This question got posed on Beacon’s staff forum recently, and with the administrative coursework this past year and everything else, it’s something that has been on my mind a lot this year as well. My friend Brian and I were talking about this recently, talking about the idea of the "corporate model" of education, and he said something that really resonated with me. He said, "We don’t call them CEOs of schools. We call them principals — and that was short for ‘principal teacher.’ I think that is the important lens we need to keep in mind when we think about administrators. They need to be educators, first and foremost. That seems like a no-brainer, but somehow, in all that I’m reading these days, it’s not.
What else makes a good administrator?
I think that the hardest piece for those of us who would move from teaching into administration would be the understanding that a great teacher serves the kids, a great administrator serves the teachers who serve the kids. That’s a very different proposition, because it changes your focus pretty profoundly.
I think you have to learn how protect your teachers from the insanity of the outside world — especially in NYC. We get a mountain of rules, regulations and mandates. I think that a good administrator has got to learn how to navigate those waters so that every memo that we get sent doesn’t throw off the rhythms of your teachers and students.
I think that good administrators have to help make the teaching staff better. How? One is through the classic sort of supervision / observation roles, sure, but just as importantly, is making the school a place where teachers feel supported and valued. This is perhaps one of the hardest pieces because it requires a ton of legwork to do it right. I think that a good administrator needs to know what’s going on that’s good in the school, not just what’s bad. That means listening for more than just the usual comments, but listening to good things people say as well… and for those, you probably have to seek those comments out. You have to ask people for that information, and then you have to let people know that you know about the good things, and that their work is appreciated.
You have to want to build a strong community. That means more listening. Trying to find the places in your school that teachers and students can call theirs. Giving over a vision of the school so that people can take pieces of it and make it theirs and make it great is huge.
Support — you have to make sure that teachers feel supported. That doesn’t mean that you stop listening to students, but it does mean that teachers know that when parents call, or when a student gets in trouble, or even when a student complains, that the teacher’s perspective is heard first and foremost, and teachers feel like they have te authority to run a fair and just classroom with administrative support.
Don’t stop knowing the kids… we’re all here to try to make the lives of kids better. Just because someone becomes an administrator doesn’t mean that the love of kids that took them into teaching goes away. Be visible, have an open door, listen, teach a class. But be someone that the kids can see as an authority figure and a human being too.
Be the best publicist the school has. Get out there with your parents, with the community, wherever you can. Let people know about the amazing teachers in your school. Let newspapers know about the fantastic projects and grants and sports teams that your school has going on.
Innovate — find grants, find projects, co-plan with teachers.
Keep at least one thing on your plate that you just love doing. For me, no matter what tasks I may have in a school, I’ll always coach. Why? Because I love it, and we all work better when there is something about your job you love.