Principals' Life Lesson 24: Inspired Leadership
Just as so many schools of education and teacher training programs provide NO real-life, practical instruction for classroom management besides some packaged, theoretical or dated programming, it seems many principal-certification programs also lack instruction on how to guide and mentor teachers. One would think that anyone with a passing knowledge of life would understand that an atmosphere of teamwork, respect, and shared expertise foster the best chance at success in a school as well as in the business world. One would think that, but one would unfortunately often be wrong.
All too often, in my experience in the business world, the retail world, and the education world, "teamwork" has been a sham concept when mouthed by one's boss, interpreted as treating employees as mere tools. One in authority can bludgeon his or her followers with fear and intimidation, or can pursue one's own agenda without providing leadership at all, or can utilize one's employees as resources and professionals engaged in a common mission. I've had bosses who were fluffy kittens gamboling innocently within the coils of a rattlesnake poised to strike, I've had bosses who emulated George C. Scott as General Patton; I've had bosses who were Michael Scott, I've had bosses who were Ulysses Everett McGill, and I have had bosses who were doing their jobs not for joy but for money. But no matter what kind of boss one has, the boss sets the climate in the school.
Climate change isn't just something Al Gore is talking about. Climate change in schools is necessary if we are to keep up with the ever-increasing demands being placed upon the educational system in this country.
So just what do inspirational leaders do? What can truly inspirational teachers and principals and superintendents do? The most basic answer is: inspirational leaders share the burdens of the task at hand, they act as a resource for their employees, and they dedicate themselves to success by being real facilitators for their employees. From the UK, I found this in a report from the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and I have tweaked this a bit:
1. They sincerely care for their people
Try to know WHO your staff members are as people. I will never forget how, when my grandmother died and I had to prepare to drive eleven hours across the country, my principal came to me and checked how I was. He put aside everything else and was there for me, and it only took five minutes. I also remember one day, when I hadn't slept for more than 3 hours at a stretch because I had a baby who couldn't sleep, my assistant principal intercepted me, saw the dark circles under my eyes, and drove me home. She then taught my classes herself until the sub arrived. When the principals model this, the teachers will do this for each other, too. And that's the way it should be.
2. Cooperate/involve everybody
A principal needs to trust his or her staff to be professionals (If someone is not a professional, deal with them rather than crafting punitive measures to be applied to everybody, please!). The principal job is incredibly demanding, and there are lots of balls to juggle. Learn to delegate, and be grateful for the help you receive. One of my greatest peeves is the way that many principals withhold important information from teachers (and, by the way, that is a violation of federal law), and how they huddle in groups in an attempt to ward off anyone approaching them. Principals who play favorites or ignore the input of the staff are shooting themselves in the foot. A principal must be willing to be a problem-solver and facilitator.
3. Name and appreciate the contributions of everybody
This flows from my comments on numbers 1 and 2. If you hide in your office all the time, you will be unable to appreciate what is done in the school. I once worked for an administration who came up with this adorable slogan: "It's not about the teaching, it's about the learning." After the English teacher in me got over the comma splice, I was incredibly insulted by this slogan. If it's not about the teaching, then why are teachers blamed for everything that happens? Then I got started making up sarcastic riffs on this stupid idea. But morale was the lowest I had experienced at this school after this little gem was published.
4. Create a climate of fun and create a space for enjoyment at work
If nothing but criticism-- and worse, disdain for teachers-- leaves your mouth or pervades your body language, everything will suffer. Try to knit the staff together as a team. Encourage teachers to form a softball team-- and show up for the games if you won't play yourself. Buy snacks for periodic happy hours. Have a hot dog roast after school. And for God's sake, on teacher appreciation day, don't throw trinkets at our heads, no matter what. I've had principals push the "Have Fun!" mantra, like from that FISH! book, but remain completely aloof from the staff.
5. Demonstrate authentic trust
I see this as two things: building trust and demonstrating trust.
A great administrator doesn't expect his or her staff to do anything he or she isn't willing to do. I once had a principal who expected every teacher to volunteer for two after-school duties each semester (for free) but he was never there. I have donated my musical talents for fundraisers for various student activities (requiring untold hours of practice after school besides the actual event)-- and seen the principal skip the event, not even making a token appearance. That sends a bad message. You're not expected to show up for everything, but rotate the events you do show up for each year, so that the people doing them can feel valued, at the very least. I also resent emails reminding us to enforce a certain policy and then watch principals not say a word as students walk by them or even hold conversations with them while violating the policy.
Likewise, to demonstrate that you do trust your staff, you have to give them substantive tasks to accomplish. Let go of the reins a bit! You'll make yourself happier and more healthy in the long run, believe me. Above all, don't be afraid to ask for help. We are all in this together, and we have to do the job of educating students together.
6. Never avoid an opportunity to listen
Examples of this would be: make eye contact when talking to people; don't read email during a conversation; endeavor to know what each of your employees has done/is doing; talk to your employees at times OTHER than when there is a problem, and be relaxed and comfortable in leaving your office and moving around the school. Don't use your secretary as a guard dog. Respond to emails properly, and promptly. Try walking up to a different person every day and asking how things are going, and if they have any needs you can meet. Then actually listen to the answer. Support your staff in the community-- and that includes in front of students and parents, even parents that are on the school board.
If you didn't love teaching, please don't become an administrator. If you taught for less than five years, please realize that there are teachers who are more experienced in instruction than you are, and utilize that and celebrate it. If you really want to create a great school, manage your staff with the intent to motivate them to excellence, and create a situation in which that is possible. Anything that interferes with that mission should be curtailed. Have a realistic, positive attitude, and that attitude will spread.