Teachers meeting with school leaders
Tips for School & District Administrators

What Teachers Wish School Leaders Knew

By Jennifer Gunn

At times, there can be a disconnect between school leadership and classroom teachers. That disconnect can sometimes feel like a chasm, widening each year, and make it difficult for teachers and leaders to connect, move the work forward, or even get along. Here are some insights from educators on what teachers wish leaders understood. 

Remember to value the talent & expertise of your staff

Schools are full of educated, creative, and driven people. The concept that good ideas come only from the top of the management chain undervalues the amazing talent and expertise of those in the classroom. Include your staff. Welcome their ideas. The principal may be the ultimate decision-maker, but those decisions can be guided and informed by a school full of experts.  “School leaders have to look at the big picture of a building or district while classroom teachers often look to the immediate needs of their students, and sometimes these differences in priorities cause tensions,” says Nicholas A. Emmanuele, a blogger and English teacher and department chair at McDowell Intermediate High School in Erie, PA. “I think it is important for school leaders to remember that classroom teachers have experience and expertise in what they do. Top-down approaches to educational leadership — in order to quickly meet the needs of the institution when necessary — can sometimes be read as dismissive of teacher knowledge. Teachers may get paid less than administrators but, when teachers feel that they are subordinates to school administration rather than professionals (with degrees and experiences) within their own right, the gap between teachers and leadership teams can widen. Some teachers wish their school leaders know that they are — by practice and definition — professionals, not hindrances to student or institutional progress.”

Give teachers freedom to innovate

When teachers are stilted in their practice with orders to “stick to the curriculum” and “the way things are done,” it can really discourage innovation and make learning stale. “Teachers wish that their school leaders knew that they want to be supported and honored as professionals,” says Michele Hill, an educator and blogger who serves as a coordinator of admissions and communications at Burlington County Institute of Technology. “Teachers want the liberty to be innovative, try new things, and fail forward. They want leaders who will roll up their sleeves and join them in their quest for providing quality education for student success — and they want leaders who show appreciation for their dedication to the district, school, students, and staff!”

Remember that teachers have lives outside of school

There is often an unspoken expectation for teachers to be endlessly dedicated to their jobs, giving of their personal time, and selfless in their work ethic. The thing is, that just isn’t realistic. Teachers have lives too — and should. They have their own families, passions, and obligations that require their attention. Constantly asking teachers to give more of their time — often for no compensation — and making them feel guilty for not being able to do so is a sure way to burn out good educators.

Keep lines of communication open

Nothing makes teachers feel more isolated than when communication is lacking. “Admin, you influence the culture of the school,” says Dr. Brad Johnson, a former administrator and teacher, who wrote the book Putting Teachers First: How to Inspire, Motivate and Connect with Your Staff. “Is the grapevine (gossip) the main communication channel or are things transparent? Do only a few people have inside knowledge, or does everyone know what’s going on? It doesn’t take much to create division, rather than a shared vision.” Be purposeful in your communication systems to ensure that all teachers and staff members feel in the loop.

Take time to cultivate relationships with staff

The assumption that being the principal inherently demands respect demeans the professional capacity of those in your school and diminishes the power of relationships. Getting to know those on your staff, investing in understanding their talents and passions, and building a collegial atmosphere opens trust and builds capacity. “Everything comes down to relationships,” says Joe King, an elementary school principal in California. “Teachers with students and school staff, school with community, admin with staff…. Invest time to build relationships.”

Jennifer L. M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education, where she has been for nearly a decade. She is a curriculum designer and public high school educator in New York City. Jennifer is the creator of Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for urban adolescent youth that’s steeped in social justice. She is an education writer and is co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference, which won the New York City Department of Education Excellence in School Technology Award this year. Jennifer regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation. Follow Jennifer online at www.jenniferlmgunn.com or on Twitter.

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