A principal collecting data in a school hallway
Tips for School & District Administrators

Redesigning Leadership: Shifting from Teacher to Administrator

By Brian Gatens

The leap from teacher to school leader requires a fundamental shift in the focus of the new administrator. Your attention changes from events in the classroom to events in the entire school. Situations that may have seemed simple can become much more complex once you’re the one in charge.

The learning curve is steep. Recognize that early and the entire process becomes easier.

“Redesigning Leadership” by John Maeda

Redesigning Leadership does a great job of illustrating this shift. The author, John Maeda, went from the classrooms of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to the presidency of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). With no formal administrative experience and few aspirations to become a school leader, Maeda nevertheless agreed to become the 17th president of RISD since its founding in 1877.  Writing in 2011 in the middle of his five-year tenure, Maeda offers excellent insight about the evolution of his leadership role. Here’s a quick look at some of the things he learned:

Watch your words, as they echo louder than ever

One of the first things Maeda learned as a school leader was that his words carried far more weight than they did when he was a classroom teacher. When you’re the main public figure for your school, you cease to speak for yourself, but rather for the institution.

This sometimes requires you to keep a personal opinion to yourself, and most importantly, to avoid statements that can be taken out of context. It’s also worth noting that as a school official, you have minimal expectations that private conversations will remain private.

A desk is a dangerous place

In speaking with successful school leaders, Maeda realized very early on that spending too much time inside the confines of your office will quickly cause you to lose an understanding of your school.

He stresses setting formal time aside to get out among the students and teachers, and to work as hard as possible to connect and understand. Spending more time watching — as opposed to speaking — is as essential as collecting observable data on what’s actually happening on a day-to-day basis.

You have to continue learning

Many leaders fall into the trap of dealing only with immediate and day-to-day school events. One way to avoid that trap is to continue to build upon your learning. As with setting time aside to get out of the office, time must also be dedicated to growing as a learner.

Read often, share articles with your team, get creative with PD, and remain open to changing your mind or school practices. Nothing will shut down faith in your leadership faster than your co-workers thinking you’re willfully ignorant.

Don’t undercut your colleagues

Connection and communication is a key part of leadership. Appearing distant from the life of the school is a hard reputation to shake, but over-connecting can be just as troublesome. You have to respect the chain of command in your school and avoid inadvertently undermining the authority of someone lower on the organizational chart. Don’t make decisions they should be making.

Tell your school’s story

Maeda reminds us that “story trumps statistics,” and that good school leaders make it a point to regularly share their school’s story. What are the best attributes of your school? Where have you shown growth? What challenges are you rising to?

Keeping an outward bound flow of information is essential as this helps you set the public narrative for your work. A key concept in today’s high-speed world is that either you’re telling your story or someone else is.

Build your team

A leader is only as strong as those around them. Be diligent and thorough about the new people you invite into your organization, and make sure you let them do the job you hired them to do.

High-quality leaders recognize that work must be delegated, shared fairly, and reasonable for people to bring their best work to school. Diligence in selection pays incredible time and quality dividends down the road.

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