grade papers outside of school, that should be their decision. They shouldn’t be forced to use time outside the classroom to complete tasks not directly connected to their teaching duties.

They work as hard as their hardest-working teacher

My best colleagues have realized that hard work, dedication, and presence send a strong message about expectations and commitment. When possible, they try to work as hard as their hardest-working teacher.

Admittedly, a lot of the work of a school leader happens away from the public eye. While this behind-the-scenes work leads to success in other areas, great school leaders show their dedication by attending school events and being present as often as possible. Conversely, they don’t use events as tools to promote their careers. The surest way to generate eye-rolling from teachers is to show up at school sporting events rarely, then muscle your way into a picture for the local newspaper just to show that you were there.

They stand by their staff

My best colleagues support and encourage their teachers, and defend them when necessary. Whether they’re dealing with an irate parent pushing back on a low grade, a local sports fan who is unhappy with a coach’s performance, or everyday random criticism of a teacher’s work, respected school leaders make sure nobody pushes their teachers around.

Knowing that their work is supported and that they’re being respected as a professional provides a tremendous boost to the district’s morale. From time to time, though, a teacher will make a bad decision and have to be held accountable. Rather than use these errors as the chance to “catch” a bad teacher, my colleagues are thoughtful in their response, consistent in their actions, and far more focused on preventing the behavior from happening again.

They project clear thinking and consistency

My best colleagues are, basically, the same person every day. When things are going well, their temperament and actions are the same as when something takes a turn for the worse. They have learned that nothing will undermine their leadership, and the faith of the staff, more than to be erratic or moody.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have quiet days that require deep thought and concentration, or light days where they can be looser and more jovial, but those days arrive and leave when expected. The best school leaders understand it’s imperative to maintain consistency in relationships. People will note and appreciate that.

The best school leaders are also continuously finding ways to advance and grow as transformational leaders. They know that the learning never stops and they exemplify that through the professional development they participate in and facilitate so that growth is constantly talked about and demonstrated.

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