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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2
Classroom Conversations

What Teachers Need from New Leaders

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When starting a new role, boost communication and listening skills.

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Leadership
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For the past several months, I’ve been thinking a lot about what new leaders need. My elementary school started fresh with a new administrative team this year. Our new principal has experience as a principal, but not in our district or state, and our two assistant principals are new to the position. That’s a whole lot of new in leadership positions in our school.
I am excited about this newness. It feels like a fresh start, a new beginning. I have a lot of optimism about our future. After 25 years of elementary school teaching, I also have a lot of thoughts about what I want from these new leaders. Administrators who get into classrooms regularly, who know students and families, and who are present during arrival and dismissal impress me. Others who are regularly behind closed doors and unavailable to their staff frustrate me.
Much of what I am looking for from my new administrative team are things I focus on with my students. Listening, communicating clearly, and clarifying understanding are all significant parts of the work my students do with academic conversations—and are also important in new leaders.

Listen Up

Listening sounds like a simple skill. It’s something we all do every day, after all. But it’s more complicated than that. When it comes to listening as a leader, a few considerations are critical.
Leaders must be thoughtful about who they listen to. Most people pay attention to what the people who supervise them say, but a good leader listens to staff, all staff: teachers, custodians, office personnel, cafeteria staff, instructional assistants. There is no way to truly know what is and isn’t working in a school (or any other organization) unless a leader is listening to everyone.

Leaders must be thoughtful about who they listen to.

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They also need to listen to students. Far too often, students’ voices are the least likely to be heard. Because the demands of the job can cause leaders to be distant from students, leaders must be deliberate in creating space to hear student voices. One administrator I highly respect sets weekly (or as often as possible) lunches with students. These students are chosen randomly, and ideally should be a group representative of the school’s population. Setting this as a part of your schedule is one way to make sure it happens.
Families are another group who need the leader’s ear. They have a unique and crucial perspective on how well a school is serving its students. Too often, the families whose voices are heard by administrators are those who are yelling the loudest. That likely doesn’t help leaders truly know what most families want, need, or think. A committee or council of family representatives is one structural way to address this. You must be careful to ensure that the committee is truly representative of your student population (racially, ethnically, linguistically, socioeconomically, including families with students with disabilities, and so on).

Communication is Crucial

In addition to listening, leaders must communicate clearly. Again, that sounds relatively simple, but it isn’t. I’ve been married for 25 years. My spouse and I frequently feel confident about what we’ve communicated, only to find the other person has heard something quite different than what we thought we were saying. This is true in all relationships. Too often, I’ve seen a principal send an email, only to hear three different teachers think it meant three different things.
For a new leader to be a clear communicator, it’s important to use different avenues to get your message across. At least some communication should be structured and routine, like a weekly update email. The staff knows what to expect, when to expect it, and where to search for it when they need it again. Consistent communication helps the rest of the team stay aware and keeps people from feeling out of the loop or stressed about what they may not know.

When there’s more at stake, the weight of clear communication is heaviest.

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However, in many ways, that’s the easy part of communicating clearly. Formal communication can be carefully planned and thought through. But on the fly, with teachers or families or office staff or students, it can be more challenging for leaders to communicate clearly. This is especially true when the conversation is difficult and you, as the leader, want to handle it carefully. That’s also when clarity is most critical. When there’s more at stake, the weight of clear communication is heaviest.
It’s not always possible to plan ahead, of course—many times, these moments happen unexpectedly. But new leaders can hold a mock conversation in their head about any uncomfortable or tough topics that they might encounter. They can think through what they might say and how the other person(s) might respond. This can allow a new leader to evaluate their language for specificity and clarity. Talking through the important points of the issue with another member of the leadership team is another possibility. Clear communication is not magic, but it will make many other aspects of leading easier.

Clarify and Confirm

Finally, clarifying understanding is a natural outgrowth of listening and communicating clearly and can and should be done after listening to others. New leaders should paraphrase what they heard and ask questions, which signals their desire to understand and allows the other person to reframe or confirm their understanding. It's also important to clarify understanding when you are doing the communicating. Asking a teacher or student to repeat what you said can feel awkward, but if you explain you want to make sure you communicated your point clearly, it can save a lot of time and stress. You can try saying something like, "I want to be sure we are on the same page, so please tell me what you understand the next steps will be," which creates an opportunity to clarify if necessary.

A Smoother Transition

It's not easy taking on a new leadership position. And it's also a big change for the staff you serve. But if you can provide good listening and communication skills from the start, it can help build trust and relationships and easier transitions. Individually, listening, communicating clearly, and checking for understanding are important and helpful skills. When done together, they can benefit the leader's work and make for a more content staff.

Jennifer Orr is an elementary school teacher in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She has taught for more than two decades in almost every elementary grade at schools serving highly diverse populations. She has experience with students who are learning English; in special education and advanced academic programs; and from military families.

Throughout her career, she achieved and renewed National Board Certification; wrote articles about technology in education, literacy, math, questioning, and more; and presented at state and national conferences on the same topics. Orr is a member of ASCD’s Emerging Leader class of 2013. In 2012, she won the Kay L. Bitter Award from ISTE.

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What New Leaders Need
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