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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

Instructional Leaders, Teach Again!

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Returning to the classroom part-time can be an enlightening—and humbling—experience.

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Do everything you ask of those you command.—General George S. Patton
I recently accompanied a principal on a round of classroom walkthroughs. In the hallways between these short observations, I asked him what details of the teachers' efforts caught his eye.
"Making sure they have the learning objectives on the board and that the activities meet those objectives," he said. The district had made learning objectives a priority for the year.
I asked about the commitment to last year's focus on differentiated instruction, which had gained some traction but was far from fully integrated into practice.
The principal sighed, "Yes, that too."
"I don't mean to make this too complicated," I said, "but didn't the district's curriculum coordinators also send out an article on cultural inclusion and equity?"
We stopped at the door of the next classroom. He added, "We could also be looking at real-life applications, the value of the homework being assigned, time on task, the way instructions are provided, effective use of classroom-management techniques. …"
We stood silently for a moment before pushing open the next door, pondering the enormity of all the high-priority work that educators do in schools. I asked, "How long has it been since you were in the classroom teaching? Do you think you could meet all the challenges asked of teachers today?"
He laughed. "No way. It's been about eight years since I taught—I was good then, but I don't know how good I would be now."

When Distance Creates Distance

I liked this principal's honesty. I also liked that he had empathy for his teachers. He knew that their work was complex and demanding. He knew that few teachers had the rare combination of time, skills, and motivation to effectively manage everything asked of them. He knew that his teachers cared and worked hard, but that almost all of them would struggle to meet the demands of the job.
Many instructional leaders I work with—superintendents, assistant superintendents, curriculum coordinators, principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches—forget how hard it is to teach, even as the system demands more of their teachers. Simply put, distance creates distance. The real-life experience of teaching, with its day-to-day intensity, fades a little bit each month one is not in the classroom.
School leaders know that most teachers want to be excellent at what they do, and that the impediment to excellence is not primarily in the teachers but in the system itself. And no one seems to have the power to change the system. In the absence of the power to impose systemic structural change, an instructional leader's worth is based on his or her impact on the performance of individual teachers.
Because instructional leaders bond with other leaders, by default the teaching staff becomes the "other," the ones whose imperfections must be corrected to effect school reform. As Bolman and Deal write: "Much of the time, faulting people gives us simplistic answers that block us from seeing systems" (1997).
We see people first, and systems lurk in the shadows. It is said that children first aspire to become teachers because of an experience with an inspirational teacher—and that teachers aspire to become leaders because they think they can do the job at least as well as the leaders they have worked under. Not enough teachers have met the inspirational leader who understands how hierarchical systems of power impact every relationship and interaction, that power creates distance, and that distance distorts understanding—and who knows how to bridge that distance.
I learned this lesson within six months of leaving the classroom to become a principal. I was meeting with a group of teachers who were struggling with a schoolwide objective. I was asked how to handle a complicated situation that had emerged in one teacher's class, and suggested what I thought was an elegant fix. But instead of nods of appreciation, the room fell silent. Finally a teacher softly asked me, "But you could only do that in an ideal world, right? Not really here, right?" She was spot-on. I had already lost my connection to the context of work in which those teachers labored every day.
That distance from the grind of teaching increases the challenge of effective instructional leadership. Instructional leaders may forget that "the actual solutions about how to best meet the challenges of the moment—those thousands of strategic challenges encountered every day—have to be made by the people closest to the action" (Pascale, Millemann, & Gioja, 2000).

Consider the Benefits

There is, however, a way that instructional leaders can stay close to the action and rooted in the practice of teaching; maintain an understanding of how structures constrict or liberate teacher instructional effectiveness; measure and prioritize all the demands of the position; confidently advocate for the resources teachers need; and gain again and again the trust and respect of their staff. That is to get back in the classroom part-time as a teacher.
I fear that the previous sentence has prompted innumerable instructional leaders to exclaim in frustration, "There's no way I could do my current job and teach, even part-time!" I ask for your patience before I address those concerns. For a moment, linger on this question: What would be the benefits for your school if you went back in the classroom part-time? Let me share just a few.
  • A robust evaluation of expectations: Before they expect teachers to implement instructional practices, school leaders need to deeply understand what those practices entail—not in the isolation of textbooks, offices, or a summer workshop, but with their students in their school, with their schedules, their resources, and the competing demands in their community that year. The classrooms of instructional leaders can be the school's test labs, helping to establish expectations and rollout plans, especially for teachers who are not as seasoned and skilled. If the work is hard for an instructional leader, it will be exponentially harder for a novice.
  • Identification of critical complications: The effectiveness of an instructional practice is not always discernible in the first days or weeks of the rollout. Instructional leaders can join with other staff in untangling implementation problems as they appear. The instructional leader who has been wrestling with the details, in parallel with teachers, can separate the complaints of those who simply hate change from those who are trying to get it right. Those dedicated teachers "may see a fatal flaw, perhaps an implementation landmine that needs to be attended to. Those teachers are not asking you to abandon your idea. hellip; They are acting responsibly" (Benson, 2014). Instructional leaders who are in the classroom will know best how to measure staff concerns.
  • Advocacy for effective adjustments: In his examination of efforts to have hospital staff wash their hands—a seemingly simple step that could save the lives of approximately 90,000 hospital patients in the United States every year—Atul Gawande found that top-down directives had failed to make an impact, despite everyone knowing the importance of handwashing to limiting the spread of infection (Gawande, 2008). Gawande eventually found a hospital that had reduced infection rates to practically zero. At that hospital, the leadership had met with the staff and asked them what they thought they needed in order to solve the handwashing problem. Ideas poured in. Staff who had figured out innovations on their own—such as relocating the soap dispensers, more frequently restocking the supply of gloves, and empowering nurses to tell doctors to wash their hands—became role models for their peers, because their methods proved effective in their shared setting. Instructional leaders who speak from current lived experience, and join with teachers having that lived experience, will be the most effective advocates for the adjustments and innovations that keep instructional practices alive and well.
  • Creating a safe dialogue on instructional practice: Those above you in a hierarchy can shift between expressing a friendly camaraderie to making demands; those lower down in a hierarchy never forget the power held by those above them. That ceaseless and often implicit understanding of power—to evaluate, to withhold pay raises, to terminate employment—often corrupts honest dialogue about instructional practices in schools. Most teachers understandably don't initiate conversations with their boss about what is not going well. But that paradigm can be slowly and steadily shifted by an instructional leader who opens a meeting by saying, "I ran out of time today with lesson seven. I know some of my students were confused. Has anyone else had that same problem? Has anyone successfully gotten through lesson seven?" Instructional leaders should be, above all else, models of learning on the job—and that means being in the classroom. "Mistakes are part of a school leader being an active learner, identifying errors, and making commitments to improve practice in the presence of staff, to model a growth mindset" (Poliner & Benson, 2017).
  • Modeling good instructional practices: Many instructional leaders were once excellent teachers. When we move instructional leaders out of the classroom, the next generation of students misses out on learning from such strong practitioners. And the next generation of teachers never gets to see these leaders in front of students—and I am not talking about the occasional demonstration lesson, but in the thick of it all. There are few better examples of how to run a class than observing an expert veteran on the job.

The "Tonic" of Teaching

There is another benefit in returning to the classroom that is not specifically tied to the success of instructional initiatives. Instructional leaders need to return to the classroom for their own well-being, for their joy, for the immeasurable tonic of being with young people on the path of learning. It is commonly said that the best thing about schools are the kids, and the pull of administrative tasks drags leaders farther and farther from the kids. Without relationships with students, school leaders miss out on something essential about the work, perhaps a reason that half of new principals quit in their third year on the job (Superville, 2014). I fully believe that a consistent dose of teaching, of engaging with students in the role of instructional practitioner, will help more school leaders hang in. The time with students will often be the best time of their day. The system should not penalize ambitious educators by excluding them from teaching!
And for instructional leaders who feel a bit scared about going back, who worry that the job of teaching will prove way harder than you want to admit, that's even more of a reason to head back to the classroom part-time. Your efforts will reveal wisdom about teaching, learning, and leading in your schools in ways no other actions can match. You will be a better instructional leader.

If Not Now, When?

To return to the classroom part-time, take the approach Gawande's handwashing study suggests: Sit with your leadership team and ask, "What do we need to do to each get back into the classroom to teach part-time?" The solutions are going to be local, based on your abilities to maneuver your particular school schedules, contract restrictions, and resources. If you want to do it badly enough, you can do it!
That said, the following ideas will help. None alone will be sufficient to ease all of your concerns, but if you try them collectively, the time to teach will become available:
  • Share and delegate more: I've never met a school leader who couldn't share or delegate more tasks to others. If you believe that getting back into the classroom matters, this is your chance to take more off your plate. For instance, each semester, unevenly distribute classroom observations or lunchroom duties to allow one member of the team to teach a course.
  • Limit the definition of an emergency: As has been said, you are not irreplaceable unless you are immortal. The school functions when you are sick at home and when you are out of the building for an important meeting. It will also function for the time you are in a classroom. Don't be disturbed by anything that can wait, or that another leader can temporarily handle.
  • Teach in your area of strength: School instructional leaders have a big toolkit of instructional moves in their areas of strength. Given your administrative duties and deadlines, you may be squeezing in lesson planning as you commute or fall asleep. So don't try to go into a new subject area or experiment with radical new approaches you aren't even asking your teachers to try.
  • Reduce the volume of papers you have to grade: Instructional leaders are often experts at assessment, able to glean from classroom observations and brief written tasks what students know. Be a role model for assigning homework only when it has real instructional merit—a practice that the vast majority of teachers will appreciate. Demonstrate how quizzes and tests can be pared to their essentials.
In my talks to educators, I often reveal my bias that only those who have taught in the classroom should be school leaders. School leaders have to know what the joys, struggles, and compromises of teaching feel like firsthand in order to make decisions that inevitably impact the commerce of the classroom. In that light, instructional leaders who are still actively in the classroom are even better positioned to make effective decisions for all.

Guiding Questions

› Do you agree with Benson that school leaders should continue to teach, at least part-time? How would this change the instructional culture in your school?

› If you are a school leader, what are the barriers to your going back to the classroom? How could they be addressed?

› In your experience, do school leaders tend to become removed from classroom realities? If yes, why do you think this happens?

References

Benson, J. (2014). Principals: Intentions and questions at staff meetings. [blog] Retrieved from www.jeffreybensonblog.com/2014/11/principals-intentions-and-questions-at.html

Bolman, L., & Deal., T. (1997). Reframing organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gawande, A. (2008). Better: A surgeon's notes on performance. New York: Picador.

Pascale, R., Millemann, M., & Gioja, L. (2000). Surfing the edge of chaos. New York: Crown Business Publishing.

Poliner, R., & Benson, J. (2017). Teaching the whole teen. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Superville, D. (2014, November 5). Principal turnover takes costly toll on schools and districts, report says. Education Week. Retrieved from https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/District_Dossier/2014/11/the_high_rate_of_principal.html

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